New media, old media and the changing affiliations of the political class

It was the most convincing display of News Corporation humility yet. Nothing Rupert Murdoch said in front of the parliamentary select committee in July or at Leveson earlier this week but an aside from his son James at an advertising industry conference in Cannes in June of last year. “We’re not big enough,” he said. “When you actually look at the competitive set in an all-media marketplace, where you have monolithic brands, from Google and Apple etc to the big [telecoms companies] Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom, Verizon – all the characters on a playing field or a terrain that has essentially collapsed – there are much bigger beasts than a News Corporation.” Even if the company got its way and acquired the remainder of BSkyB, he said, that would be no panacea. Satellite businesses are parceled out by country, and do not “work well with competing on a global basis with monolithic brands like Google”.

The observations of Murdoch Junior were revealing; if he was looking for a little pity from parliamentarians, he might have done better to repeat it this time around. It might prove a fitting epitaph for his career, as well as for the power and mystique of the mainstream media. Despite all the bluster about the influence of the Murdoch press, the truth is that they were only ever as powerful as they were allowed to be – and, long before the phone-hacking scandal, that power was on the wane. Rupert Murdoch bought the Times and the Sunday Times in the early 1980s, just as traditional, class-based politics was beginning to crumble. The upshot was that both Labour and the Conservative parties were looking for new ways to reach out to voters, and for a long time courting Murdoch and the rest of the mainstream media seemed the easiest way to do it. “I wish they’d leave me alone,” Murdoch said last time around, when interrogated by the committee members about his meetings with prime ministers. It was his best line of the day.

Murdoch’s News Corporation is a strange hybrid of family shop and publicly owned company. All the same, its changing fortunes exemplify the problems which have beset the broadsheet media during its twilight years. Newspapers used to enjoy a collective monopoly over the kind of news and information they served up – it was newspaper journalists who did most of the original work polishing up facts and breaking new stories, setting the agenda for TV and radio to follow. Around the same time that Murdoch was buying his British broadsheets, many other family–fun newspapers sold up to large publicly owned conglomerates. To recoup the vast sums of money they had spent and squeeze out a little extra for their shareholders, these groups began to fire journalists and buy in more of their news from industry agencies. The cost cutting was most ferocious in the United States, particularly among the large regional papers and general interest magazines which had the firmest grip on their audiences. At the same time, newspapers kept expanding their remit, gobbling up whole new areas of interest and muscling into the public conversation about everything from reality TV to the Royal Family to hold the attention of their audience. Throughout the 1990s, most newspapers put on a huge amount of weight, but much of the extra bulk consisted of little more than sections that were advertising vehicles.

Straining themselves to maintain their audience, general interest newspapers have in recent years diluted their authority and their reputation for quality and authority. In 2009, a study published by Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist whose dogged determination kept news of the hacking scandal alive, found that of the five most prestigious general interest papers in Britain – the Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – 60 per cent of their output consisted wholly or mainly of news service stories or press releases. A further 20 per cent of the stories were slightly adapted from the same. Put simply, newspapers were plumping up their product with filler; with generic news instead of original reporting. The result was that the news they fed us began to look pretty much the same. One of the ironies of the News of the World’s closure is that it was one of the newspapers which was both profitable and produced original investigative journalism, even if we didn’t like what it was looking at.

General interest newspapers thrived when they were able to assemble a captive audience and exert a hold over it. But in the age of Google, Facebook and YouTube, with so much free information to choose from, the spell is wearing off. The internet has allowed us to become what the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker call “informavores” – creatures who exhibit an almost unlimited appetite for the information we find there. We graze around vast virtual universes at our leisure, ruthless information predators slicing through the undergrowth as we seek to locate exactly what we’re looking for. With an almost unlimited menu at our fingertips, many of us have become highly skilled at using search engines to narrow our field of attention and get exactly where we want to go as well as to use social media to share good stuff around.

In most developed countries, newspaper circulation and the advertising which went along with it are in long term retreat. Twenty out of 30 OECD countries are witnessing a decline in the circulation of their newspapers, according to a study published in 2010 by the OECD itself. Sales of American papers had plummeted 30 per cent in the previous three years, it discovered, and those of British papers had dropped 25 per cent in the same period.

Rupert Murdoch’s British papers now find themselves not big enough to create their own ecosystem and not focused enough to thrive inside an existing one. James Murdoch is well aware of all this – which is why he’s always been more interested in television and new media than in the newspapers that were bequeathed to him. So, in a way, is David Cameron. Conventional wisdom has it that his two most senior advisors, Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton, were the yin and yang of the Downing Street machine. Coulson was the modern-day Mondeo Man, employed to mouth the concerns of News International and its red-top, red-blooded readership. Hilton bellowed feel-good mantras about the big society next door. Not any more. As News International’s crisis deepened, it threw Cameron’s friend Coulson to the wolves.
Meanwhile, Hilton was married to Google communications executive Rachel Whetstone, and, for a time, accompanied her to live near Google’s California headquarters before returning to London in July 2009. He drunk so deep from the well of Bay Area internet mythology that he’s now gone back there for a “sabbatical.” His internal strategy bulletins, regularly leaked by disgruntled government ministers who don’t understand what he’s talking about, are full of buzzwords like “transparency” and “the post-bureaucratic age”.

In a speech a few years ago on the proposed “Silicon Roundabout” in Shoreditch, east London, David Cameron declared that “the founders of Google have said they could never had started their company in Britain” because of its restrictive copyright system. There followed the announcement of a review of Britain’s intellectual property law to identify barriers to innovation and help out new internet companies, to the delight of Google and the consternation of much of the traditional media.

Governments need to support innovation and investment, and Google has been infinitely more inventive with new technology than the stale suits at News Corp. But, by helping us to zoom straight to our prey and hang out with our friends online, new media giants end up with a minute-by-minute measure of what we like and what we’re after – and they can track our trail. This kind of power is not lost on politicians.

During his run for the presidency Barack Obama’s campaign team spent $5m advertising with Google, much of it to buy up sponsored links associated with popular search keywords. Anyone who typed “Barack Muslim” into Google was directed to a page telling them that Obama wasn’t a Muslim. Anyone who typed in “diabetes” was directed to a website that informed them that they might not be covered for the illness under John McCain’s healthcare plans. In the run-up to the last general election, the Tories did likewise. When Google users searched for Gordon Brown, for example, they were confronted with a sponsored link to a tory party webpage lambasting ‘Charlie Whelan’s new militant tendency.’

Even as we leave our computers behind to move around our towns and cities, the mobile phones in our pockets are using positioning technology to search for their location. With our permission, applications like Google’s Latitude and Foursquare allow us to see the whereabouts of our friends on a map as we make our way through towns and cities, and scribble electronic graffiti on anything we encounter along the way.

In retrospect, the messages routinely left behind by friends on each other’s mobiles look like a fuzzy, late 20th century prototype of the mass of information we’re now leaving behind on the internet and social media. The difference is that we’re handing it over ourselves, further aggrandizing new media at the expense of the old. It’s reassuring to know that the thoroughly modern strategists in Downing Street understand this, and are keenly aware which way the wind is blowing. Unlike poor old Rupert, these new media boys and girls don’t even have to go in through the back door.

James Harkin is Director of social research agency Flockwatching. His book Niche: The Missing Middle, and why business needs to specialize to survive (Little, Brown) will be published as a paperback in August.

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