Milly’s Revenge

…And Murdoch Lessons for T&T Media

By SUNITY MAHARAJ

Rupert Murdoch
In his first words before the UK Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary committee, interrupted his son to say, “This is the most humble day of my life”. Perhaps. But the moment that brought him to his knees had actually occurred a few days earlier during a face-to-face encounter with the parents of murdered British teenager Milly Dowler.
As men like Bernie Madoff Lawrence Duprey have discovered, live long enough and ambition will outplay itself.
High on the thrill of empire and world domination, Rupert Murdoch had flown too close to the sun; the wax on his wings had melted, plunging him back to earth and into the quiet eye of the storm whipped up in the tailwind of success. There, in the atom of his media empire lay the simple story of a murdered child, a life and death reduced to mere grist for his money mill.
To stand before the nobility of a parent’s grief and feel the awesome horror of having turned sacred trust to tawdry purpose must surely have been Murdoch’s moment of spiritual reckoning. It was as if Milly’s hand had quietly risen from the grave and simply collared him in a sharp rebuke that the media draws its real power, not from the dazzling edifice of the corporate construct, but from the precious resource of the simple story that lies at the heart of its existence.
For Media Midas Murdoch, the cost of this lesson is already being counted in billions of dollars lost. For a country like Trinidad and Tobago, a fledgling democracy with a small economy, caught in the turbulence of the communications revolution, and in which the single largest advertiser is the State, the price will be counted in much more than mere money.
For what is on trial here is not simply the Murdoch way of doing business but the very idea of the media as business.
There has always been tension between the role of the Media as an institution indispensable to democracy, and the media as a special industry which enjoys the unique business advantage of constitutionally-protected access to its key- and free- raw material: information deemed to be in the public interest.
As institution, its shareholders are the public; as industry, its shareholders are financial investors looking for returns in a fat dividend cheque.
The conflicting interests of institution and industry are generally played out in that very necessary tension between managers in the executive suite and editors in the newsroom. As institution, its purpose is served when differences are arbitrated through the litmus test of the public right to know; as industry, its purpose is served when conflict is negotiated on the bottom line. Institution and industry may not always be in conflict, but when they are, the expectation is that the media will be guided by codes of ethics and conduct designed to temper special interest and protect public interest
Increasingly, however, this hybrid of institution and industry is under pressure, pulled apart by competing forces unleashed by the communications revolution. On the industry side, the stratospheric rise of content aggregators like Google has triggered a mad lust, from Murdoch to Maraval, for a piece of the global pie.
On the institution side, however, a transformed information landscape has shifted the power relationship between the media and an increasingly challenging and sophisticated public who demand more and better from the media. When not forthcoming, they cut out the media as middle-man and become independent agents in a direct process of accessing and distributing information.
In this new world, traditional media have lost their footing and are struggling to find a place that is higher on the information value chain than that of mere building block of global powerhouses . Outflanked, outpaced and outmanoeuvred, media bosses watch helplessly as whiz kids with computers sweep their audiences into cyber orbits beyond their reach. Murdoch’s quest for domination of the global information order was built on his understanding that in a world where the eyes have it, the numbers game of bottomline journalism will rule. With his chequebook journalism, hemastered it; here in T&T, the media mastery stops at mas. We make as-if, and play.
While the media world is all a-twitter about the issues and implications of the evolving information landscape, in Trinidad and Tobago, the investment in the new order is limited largely to the cosmetics of websites. The nimbleness and instinct towards innovation are mainly to be found among individuals and small groups engaged in online activity. In this climate of change, the future of the media, both as institution and industry, is a matter for all of us.
As industry, it is shriveling on then vine, even if the signs are still masked behind self-interested numbers which, in Disraeli’s eternal words, can be made to play their own mas as “lies, damn lies and statistics”.
All the key variables have changed: the production process; the audience; the revenue model. In this game-changing moment, the challenge is to design a response at the industry level.
However, for reasons that have to do with history and culture, the media sector, unlike, say, the construction or the energy sector, is unprepared and unequipped to engage the state as a strong lobby for re-engineering and re-tooling across the industry.
Even among the market leaders, profits are increasingly dependent on cost-cutting, not revenue growth. In management-speak, this translates into “operational efficiency”, which in real terms means shrinking the workforce, capping wages and re-investing little or no profits in innovation, training, research, development and product improvement. Faced with an uncertain future, financial investors have gone into harvest mode, taking what they can, while they can, instead of re-investing the profits to secure the future.
The scenario is repeated in the advertising sector which is a key component of the media industry’s revenue model.
As institution, the impact of change is evident in the quality of output and in the shifting balance of power between the media and money. The competition for increasingly scarce money is driving media houses into the arms of compromise with advertisers. A recent ad, wrapped around a daily newspaper and the business magazine of another was just one of the more extreme examples of the bottomline having moved to the frontline. Especially in the broadcast media, new standards are being set below the bar to allow money an easier passage across the threshold of editorial integrity and independence.

Dangerously, the largest and therefore the most powerful, advertiser in this market is the Government. By one estimate, the combined budget of ministries alone is over $80 million. Add to that the budget of state enterprises (TSTT’s is said to be over $100 million); and other state agencies and authorities and one gets an idea of the potential state power that can be wielded over the media.
It is a power that can be used wisely, as in providing strategic advertising support for local content as part of a policy for developing the creative sector. Or it can be deployed with destructive intent. Recent allegations coming from the Citadel Group (owners of i95.5fm) accuse the government of utilising state advertising budgets to influence the media environment. The T&T Chapter of Transparency International will surely have its work cut out for it when called upon to investigate the structure of state advertising. Hopefully, when called upon to do so, the government will produce a coherent and fully articulated policy on advertising expenditure and sponsorship, based on both quantitative and qualitative criteria.
Ultimately however, the single most critical media issue facing the society is not the quantity of advertising dollars for allocation, or the technological capacity for information distribution, but the quality of information in circulation. As the Rupert Murdoch case has demonstrated, this is not a matter to be left up the media, but a matter for all of us.

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