Rupert Murdoch's threats to block the search engine and build a paywall signal to politicians that he wants something done
The indomitable Rupert Murdoch has been remarkably loquacious over the past few weeks. His pronouncements have remained characteristically wide-ranging and direct: Barack Obama, he thinks, made "an extremely racist remark", Google, Yahoo, even the BBC, are a den of "copyright thieves" of varying malignancy, and he "regrets" his newspapers' stance on Gordon Brown.
As seasoned News Corporation watchers will know, where it comes to effective corporate management in the business of world domination, talk is cheap and silence is golden. As Jack Shafer, the sharp media commentator for the US website Slate, put it, "he's sowing confusion and harvesting bewilderment", so best not to listen.
Murdoch cannot genuinely believe that aggregators such as Google are any more in an enforceable breach of copyright than his own papers. Pillaging extracts of events and re-interpreting them for the wider public through a particular lens may be what Google News excels at now, but for 200 years the press has operated in a distinctly similar fashion.
What we are witnessing in an otherwise bland landscape of mainstream media leadership is not an entertaining total failure of mental faculties, but a brazen piece of potentially effective lobbying. The Sun's endorsement of David Cameron (the least surprising thing to happen at News Corp since the demise of Myspace) should be viewed alongside the intemperate Google and BBC rants as part of a more coherent piece.
There is already regulatory nervousness about the dominance of Google in the search advertising market. The Murdoch threats to block the search engine, take away his highly original content and build a big paywall are a signal to politicians with a grasp of digital markets that he would like something done about this. For all his public dislike of big government, Murdoch's most audacious business gains have always come from playing a brilliant political game. Sky would have failed if Margaret Thatcher had not removed regulatory obstacles to an early merger with BSB.
Now this poses a bit of a problem for Cameron. His "pizza cabinets" must be interesting affairs with the former News International executive Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton, whose partner, Rachel Whetstone, heads Google's corporate affairs division. In terms of the media, both emergent and established, the Conservatives are probably most visibly close to News International and Google. Tory media policy speeches have highlighted the excessive size and resources of the BBC, a theme which has not been quietened by the publication of salaries and expenses. They have, however, been reluctant to suggest curtailing Google's activity. The Conservatives would apparently reduce the media regulator, Ofcom, to a couple of desks rather than expand its remit to tackle the world's fastest growing company.
The whole parry and lunge of media support ahead of elections may feel increasingly antiquated, but the obsessive nature of image management in modern politics is at its most acute at this point in the cycle. Witness, for instance, the unedifying business of Gordon Brown's public correspondence with a bereaved mother courtesy of the Sun. And think how ironic that in the same week a Labour government seemed intent on whipping off Murdoch's bails by announcing that Ashes cricket should become a free-to-air event. This feisty bit of fun will land squarely on Cameron's doorstep. If Murdoch feels as wronged as his laments may suggest, then it is inconceivable that in the first of his woodburning stove chats with the Conservative leader he won't share some of his pain over his merciless disaggregation by search engines. What Cameron does then will be an interesting test of his new media credentials.
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