Ian Burrell: 2012 was a tricky year for media titans. Will 2013 be any better?
Media Studies: The feature film on phone hacking is one that won’t be generating revenues for Twentieth Century Fox
Ian Burrell is Assistant Editor and Media Editor at The Independent, i paper and Independent on Sunday. He covers news from the whole media sector from television, press, radio and advertising to technology. His weekly column on the media appears every Monday in The Independent and i paper. He also writes on media, music and culture, including long-form pieces for The Independent’s Saturday magazine and the Independent on Sunday’s magazine, New Review. He is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4’s What The Papers Say and a specialist commentator to Monocle 24 radio. He has contributed to most major broadcast outlets including BBC television and radio, CNN, Sky News, Al Jazeera and LBC. He has also written on media for GQ magazine. Ian has been reporting on the media industry for The Independent for more than a decade. Previously he was the newspaper’s Home Affairs Editor. He worked at The Sunday Times for five years, including as a member of the investigative Insight team, covering stories on political funding, industrial espionage and the arms industry. Previously he worked in ITV for London Weekend Television, on a weekly current affairs programme presented by Danny Baker. Ian trained at the Birmingham Post & Mail and was Regional Reporter of the Year in Press Gazette’s national awards.
Monday 31 December 2012
Whereas 2012 began with speculation that Rupert Murdoch would be forced by the hacking scandal to abandon his British newspapers, 2013 begins with him planning to launch one of the world's biggest publishing companies.
Despite everything that has occurred in the past 18 months, the 81-year-old media magnate is back on the front foot with the eyes of his rivals upon him. "New News Corp", as insiders are calling it, will be a standalone operation that hives off the company's newspaper, book and education assets from its film and entertainment business, which are to be known as Fox Group.
Among Mr Murdoch's hopes for the new venture will be that it draws the line in the sand that finally enables News Corp to move on from the behaviour at its British newspapers which has been so hurtful to the company's reputation and costly to its bottom line. News Corp released figures this month saying that, if a separate publishing division had existed this year, it would have made a loss of $2.08bn, due to restructuring and the fallout from the hacking scandal.
But this does not mean the new business – which will incorporate the Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Australi-an, Dow Jones and HarperCollins, as well as tabloids such as The Sun and the New York Post – will be cash-starved when it launches early in 2013.
For all its negative coverage in Britain, News Corp is vastly wealthy and delivered shareholders double-digit growth last year. It made revenues of $33bn, helped by the success of hit TV shows like Modern Family and Twentieth Century Fox films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes. When it announced a separate publishing division in June, it pointedly stated it would be "one of the best capitalised in the industry".This is a time when other publishing groups are struggling to stay afloat.
Releasing News Corp's annual report in September, Mr Murdoch said: "I know it is fashionable these days to dismiss publishing, especially newspapers. Elites in particular look down on the popular press, but within the UK, The Sun has 12 times the circulation of The Guardian and 27 times that of the Financial Times." Rather than sell up his British newspapers in 2012, he launched a new one, a Sunday edition of The Sun to replace the News of the World – or at least recover 2 million of its weekly sales.
Keen to appear the modern media magnate, Murdoch emphasises the digital qualities of his publishing assets. Perhaps the British operation will do more to integrate itself with the new media ecology by acquiring start-ups and breaking the closed and sinister culture of Fortress Wapping?
But if Mr Murdoch is to persuade British university graduates that News Corp is where the future media action is, rather than the fatally-wounded Jurassic predator that opponents like to describe, he still has a number of obstacles to overcome. The Times goes into the new era with its newsroom seething at the treatment of popular editor James Harding, forced out by News Corp bosses this month. And for all his Fox-generated profits and bravado, Rupert Murdoch's credibility as a publishing soothsayer has taken a fresh knock with the demise of his tablet-based newspaper The Daily, which published for the last time on 15 December. Meanwhile key News Corp shareholder Donald Yacktman has described the publishing division as "less than stellar" and warned he will sell his stock if it's valued at more than $6.
Then there is the small matter of the criminal trials following the investigations into alleged phone hacking and payments to public officials. When they are out of the way, the feature film on phone-hacking can finally be completed – and that's one movie that will not be generating revenues for Twentieth Century Fox.
Another organisation looking for a fresh start in 2013 is the BBC, where Tony Hall's arrival as the next Director-General in March cannot come quickly enough. This year was supposed to be the one when the BBC, settled under its long-standing Director-General Mark Thompson, quietly tackled policy issues over local television and the Communi-cations Bill before sitting back to watch its technological investments bear fruit in the shape of ground-breaking images from the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. Instead, in spite of a stunning games and universal accolades for its coverage, the BBC finds itself ending a historic year with its reputation horribly tarnished.
The disappointing broadcast of the Queen's anniversary on the throne was partly a consequence of appalling weather. But the Jimmy Savile fiasco, as it played out over several weeks, caused the downfall of George Entwistle, just 54 days after he had replaced the retiring Thompson.
Following Nick Pollard's report into the failings of Newsnight's coverage of Savile, the BBC's leaders are desperate to be allowed to move on. But it's far too soon. The broadcaster still awaits publication of Dame Janet Smith's review of how the culture and practices of the BBC allowed Savile to operate as a paedophile. And more BBC employees may well find themselves arrested as part of Scotland Yard's Savile-related investigation Operation Yewtree.
Facebook is another media brand which scored a spectacular own goal in 2012. At the start of the year, the social network's initial public offering was the most anticipated in Internet history – only for it to spectacularly misfire in May. Technical glitches and too much hype saw the share price fall and the underwriters for the IPO fined millions for selectively disclosing information.
True, Facebook – which had 500 million active users in 2010 – raced to the 1 billion mark in October. But Mark Zuckerberg and his senior team have repeatedly offended users this year with its attempts to make money; attracting controversy by changing privacy policies, using facial recognition tools and acquiring Instagram. Just like the BBC, Facebook has suffered damage that it never saw coming – and, with trust diminished, 2013 may be no easier.
Magazines not alone in promoting fad diets
Women's magazines are the target of an end-of-year attack by the Equalities Minister Jo Swinson, who accuses editors of endangering the health of readers by advocating crash diets. "This is the time of year when magazines really go to town on their diet supplements and miracle cures for how quickly you can lose weight," she says. "The evidence shows, though, that most diets don't work."
The women's lifestyle magazine sector is in serious decline – but Slimming World is one title that is piling on circulation. Generalist magazines, such as Bella and Zest, naturally want to feed that same interest and "quick-slim" ideas, like "super-fast workouts", reflect modern demands for instant results.
Swinson is right to warn of dangerous fads, but her focus solely on magazines feels outdated. Women seem to crave any media that obsesses over the supposedly perfect female body shape. There are countless blogs on how to lose weight, from "Dietriffic" to "DietSchmiet" and "The Gym Isn't Working". The Huffington Post website recently set out the "Top Diets for 2013", ranging from the "Milf Diet" to the "Miracle Berry Diet". Most of these ideas are the celebrity-endorsed creations of the book publishing industry. Gwyneth Paltrow's new foodie tome It's All Good won't be out until Spring but is already racking up orders. The recipes will "make you look good", claims the cover. Jo Swinson should broaden her range of targets.
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