Murdoch's media empire is global and mighty, but it isn't eternal

The days of the press baron are numbered, says Hamish McRae. The 21st century will open up both markets and minds
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The Independent Online
NEWSPAPER commentators find it hard to cope with the row about the spiking of Chris Patten's book by Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins for obvious reasons. Either they work for one of the myriad parts of the Murdoch empire and find it more convenient to keep mum. Or they work for some other proprietor who is an arch enemy of Mr Murdoch and feel it necessary to whip themselves into furious indignation at his antics.

This is a pity because behind the fuss lies a crucial question. Will, during the first half of the next century, the power of the global media become more concentrated or more diffuse? There is also a more specific issue: is Mr Murdoch's attempt to assemble a global media empire (complete with a bit of kow-tow to the Chinese) a model for other empires, or is it doomed to fail?

I suppose I should at this stage make it clear where I am, as the Americans would say, coming from. It happens that I have never worked for the Murdoch empire, not because I see him as the devil incarnate but more because I haven't needed to. The interesting jobs have come elsewhere - I also really enjoy the freedom which papers like The Guardian and The Independent have offered. However HarperCollins were the UK publishers for my latest book and that relationship worked well too. It was not particularly positive about China, but they managed, among other things, to sell not one but two different Chinese translations of it.

So is the Murdoch empire the model? I think the answer is no, but that it is does display some characteristics which will become more important over the next 20 or 30 years.

Not the model? No, because the Murdoch empire, however extraordinary, is not really a single corporate entity. There is no core competence. There are lot of individual competences, lots of skills, lots of brands names, lots of talented people - but no glue. Or rather the glue is the brilliance and personality of one now elderly man. When he goes, the empire will be split up.

What Mr Murdoch has seen very clearly is the importance of global distribution. His business is delivering intellectual property to a global market. You may not think of The Sun, or (better example) Titanic as intellectual property, but they are in that they come into the same category of fees and royalties as, say, the proceeds from some medicine whose inventor has won a Nobel prize. Titanic is a co- production of Fox, part of the Murdoch group. So part of the global profits from what will become the largest grossing movie of all time will go to his empire.

We think of newspapers as an important part of the global media and it is certainly true that the initial money which financed the Murdoch enterprises came from newspapers, British newspapers in fact. But newspapers are not only a tiny corner of global media, but also one of the most fragmented segments of it. With a couple of small exceptions, papers exist in national compartments.

By contrast books and particularly movies cross national boundaries and language boundaries too. We have not yet arrived at a totally free global market for either, but the world is moving rapidly in that direction. In television - well, we don't know whether it will become a true global medium, like movies, or remain mainly a national one, like papers. I suspect that television will remain mainly national, but with some elements of internationalisation in particular in sport. But the general trend at the moment is undoubtedly towards further globalisation in all media. If you believe in globalisation, you have to believe in getting into China. That is why Mr Murdoch is more prepared to upset the grandees in Britain and America than the grandees in China. Besides he knows we will just whinge and moan, whereas they will bite his backside.

Looking ahead, expect other groups to try both to create intellectual property that can be sold on the global market, and to capture global distribution channels for those products. What will those products be? Some will be ones which are already familiar: books, films, sporting events (like Formula One or the Olympics), performances by celebrities (like the Three Tenors). Others will be things which we cannot even conceive of at the moment, or which exist only in embryonic form. It would have seemed extraordinary 20 years ago that one could package three middle- aged men carrying out an elitist activity like opera and start a whole new genre of mass entertainment.

So in another 10 or 20 years there will be probably be half a dozen alliances of media groups which will vie to establish global distribution for the products they create or buy. I do not think these will be single monolithic enterprises run by a media tycoon: more likely they will be a series of associations rather like the airline groupings now being assembled. In other words though they will not follow the Murdoch model, they will have some characteristics of the organisation he is trying to put together.

This might seem a bit of a nightmare, and a world where a few organisations did have control over the distribution of most information would certainly be extremely alarming. But in practice I don't think we need worry too much. People everywhere have a good instinct for smelling a rat when they are peddled a party line by a media group. Why does the BBC have a far stronger global brand image than BSkyB? Because it has built up a reputation for integrity over three generations and that reputation will continue to be defended by independent-minded journalists.

Secondly, the information revolution means that many new channels of distribution for ideas will open up. Television will move from being a medium with fewer than 100 channels to one of tens of thousands. The Internet is a crude forerunner of a technology which will enable anyone to put high quality video on to their PC and deliver anywhere in the world. As Internet sites multiply and search engines improve everyone with access to a PC will be able to unearth information previously only known to the tiny minority of political or business leaders with all the resources of the state of a multinational.

We have hardly begun to think through the social consequences of a world where knowledge will become both infinitely available and virtually free. Of course some of us will be lazy and prefer to watch Titanic rather than work out what is happening in Macedonia. More worrying, some of us may believe that the Hollywood version of history is the right one, or that the values and behaviour of movie stars should be a guide to us all. But if knowledge is available and we are adequately educated to access and use it, it is our own fault if we allow global media groups to force-feed us with pre-digested pap.