CRASSH/Judge Business School Event: Freedom and the Digital Revolution: can journalism be free in the digital age?

“May I ask you a question…what’s wrong with market incentives?” – John Murdoch, CEO of News Corp (aka Rupert Murdoch’s son)

I dropped in on another conference event this week on media in the digital age.  The above quote, delivered by the 37-year-old prodigy CEO of News Corp James Murdoch (well, prodigy might be a bit misleading…considering that he is the son of the much beloved owner of the huge media conglomerate), was by far the quote of the night and perfectly represented the growing animosity between the big media-dominated final discussion panel and the Cambridge audience.

Before I give more of a blow-by-blow of the final panel discussion, which was by far the highlight of the event from a purely entertainment perspective, let me rewind a bit.  The overall topic of this particular conference was not limited to ‘new’ media, the focus of most of the events I’d attended up to this point.  In general, the talks focused largely on the traditional media, its transition into digital formats, and the restrictions (or not) on media freedom now and in the future.  Some fascinating topics…why I’m interested in them exactly…I’m not sure, but I guess I’m the ultimate generalist.  A brief aside, one thing that always bothers me about these things is that if you happen to talk to any other attendees, they will invariably ask what your background is (i.e., why are you here?).  Playing the development studies card is useful in this regard…largely because most people probably don’t know exactly what it is and don’t want to seem ignorant by asking.  Of course, the real reason I’m there is because I don’t have anything better to do…and I’m just so darn curious!

 Anyway, back to the conference (focus!)…I’ll try to just hit the high points. 

-  First off, I came in late to the opening session and all the accessible seats on the door side were taken…thus I had to cross the room and dodge in front of the speaker to find a seat (on the front row).  In other words, my worst nightmare.    I managed, but was much chagrined when a few minutes later a reasonably attractive girl…in sufficiently provocative dress walked in and the two older gentlemen sitting directly next to the door practically catapulted out of their seats and moved over, with much banging of chairs and rustling of papers, to make room.  Alas, hot girl advantage in its purest form!  For all the Andy Griffith aficionados out there, picture the female prisoner episode when Barney and Andy were falling over themselves and each other to grab the lady a pillow (or whatever).  Yeah…it was exactly like that.

-  One of my favorite presentations of the day came from Dr. Damian Tambini of LSE.  He gave a highly nuanced talk about the limitations that confine free media (even in the most open societies) and the implicit social contract between the media and the citizens that provides media with power, in exchange for the responsibility to maintain certain standards.  Of course, being an academic, Dr. Tambini’s talk was highly nuanced and theoretical.  Not surprisingly, because absolutists tend to struggle with nuance, some of the ‘free’ media ideologues in the crowd totally missed his points.  Not to say that the presentation couldn’t have been delivered more clearly…because it could have…but overall his arguments did not deserve the hysterical response they received from certain factions.  (An aside, Damian went with a suit and dress shirt sans tie…pretty standard…but with no belt, which I thought was quite a bold fashion statement!  That’s one benefit of sitting in the front row…it’s easier to pick up on the more obscure, yet highly important, wardrobe details.)

-    Another interesting talk was delivered by Qiang Xiao, Founder and Editor of the China Digital Times and an adjunct at Berkeley.  He outlined the alternative media environment in China, a highly restricted and repressed media society.  China is certainly a fascinating case study on so many levels.  That such a centrally controlled country has grown so quickly and developed such power in so a short time requires us to reassess and reanalyze our most basic assumptions about governance, democracy, etc.  While I definitely don’t condone the China government’s draconian restrictions on media, expression, and other human rights, it will be important for all of us, moving forward, to better understand the China phenomenon…why has it worked and is it sustainable?  That being said…after listening to Mr. Xiao’s talk, my number one blog-related goal is to get my blog blocked by the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall.”  That would be so sick!

-  Now to the juicy stuff.  As I mentioned, the final panel discussion consisted of the wunderkind Murdoch, John Witherow (Editor, Sunday Times), and Mathias Dopfner (visiting professor, German media mogul, and very tall Arnold Schwarzenegger sound alike).  Turned out to be an interesting panel in its lack of ideological diversity. 

Here’s how it went down…Murdoch played the role of slick, personable politician expounding on the beauty of journalism, how it betters society, and how the intrusion of government on media space is dangerous.  All fair and important points on their face…but you can certainly see room for misapplication (not to mention nausea from the pure schmaltziness of it).  Mr. Witherow fired the first real salvo (aka the shot heard round the world) with his attack on the BBC’s ‘intrusion’ into the Times’ domain of print media with their establishment of a robust, freely accessible website that was ‘unfairly competing’ because it was funded by government money.  This fired up the Cambridge crowd to no end (they apparently love them some government subsidized media).  The situation deteriorated quickly from there (it was pretty much like this…). 

Mr. Witherow gave no pretense of being evenhanded, which I half admired.  He came right out and said that if the government keeps propping up BBC, all private media will disappear and all we’ll have left is government subsidized news.  That this argument is completely ludicrous for its sheer simplicity is pretty much irrelevant…at least we know where he stands.  Like I said…ideologues typically dislike nuance or matters of degree.  They prefer black and white.  This way of thinking creates problems because it makes it difficult to explain apparent anomalies like…how is the private media said to be ‘free’ and ‘untainted’ (as compared to say the BBC) when the majority of the mainstream media outlets are controlled by huge, highly centralized media conglomerates (e.g., News Corp) with their own political and corporate agendas and ideologies?  If media is such an important public good, why is publically sponsored media an attack against personal freedom?  Once again it’s all about the nuance and ambiguity.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dopfner maybe said something like, “the BBC is a tumah.”  That’s how I imagined it at least.

Here’s the kicker though, Mr. Slick and Cool himself, finally cracked in an exchange with a particularly vehement defender of the BBC and unleashed my most favorite quote above.  Nothing better encapsulates the simplicity of strident and unrelenting ideology.  “What’s wrong with market incentives?”  In other words, if you don’t hate the BBC, then it directly follows that you have a particular disdain for ‘the market’…capitalism…private enterprise…whatever.  If you support public media, you want to live in China.  Such extreme dichotomies are patently absurd…yet they persist in so many areas of our world.  It’s a sad and troubling phenomenon.

-  Anyway, all and all it was a fun day.  I have to say it was kind of nice to have a little discord and angst in one of these meetings.  After all the ‘brilliant’ presentations at smaller CRASSH events and elsewhere, a little confrontation was a welcome and exciting change.