BIRMINGHAM, England — News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch gave a robust tongue-lashing to Europe’s public broadcasters, and the BBC in particular, in a speech Monday at the opening of the European Audiovisual Conference here.
While denying any intention to attack “the concept of public broadcasting,” Murdoch identified the subsidized power of Europe’s pubcasters as a greater threat to “pluralism and diversity” in the digital age than anything News Corp. might do.
The European Audiovisual Conference runs Monday-Wednesday and is a get-together of Euro regulators, politicians and top-level media execs to lay the foundation for the next phase of the European Commission’s audiovisual policy.
This is only the third such conference in the past decade. The first, in 1989, paved the way for the hugely controversial Television Without Frontiers directive, which tried to introduce TV quotas. The second, in 1995, debated the reform of the EC’s Media subsidy system.
This current confab is grappling with the question of what role the EC should play in shaping Europe’s digital landscape.
Murdoch’s speech was a plea for a minimum of government interference at what he called “a defining moment in European audiovisual history.” He warned against a premature rush to regulate the evolving digital business and against the stunting effect of state subsidies on the natural development of the market.
“The media sector is experiencing a historic growth spurt. Pluralism and diversity are growing organically under our very noses while we agonize about their shrinkage,” he said. “But if unhealthy concentration does exist today, it exists not in the private sector but with state broadcasting.”
Murdoch criticized the BBC for launching a publicly funded cable news channel, BBC News 24, at a giveaway price, which is putting in jeopardy commercial rivals such as his own Sky News.
He attacked the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of pubcasters and long-established private webs from across Europe, for acting as a “cartel” to sew up exclusive sports rights.
“Through the EBU and individually, state and some long-established private broadcasters have fought diversity in broadcasting every step of the way over the past 30 years,” Murdoch said. “And what saddens me is that even in the recent audiovisual revolutions in the U.K., they again receive all the privileges.”
He also took a side swipe at U.K. media companies “spending vast sums on armies of policy advisers and lobbyists (more than 100 in the BBC alone) bent on manipulating the political process rather than competing in the marketplace.”
Earlier in the day, BBC director-general John Birt had put forward a sophisticated case for expanding the role of pubcasters in the digital age, based on the threat that otherwise, “We risk a knowledge underclass.” Without pubcasters at the forefront of digital TV, he warned, “We will see the emergence of the information rich and the information poor.”
Over the next year the BBC is launching three publicly funded digital channels, including BBC News 24, as well as five pay channels and a slew of online services.
Birt argued that the globalization of the media could undermine national cultures. “That ubiquitous softdrink world of jeans, trainers and the baseball cap will advance inexorably, limiting choice and ignoring minorities. We cannot halt the advance with barriers or quotas,” he said. “Rather the drive of public policy should not be protectionism, but to sustain individual national cultures. One of the surest ways of doing that is to encourage a flourishing public service sector in each EU member country.”
But Murdoch dismissed “Birt’s very shaky claims that the poor are in danger of being cut off from information in the new media age.”
“With the burgeoning of free radio, television and the Internet, this has to be wrong,” Murdoch said, claiming, “Pluralism and diversity … are actually endemic in this brave new world of media.”
He was equally scathing about what he called “the myth of cultural homogeneity as a result of the all-pervasive Coca-Cola culture.”