Friday, July 08, 2011

How to hit Murdoch where it really hurts

This is a lightly-edited reworking of a post that was published here a couple of years ago. The case it makes may attract more attention now than it did at the time.

I’ve never seen much written anywhere about why Murdoch is so anti-EU. Is this some personal political hobby-horse that he’d developed over the years? A hang-up that he pursues in his spare time, and one that he’s prepared to place his newspapers in conflict with the government over?

Or does he have a business reason for doing so? Is the problem Murdoch? Or his businesses?

I think that the latter is a more persuasive explanation. The EU – and more specifically, their TV Without Frontiers (TVWF) directives - have made life very difficult for Sky TV to compete with their Public Service Broadcasting rivals. These regulations are designed to ensure that broadcasters actually make programmes for the audiences they serve rather than importing them from very robust marketplaces (in this case, the US).

I did a post a while ago outlining what TVWF was about, and it’s here. (NB: Large parts of TVWF have now been ported into the AMS Directive - particularly the measures around promotion and distribution - see this para:
"Member States shall ensure, where practicable and by appropriate means, that broadcasters reserve for European works a majority proportion of their transmission time, excluding the time appointed to news, sports events, games, advertising , teletext services and teleshopping. This proportion, having regard to the broadcaster's informational, educational, cultural and entertainment responsibilities to its viewing public, should be achieved progressively, on the basis of suitable criteria."
Translation: You have to start investing in quality locally-made TV programme-making and stop filling your schedules with imports and low-rent crap.

Up until now, the UK government has simply not questioned BSkyB's assertion that this level of investment is not 'practicable'. In the time I worked on this, it was always made plain to me that questioning this assertion was a completely toxic minefield that needed to be avoided at all costs.

The EU provides the only level where UK content-production industries can get the benefit of the cultural exception. Without EU regulations, you could wave goodbye to…
  • TV made specifically for UK audiences
  • Thriving cultural industries throughout the UK, benefiting from an healthy investment climate
  • Thousands of jobs in creative sectors
  • The values of public service broadcasting
  • TV programmes that aren’t constantly interrupted by adverts
  • Radio 3. Radio 4. Radio Six. Radio Seven. Programmes aimed at ethnic minorities and other interest groups.
  • Progressive payment for entertainment (goodbye licence fee, hello TV stations for kids that are all adverts)
  • Impartial broadcast news (goodbye Fiona Bruce, hello Fox News)
Anyone who has worked around media policy-making (I did for four years) will know that these issues are the permanent elephant in the room. The level of access that Sky lobbyists enjoy, and the amount of muscle that they flex can't be understated. Here's an account(pdf) of how commercial lobbyists have particularly abused their strength in the UK to defend global interests.

I remember some analogy - a while ago - about how the fine art of taxation is like having the ability to pluck goose-feathers without much hissing. I'd say that the fine art of government is about giving Sky lobbyists as little as possible without having them turn on you.

So: Now politicians are in a bold mood, here's a question for them: How come BSkyB enjoys a continued let-off from the European rules that insist that commercially sustainable TV stations should invest in local production? Enforcing this rule would create tens of thousands of jobs in strategically useful industries - a reinvestment of profits that are currently exported by a tax-dodger. It would also have a huge cultural benefit to the UK and create a climate in which the BBC are no longer engaged in a race to the bottom with multi-channel broadcasters.

Time to raise this issue again, I think?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm researching a Murdoch sory that gives more reason to Murdoch's hatred of TV Without Frontiers/EU.
In 1994 having gone 50/50 in a deal with the QVC home shopping network he found the tV without Frontiers directive treated home shopping a advertising and therefore did not allo w him to take it into Europe which he needed to to make a profit.This led him to take some remarkable actions that at some stage might turn up in the news!