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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Rupert Murdoch casts canny eye on the future

In March 2006, Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation, made a speech to the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, an honourable society of newspaper and media proprietors in London. His speech was entitled: “The Dawn of A New Age of Discovery: Media 2006” and it probably proved to be quite unsettling for the esteemed guests.

The tone of his speech was set early on when he noted that “Societies or companies that expect a glorious past to shield them from the forces of change driven by advancing technology will fail and fall.” From there on it was a highly-charged homage to the challenging power of the “new medium” worthy of any digital evangelist. Although he is an evangelist who would acknowledge that he has come late to the party, he is certainly making up for lost time and putting his money where his mouth is. News Corporation in the last year has gone on a trail of acquisition worthy of the heady days of the internet boom. Among their recent purchases is the myspace.com portal (for which they paid reputedly €580 million (€400 million)) which Murdoch describes as follows in his speech:

This is a networking site in which millions of people, aged mainly between 16 and 34, talk online to each other about music, film, dating, travel, whatever interests them. They share pictures, videos and blogs, forming virtual communities. Since launch just two years ago, the site has acquired sixty million registered users, thirty five million of whom are regular users. This is a generation, now popularly referred to as the “myspace generation”, talking to itself in a world without frontiers”.

News Corporation have obviously realised the limited nature of their once pioneering satellite technology in comparison to the potential connectivity of broadband, whether wireless or fixed line. As such they have started to buy up a number of broadband providers and BSkyB, their pioneering interactive television network, has started to experiment with broadband as an alternative distribution network.

But at the heart of their acquisitiveness is a tremendously perceptive understanding of the market and the changing demographic, certainly driven by Murdoch’s own canniness. His speech may in some ways be regarded as a watershed, a true acknowledgement that the “new medium” has arrived. He talks about the power “moving away from the old elite in our industry - the editors, the chief executives and, let’s face it, the proprietors” and into the hands of a new generation of media consumers who are demanding content to be delivered “when they want it, how they want it and very much as they want it.”

Of course, this is perhaps just music to The Hub’s ears as we have been discussing the growing power of the “new medium” for some time. When someone of the stature of Murdoch endorses this view, we just get all rosy-cheeked. On closer inspection though, his speech could be seen as a eulogy to the passing of the age of the “media barons” as information rapidly becomes democratised through connectivity. He ties this implicitly into “the state of the world” as he notes the rising tide of fundamentalism and the forces that would seek to stem the “free market capitalism” that is at the heart of his media empire. In many ways, this speech clearly shows his political colours – not that they haven’t been apparent enough through the editorial line followed by his various media titles from The Times to Fox News.

Though there is also perhaps an air of uncertainty about the future in his remarks. One would get the impression that he is not entirely happy that the flow of information seems no longer in the hands of a powerful minority, although he doesn’t specifically state this. But sensing the inevitable he has perhaps embarked on a plan to facilitate this flow of information with a view to at least guiding it. One gets the feeling that Mr. Murdoch has a very clear idea of how the world should work. Underpinning his address is a definite “zeitgeist” – the implicit understanding that there is an impending threat of doom ahead, whether it be religious wars, a global energy crisis or environmental catastrophe. Again, Murdoch’s hopes seem pinned on the very thing that has made him his fortune – technology. And he understands that it is the medium of technology itself that has given us the great leaps in innovation in recent times - through unparalleled connectivity.

We have seen great advances in the field of bio-technology and medicine due to the simple fact that researchers can share information over the internet. Now it is the public’s turn – perhaps we can resolve our differences, whether political or religious, through online discourse and access to each others social networks. Perhaps we can better understand each other through glimpses into each others lives – where we live, what our favourite music is, who our God is. Or perhaps, we will just use this great tool as another medium to promulgate hatred and bigotry. At least, now the choice is ours. Maybe that’s what worries Murdoch most.

Full text of speech is available at: http://www.newscorp.com/news/news_285.html

posted by Neil Leyden @ 5:20 p.m.

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