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
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