The Edinburgh Television Festival is the business-trip-cum-piss-up for every TV exec‘s diary, but unique among Edinburgh Festivals it‘s a business affair only. The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture is the only event open to the general public, and this year, the fourteenth, it is causing a greater stir than ever before. Everyone, seemingly, wants to go and see what Rupert Murdoch has to say on the subject of ‘Freedom in Broadcasting’.
‘I‘ve been wondering about that myself. I can‘t imagine what it’s going to be,‘ says David Miller of the Glasgow Media Group at Glasgow University, when tackled about the forthcoming event. ‘What can he say about freedom in broadcasting? He is, by all accounts, the biggest threat to freedom in the media in this country.‘
An even more sceptical note was struck by one source who opined, ‘I don’t know why or how they’ve chosen him to do the lecture, unless they want money off him. The very idea of asking him to do a lecture on freedom in the media is in very poor taste, I think. Maybe they‘re after funding for the Television Festival.’
The lecture comes only weeks after both Murdoch’s Sky and rival British Satellite Broadcasting vehemently denied rumours that they might consider a merger in the face of their troubles, and 888 renewed its complaints about shameless Sky-plugging in Murdoch‘s News International papers — tactics that have raised eyebrows in the Office of Fair Trading. though it has to be said that BSB have done their share of agressive, some might say desperate, pushing for their product. Sky‘s unorthodox marketing of half-price dishes. interest-free credit debts. a dish, receiver. installation, decoder
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Ala‘tair Mabbott looks forward to hearing Rupert Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.
and subscription to Sky movies for £3.99 per week to readers of its various papers to attain their target of 1.1 million Sky subscriber homes by January 1990 is thought to have had only marginal success so far.
‘I think his underlying aim with Sky is to break into terrestrial broadcasting, to bid for one of the franchises when deregulation comes along,’ says David Miller. ‘I think what was behind his attack on Death on the Rock, to be frank, was a bid to discredit terrestrial broadcasting in general and investigative reporting in particular.
‘I also think that Sky was set up not necessarily so that it could break even itself— it may go under in the next couple of years because nobody watches it — but so that he could break into terrestrial broadcasting. He has a history of doing that, throwing money at something so that he can break into it.‘
Another source chided the ‘knee-jerk response' that Murdoch‘s
style of operating would be a meretricious soup ofcomplacent inanity and titillation, closed to any ideas ofdebate and alternative viewpoints.
‘I think ifpeoplc actually do look at the newspapers, particularly the Sunday Times, you do get a reasonable — though not as good as it could be — range of views, and I understand that he‘s now taken the view that he‘s gone too far with the adulation of Maggie, and we‘re going to see something of a change in the Sunday Times.‘
That sounds more like pressures from outside, to wrest the paper’s credibility back from newcomers like the Independent than an attack of conscience and balance on the mogul’s part.
David Miller again: ‘The key thing is that the television franchises would be sold off to the highest bidder. The philosophy has been to sell off franchises to the person who can pay the most, rather than the
person who can provide the best service or the best programmes. . . and clearly Murdoch‘s going to be the highest bidder.‘
Should Murdoch gain control ofa terrestrial channel there is no reason for him not to ﬂood it with low-cost high-yield (mainly cheaply-made American) imports the way he fills a large part of the schedules of Sky. One can foresee a time when his old ally Mrs Thatcher might feel the need to bend to the pressure from watchdog groups outside the Government and from some of the more traditional Tories within the ranks: those who felt less comfortable with a non-paternalistic, rampantly free-market TV service than did the bulldozing Nigel Lawson.
Still, Rupert Murdoch has shown himself to be a man who will let very little get in his way, even his own nationality. He became an American citizen, an act which turned out to be very convenient for establishing a communications conglomerate in the States, where it is demanded that such concerns he owned by Americans. And successful businessmen have the knack of greater staying power than the politicians they symbiotically depend on. Mrs Thatcher may have given him carte blanche to open up Britain for a competitive broadcasting set-up. but when Murdoch opens his mouth to lecture us on ‘the dawn of a new television era‘, we should ponder whether ‘the case for more television‘ simply means the case for more of his television. and ifthat is what we really want.
A few tickets remain for the James Mac Taggart Memorial Lecture in MCE wan Hall, Bristo Place. at6pm on Friday 25.