Murdoch, a problem of our own making

If his expanding media empire seems all-powerful, it is because we continue to endorse trash before quality
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The Independent Online
Rupert Murdoch's recent phase of frenetic activity shows no sign of abating. He has just bought up a decade of southern hemisphere Rugby Union internationals and this week he seems close to a pounds 1.75bn deal to buy a controlling stake in Silvio Berlusconi's three Italian television channels.

But all these new deals put together are as nothing compared with the fast-approaching spectre of what is now known in media circles as "Murdoch's Black Box". Of course, there are already several million Murdoch black boxes sitting on top of televisions in Britain decoding BSkyB satellite signals. But these boxes are absurdly crude, the electronic equivalent of rabbit's-ears aerials or crystal sets. They can deliver no more than about 50 channels into the home - barely enough for an evening's surfing.

The boxes that are now said to be only a year or 18 months away are something quite different. These are digital decoders that will be able to deliver 500 channels. For some time Sky hesitated about going down this digital path. Its control of analogue technology is so complete that any change might threaten its power in the market place.

In the event, Sky decided that the digital revolution could not be resisted - what Sky offers to the consumer has constantly to be upgraded to keep subscribers on board and to attract new ones. This can be done by juggling the existing combinations - soon, for example, it will offer the wiltingly soft-porn Playboy Channel - or by buying up glamorous television events, typically sporting ones. But ultimately, you have to go for the big technology upgrade: digital boxes.

With typical ingenuity Sky has reinforced this decision by forming a pan-European partnership to control the new technology. This extends its analogue power to the digital realm. Now, if you wish to hire space on any existing or future satellites, you will find that they have all been pre-booked by Murdoch or one of his partners.

At this point you might reasonably say: big deal, 500 channels, who needs them? And what will fill this dizzying air-time black hole? Not, we can take it, University Challenge, Play for Today or even Channel 4-style black/gay/lesbian nights. More probably third-rate American sit-coms and nuts'n'sluts chat shows.

But in fact, the 500 channels will simply be used, not necessarily to produce more downmarket television, but to make the whole system more flexible. The new black boxes will be Sky's way of heading off a challenge from a rival technology - video on demand. This is a computerised system that would allow you to watch any film at any time. It cannot be delivered by satellite, only by cable, because you cannot tell the satellite what you want to watch. But with 500 channels, you can have near video on demand. Simply by allocating, say, 10 or 20 channels to each film, Sky will allow you to watch it at any time you like merely by starting it at five or 10-minute intervals on different channels. No new cabling, no expensive telephone lines and no new central computer operation are required. Clever, very. And cheap.

Many will now clutch their heads or, like the dying Dennis Potter, name their cancers Rupert. They know the name of their pain and it is Rupert Murdoch, this man that keeps, well, doing things. Every media move seems to have RM stamped on it in letters of fire and each one seems bigger, more pervasive, more global than the last. In their anger the anti-Murdoch armies demand regulation, counter-measures. On the one hand, the panic is cultural - a tide of trash threatens to overwhelm the airwaves; on the other, it is political - one man with definite, hard opinions will exercise near-monopoly powers in the global media.

Murdoch's own response to this was made clear in his angry reply to the Government's proposed new rules on cross-media ownership. Why should he be penalised for success? If he is prepared to take big risks - which he repeatedly does - why should he not reap the rewards?

Between Murdoch and his critics there is a profound divide of imagination. He understands the world as a single interactive system, an environment in which it is his job to operate as successfully as possible. So business considerations naturally take in all others, political, legal and cultural. If his energy has resulted in near monopolies, that is only a comment on the doziness of the competition. His critics tend to regard business as a discrete and frequently threatening realm. It must be contained and, when it appears too powerful, cut back. The media business in particular, because of its tendency to affect all other areas and, in this case, because of Murdoch's monopolistic instincts, requires special controls.

The two attitudes represent two sets of values that are, in the jargon of political philosophy, "incommensurable": there is the absolute good of unfettered business, but there is also the fear of rampant commercialism destroying cultural and social cohesion. They cannot rationally be reconciled. But equally, neither position is quite right. Murdoch has a puritanical streak that makes him aware of the cultural impact of an unremittingly sleazy media. And his critics ought to acknowledge that, if a thriving media industry is democratically desirable, Murdoch is one of the free world's champions.

A strong society with a clear sense of itself would be able to exploit the best of Murdoch while exerting the containment his critics demand. In such a society the media is obliged, for good commercial reasons, to accept local mores. If, for example, we were grown up enough to regard the average sex scandal as a trivial, private matter, the tabloids would have to look elsewhere for their stories.

Murdoch's insistence is that he is providing nothing more alarming than "choice". From his perspective we can choose good, mediocre or bad. If choice is a threat, then clearly there is something wrong with the society that is doing the choosing. If not, then what's the problem?

In this context energetic, effective business is the same as energetic, effective technology. It is, in itself, morally neutral. But when applied, it will be beneficial in healthy, confident societies; destructive in sick, uncertain societies.

Murdoch's business exposes this truth more vividly than any other. His bewilderingly high-speed activities continually ask us who we are and what we want. And our paranoia suggests the answers are not particularly consoling. If his black box and his 500 channels feel like a threat, then that is because television itself has become too big and it has done so because there seems to be so little competition. When people worry about an engulfing tide of trash, they are admitting to their secret conviction that the masses are incapable of turning away and doing something else.

That worry is well-founded. Trash is winning and the more it wins, the more of a market it makes for itself by undermining the appetite for quality. But Murdoch is not to blame. We are - because of our failure to come to the newspaper, the television or computer screen with any critical sense of ourselves, because of our inability, in the phrase of the hour, to "get a life".