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Murdoch’s Boyer Lectures

Simon Cooper asks why the News Corp chief was given yet another soap box to air his views

Why was Rupert Murdoch chosen to give the 2008 ABC Boyer Lectures? After all, Murdoch’s Media Empire allows ample opportunity for him to air his views. Even the most wide-eyed liberal would be hard pressed to argue that more Rupert leads to more diversity on the airwaves. One might have hoped that the ABC could find at least one other prominent Australian to ‘present their thoughts and ideas on major social, scientific or cultural issues’, the brief given in 1961 by Richard Boyer. Not only does Murdoch not require any more media space, he’s anathema to the principles of public broadcasting. A quick glance at Murdoch’s record as media baron makes it clear that for him the media is just another commodity on the market — there’s nothing special about it. Was it out of politeness Murdoch chose not to discuss the implications of his own market fundamentalism for the ABC? Perhaps there was no need, for the ABC is doing a good job in reinventing itself as a corporate entity in ways that Murdoch might approve. Indeed the collapse of the theoretical differences between public and commercial broadcasting, represented by the decision to have Murdoch deliver the lectures, is complemented by a similar collapse at the organisational level, with the Murdoch-owned publishing house HarperCollins going into partnership with ABC books. That this might impact upon the already precarious ‘independence’ of the broadcaster seems like an understatement.

Murdoch’s lectures were fairly unremarkable. He outlined his vision for what he calls ‘the golden age of opportunity’. He focused on a number of areas that for him represent the rapidly changing world we now inhabit, including newspapers, education, technology and the rise of a global middle class. The challenge for Australia is to embrace change and ‘not rest on our past achievements’. Complacency is the enemy — we must according to Murdoch ‘avoid institutional idleness … the bludger should not be our national icon’. By contrast, Murdoch invokes a mythologised past — the stoicism and reserve of the pioneers and the laconic heroism of Australian soldiers. These values need to be reinvoked if Australia is to reap the benefits of the future.

The dichotomy between bludgers and heroes has become standard tabloid fodder, yet Murdoch never seemed to get much further. He name-checked a few obvious social changes (growing middle class, rise of Asia) and listed a few concerns (technology, declining education) but he didn’t really develop any of these areas. He merely advocated the market as a solution, as opposed to government interference and regulation. Hence, schools would do better with corporate sponsorship because ‘[c]orporate leaders know the skills that people need to get ahead’. A similar instrumentalism pervaded his discussion of newspapers and technology. The lectures fell short of the kind of reflective depth shown by previous Boyer lecturers — on both sides of the political divide.

It’s hard to share Murdoch’s enthusiasm for a ‘golden’ future, given the ruthlessness that accompanies his vision. Often his lectures sounded like a mildly elevated version of the speech a new CEO gives to employees shortly before dishing out redundancies: ‘embrace change — or else’. While accepting that not everything will be rosy, Murdoch glossed over the difficulties. In the style familiar to readers of The Australian or the Herald Sun, Murdoch dismisses contrary viewpoints by diminishing those who hold them. Thus, those worried about the future of newspapers are soaking in ‘self-pity’ which is ‘never pretty’. Anyone concerned about technology is a ‘whinger’. Thanks to global markets we are getting richer. The only ones who don’t like it are the ‘elites’, the trademark term used by News Ltd writers for anyone who disagrees with them.

No wonder Murdoch privileges the pioneer and the soldier — they don’t say much. For all the talk of freedom and diversity in the Boyer Lectures, Murdoch’s record on this score is shaky. Many would argue that Murdoch has waged a war on the public sphere. Rather than foster debate, the Murdoch media evinces a pathological dislike of discussion. Witness the shouting down of political opponents on Fox, or the raft of copponents on Fox, or the raft of conservative columnists in The Australian who vilify rather than debate those who do think differently. It’s hard to take Murdoch seriously on freedom when we remember how all 247 of his newspapers ‘independently’ supported the Iraq invasion, how Murdoch intervened to pull Chris Patten’s book on Hong Kong so as to please his Chinese clients, or how Murdoch dropped the BBC from Chinese satellite coverage and instead carried the Chinese government channel. No wonder, when discussing the golden future, Murdoch relied on the ‘Asian tigers’ whose authoritarian capitalism functions without any ‘elites’ getting in the way.

Behind all this lies the sheer vacuity of Murdoch’s conception of the media. Despite the discussion of newspapers, new media and technology, Murdoch revealed no understanding of the cultural and social role of the media. It’s simply another commodity; the future simply a market waiting to be harnessed. The idea that media might shape our sense of who we are, and continues to mould our sense of national identity, is missing from Murdoch’s vision — as is any reflection on the public sphere. There is no space to ask what the effects on our society are when we alter our relation to the media, or whether commercial media is qualitatively different from other kinds of media. Such questions of course underpin the arguments for public and independent media. No wonder they were missing from Murdoch’s vision of providers and consumers.

In this ‘golden age’ we will inhabit a cultural economy that contains no culture, a democracy that contains no discussion. Murdoch’s Boyer Lectures celebrate a world of ceaseless connection but it’s hard to get excited about his examples — the stock trader with access to real-time prices around the world (a spectacular, if largely unacknowledged, piece of bad timing), the Korean teenager on his MySpace page downloading music, the Australian expat checking on the footy score. Is this the best that Murdoch can do — something that sounds like a Microsoft ad from a decade ago? Anyone wishing to confirm the banality of culture in the techno-marketplace need go no further than cataloguing Murdoch’s moments of enthusiasm expressed in the 2008 Boyers.

So what inspired the ABC to choose Murdoch? He’s a canny businessman but no great thinker. What he does think we already know merely through exposure to the large quantity of the media he controls. Moreover his entire worldview is opposed to the principles that underpin the ABC. Or used to. The ABC has begun to adopt practices not a million miles away from those of Murdoch. For instance, multiple delivery platforms but reduced content; added commercial value to content though the sale of books, magazines and DVD’s; constant repetition and recycling of content; and the creation of media celebrities associated with the broadcaster. The significance of such commercialising activities would be a fit subject for exploration on RN’s Media Report. But that’s been axed along with a number of other programs, as June Factor pointed out in Arena Magazine no. 98.

These shifts in the ABC have helped obscure its role as public broadcaster with a mission that diverges from commercial media. So perhaps it ought not to be a shock that Murdoch was chosen for the Boyers. And now that Murdoch’s company is in partnership with ABC books he can publish and profit from his own lectures. That’s just the beginning. No doubt we will see the ABC carry ads for Murdoch’s publishing house in the near future. In the meantime we look forward to the ABC carrying on with its fierce spirit of independence, and speculate on whether it’s more likely that the ABC will carry any substantial critique of Murdoch in the future, or that Janet Albrechsten and Andrew Bolt will be chosen to deliver future Boyer Lectures.

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications Editor.

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