Rupert predicted the future but will James be such a visionary?

Twenty years after his father foresaw the age of digital, James Murdoch will set out his own view, reports TV chief Simon Shaps

Let's for a moment rewind to the evening of 25 August 1989. The MacTaggart Lecture had been going for 13 years, and had previously been delivered by such luminaries as Jeremy Isaacs, Peter Jay and Sir Denis Forman. As he stepped on to the stage exactly 20 years ago to deliver his speech to the great and the good of British television, Rupert Murdoch could have been forgiven for feeling somewhat uneasy.

To say that he was a pariah among the television establishment at that time is an understatement. Vilified as a downmarket, crude populariser, with The Sun's page 3 girl his emblematic innovation, he was also – or so it seemed – about to get his come-uppance with the launch of Sky, which was barely six months old and already hugely loss-making. The Friday-night audience at the Edinburgh Television Festival scented blood. Although without doubt a media titan, they thought there was little he could teach the British television industry. As The Economist put it at the time: "The executives came to snigger."



What Murdoch delivered, had they been able to separate their distaste for Murdoch's politics from his vision of the creative possibilities opened up by technology, reads in retrospect like an uncannily accurate manifesto for the digital era. As his son James puts the finishing touches to his own MacTaggart, to be delivered in four days' time, he must wonder whether he can pull off the same trick. But more of Murdoch fils later.



Murdoch senior was not alone in spotting that television was about to enter a new era. What makes him stand out was the clarity of his vision and his willingness to bet the shop – his entire global business – on it.



He spent no time softening up his audience at Edinburgh with the traditional gags at the expense of the BBC, or whichever broadcaster seemed to be having a rough time. With a nodding reference to Adam Smith in the very first sentence, he very quickly set out his stall. "The arguments which have recently dominated British broadcasting, such as multi-channel choice versus public serv



ice duopoly will soon sound as if they belong to the Stone Age." He went on to say that television sets of the future will be "linked by fibre optic cable to a global cornucopia of programming and nearly infinite libraries of data, education and entertainment. All with full interactivity."



Murdoch argued the rise of multi-channel would create for the first time genuine consumer choice, which would deliver a broader range of programming, with no decline in quality. He envisaged an on-demand world, offering access to information as well as entertainment. He even talked about the improvement in picture quality – this is 1989 remember, not 1999 – offered by high-definition TV.



Although an unswerving believer in the power of free markets to deliver choice and drive economic activity, he nonetheless saw a role for the BBC, although he speculated that the Corporation would find it hard to justify the "compulsory poll tax that finances it" when its charter came up for renewal in "the multi-channel world of the mid-1990s". He argued the market failure case for the BBC, with the Corporation's future role largely being to fill in the gaps left by the commercial system. He also foresaw a "market system in which public broadcasting would be part of the market mix but in no way dominate the output the way it does at present."



Murdoch was less sure-footed when he started talking about programmes but challenged the conventional wisdom that American television had nothing to compare with the Himalayan peaks of the BBC, ITV or Channel 4. He had some sport with the claim that British drama was "run by the costume department". And in a comment that has uncanny echoes of the debate still being had 20 years later, he asked: "Is it really healthy for British society to be served up a diet of television which constantly looks backward?"



Once he had added a few flourishes about the elitism of the ruling classes and name-checked Dennis Potter – which was ironic given Potter's claim some years later that his chosen name for the cancer that was killing him was "Rupert" – Murdoch's speech reads like the MacTaggart to end all MacTaggarts.



All of which cannot help but raise an interesting question. Could the Rupert Murdoch who delivered the MacTaggart two decades ago, pull off the same trick again? The 1989 speech is characterised by the sense that he had glimpsed the future, understood its implications and planned his businesses around it. He was an industry leader, ahead of the field. By comparison, British television executives – with the Darwinian struggle of the ITV franchise round looming – seemed more obsessed with short term, parochial concerns. Today, the visionary leader looks suspiciously like many of his peers: a follower, trying desperately to catch up with a new generation of media visionaries who don't come from the traditional worlds of television, newspapers or publishing. As late as 2006, at the News Corp conference for senior executives at Pebble Beach, California, Murdoch found it necessary to stress once again that the company needed to step change its internet activity. And yet the purchase of MySpace, the recent edict about moving from a free to a pay model across newspapers, or even his partnership with NBC Universal and Disney in the American online television platform Hulu, suggest the internet era has been infinitely more difficult for him than the early days of digital. Taking on Apple, Google, Microsoft or Facebook, is an entirely different game from fighting those old British television executives.



Which brings us back to James Murdoch and his MacTaggart. James Murdoch is as close as it gets to being a digital native in the upper echelons of the Murdoch empire. He is a natural technologist, who approaches traditional media with very little baggage. If anybody can deliver a clear commercial vision of how his father's vision of a "global cornucopia" can be turned into a series of leading global businesses, it is probably him. As he said when he agreed to do the lecture: "Our industry is so clearly at a turning point."



1989 was also a key moment of disruptive change, and Murdoch senior got an awful lot right about the future. If James Murdoch manages to pull of a similar trick then we may well still be reading his MacTaggart in 2029.



Simon Shaps is the former director of television at ITV and is the chairman of A Brand Apart Television

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
News
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
news
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - London - £40K plus benefits - Salary negotiable

£38000 - £40000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: A leading consu...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£12 - £15 Hourly Rate: Sheridan Maine: Are you an experienced Accounts Assista...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Manager

£55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat