Three weeks ago I had the privilege of preparing to appear live on Newsnight to discuss the future of the BBC and digital television. Kirsty Wark, the presenter, could have benefited from a little preparation too as she spent the entire programme calling me Roger!
The show focused on the issue of access to digital TV. Much of the debate was driven by recent media hysteria, led on the night by Polly Toynbee, over the alleged dominance of Rupert Murdoch in the forthcoming digital TV world. A picture has been painted in some newspapers, particularly The Guardian and The Independent, of a broadcasting future where our viewing choice is personally “dictated” by Murdoch.
I should declare an interest at this juncture as Zenith Media UK works for BSkyB. However, we also negotiate some very aggressive deals with News Corp media companies around the world.
What never ceases to amaze me is the personal hatred which Murdoch still attracts after almost 30 years in the UK.
I seem to be out of step because I am a great fan and most critics show a poor understanding of the influence that one individual can exert over a huge global corporation.
Murdoch came to these shores in 1969. He acquired The Sun, which had a circulation of about 500,000 and was making huge losses. Over the next 25 years he built a newspaper market share of about 33 per cent, revolutionised newspaper printing, rescued London Weekend Television and launched direct-to-home multichannel TV.
Along the way, the company grew into a global corporation, embracing the US, Australia and the UK with revenues of $9.9bn (6.6bn). Murdoch’s family interests control only about 31 per cent of the company and News Corp owns only about 40 per cent of BSkyB. Not quite a personal fiefdom. BSkyB has been a success not because Murdoch is dictatorial and interfering but because he is a great marketer.
News Corp saw existing terrestrial TV did not satisfy the market. Murdoch risked his shareholders’ funds – to the near elimination of the company in 1991 – to break new ground in the multichannel world. Now it is reaping profits.
Digital TV requires more special receiving equipment. Predictably BSkyB will have its set-top boxes ready before any of the terrestrial broadcasters. This is thanks to its subsidiary, News Digital Systems.
The Murdoch haters are screaming that “in the new multichannel digital world Murdoch, will control the distribution system. Thus legislation should be introduced to control him”.
Legislation exists. BSkyB will have a “must carry at reasonable prices” rule regulated by Oftel, Monopoly and Fair Trading law will also apply. Why would anyone wish to slow BSkyB’s progress?
A digital BSkyB will increase choice for the viewer, create new opportunities for advertisers and marketers, bring new funds to the entertainment industry and make the UK a world leader in digital TV.
We should celebrate this enterprise and initiative, not devote effort to devising legislation to slow the progress of these new opportunities to the snail’s pace of BBC and ITV.
Long may Murdoch be chief executive of News Corp with shareholders who support – and are rewarded for – the values of innovation and entrepreneurialism.
Torin Douglas, page 19