Ian Burrell: Murdoch tries to wipe the slate clean – but this is just not the time
Media Studies: September’s trials of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson will be 'a gripping soap opera'
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 01 July 2013
Readers of the News Corp-owned Wall Street Journal will open their papers this morning to find stark black and white ads announcing "Day One – Looking Forward to the Future". Because, from today, Rupert Murdoch's company will trade as two divisions: the News Corp publishing company and the 21st Century Fox entertainment portfolio. Its business literature refers to the "new News Corp".
This Day One message feels a bit like Pol Pot's declaration of Year Zero when he seized Cambodia in 1975 and sought to hide the past. News Corp is desperate to consign the phone-hacking scandal to no more than a minor module in a media studies curriculum.
This was reflected in last week's dropping of the name News International, indelibly tarnished by hacking as it is. It will be buried in a cemetery adjacent to the News of the World and instead Mr Murdoch's British press portfolio will answer to the name of News UK.
There is futility in this. History – and the prestige it brought – was surely the prime factor in the mogul's determination to buy The Times in 1981. Britain's most establishment newspaper can have no interest in setting the clocks to zero. Indeed, newspaper lover that he is, Rupert could not resist stamping the family imprint on the fresh-start logo by basing the "News" part on his own handwriting and that of his father, Keith, who founded the business in 1923. This company has a long past.
But Mike Darcey, the CEO of News UK, is a man in a hurry. Ahead of the name change, he issued a huge mail-out to MPs and the great and good, claiming the company had changed. "We have gone out of our way to identify what went wrong, and to ensure that the same mistakes cannot happen again," he said. "Our main titles are all under new leadership and the executive team has been transformed."
It's as if the scandals of mass illegal voicemail interception and bribery of public officials were over. This is anything but the case. Criminal trials involving figures whom the public most closely associates with this company, such as Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, begin in September and are likely to dominate the home news agenda. Lord Justice Leveson has been invited to address the Commons committee on culture, media and sport to discuss progress on press regulation since his mammoth inquiry report into hacking and related issues. Paul Farrelly, a Labour member of that committee, told me that it was rich for News UK to claim a clean slate when it was at the forefront of attempts to "stymie from birth" plans for a new press regulator outlined in a Parliament-approved Royal Charter.
Meanwhile, the first phone-hacking legal action has been filed in America – by Angelina Jolie's stunt double Eunice Huthart – in a worrying development for the new News Corp.
I don't blame News Corp for wanting a new dawn, when the vast majority of employees had no involvement in questionable practices or joined the company since the scandal.
Feelings inside News UK are mixed. At The Sun there is anger that nine members of the newsroom face charges relating to Scotland Yard's bribery investigation. But new editor David Dinsmore can expect impetus at the start of the football season as the paper introduces Premier League highlights as part of its £2-a-week Sun+ digital paywall package. At The Times and The Sunday Times, the likely confirmation of John Witherow and Martin Ivens as editors will bring further stability.
Uprooting from its base near Tower Bridge – scene of the Wapping dispute in 1986 – would help give News UK the new identity it craves. It is based in a 13-floor block that carries no signage at all and there is a potential break in the lease. "We've been looking at other buildings to explore whether this would be a good time to move," a source says.
More than ditching that waffle-style logo or leaving Wapping, News UK could improve its reputation by investing in the British media. "This is a new company with no debt and a bit of cash in its back pocket," I was told. But the same executive admitted that trials involving former company leaders would be "a gripping soap opera". It's not time to move on just yet.
US bête noire tangles with Ofcom over web media
Alkiviades "Alki" David is an extremely wealthy media entrepreneur. He is already a bête noire of the American television networks, which he has relentlessly battled legally for the right to carry their content on his online TV platform FilmOn.
Having moved back to London from Los Angeles, he is turning his attentions to the British television sector, claiming that the broadcast regulator Ofcom is falling down on the job by not applying the Broadcasting Act to the internet.
"We have a situation that is both archaic and anarchic," he tells me. "The result is a Wild West in which broadcasters can ride roughshod over consumers by withholding content – while, meanwhile, the web is awash with piracy and illegal file sharing."
Alki's beef is that the public is being denied the right to watch free-to-air channels online via platforms such as his, a British business that offers a gateway to a vast array of international TV channels. He is happy to be regulated by Ofcom, he says.
Later this summer, David – who has been enlisting MPs to support his campaign – is launching a webcam-based social television channel on Sky and Freesat, making him a content provider, too. Expect more from him.
Cash cow behind 'The Guardian' becomes print history
The current edition of Auto Trader is the final one in print. Looking back at the original Thames Valley Trader from 1977, it's hard to believe this humble publication now supports The Guardian.
Front-page billing 36 years ago went to a two-berth caravan and an eight-year-old Austin 1300 with a price tag of £380 "ono". Predating Del Boy Trotter by four years, the used-car magazine looks like a prop from Only Fools and Horses. To get a £5 ad, the Trader's publishers were willing to "call and take the photograph any day, even weekends, at your home or place of work".
Guardian Media Group took total ownership of Trader Media Group a decade ago, though it has since sold half the company. Today, the used-motor brand is the cash cow (it made a tidy operating profit of £128.7m last year) that supports the heavily loss-making GMG (pre-tax losses £75.6m last year).
Auto Trader has successfully transitioned to the internet, where it has 11 million readers, and remains a market leader.
Paul Gibbons, who founded the weekly with John Madejski, now chairman of Reading FC, today runs a successful golf and hotels business, Leaderboard. He said he was "quite sad" to see the magazine disappear but regarded its online success as a "great compliment" to his and Madejski's vision.
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