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Internet Free (beer) [May. 25th, 2010|12:01 am]
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James Murdoch gave a lecture for the opening of the new Centre for Digital Humanities at UCL on Thursday. I wasn't there; it was invitation only and also I was at the Barbican listening to the LSO playing Turangalila. Fantastic!

I did, however, read the transcript of his lecture and wanted to make a few comments on content freedom.

Murdoch's view is essentially that content published online (and especially journalism) is a kind of commodity and that it must be paid for, or, in his reasonable and unagressive terms, content producers should be allowed to "assert a fair value for their online editions."

However, as well as being pro-paid for content, he's also quite anti-free content. He describes what he calls the "digital consensus": that the virtuality of the internet requires that content published on it be free; that free and pervasive availability of content leads to a better society ("wiser, better informed and more democratic"). His references to "utopian" narratives possibly (but not explicitly) betray a dislike for a kind of hippie culture of the early days of the internet.

Similarly, he's quite critical of the British Library's intention to digitise and publish online free of charge archives of newspapers. He describes how doing this helps them to secure additional public funding and seems to argue that is an unfair form of competition: the BL is getting paid to publish free content, while media companies have to compete to sell their content. He's critical of the claims academic institutions make for justifying their publication of content online free of charge on the grounds of increased access, preservation, and scholarly interest, arguing that ultimately they stand to gain financially from doing so.
"When we look over this terrain, we can see the economic pressures driving down the value of content are very powerful. Arguments over rights and wrongs seem little more than a disguise for self-interest."

He gives a brief account of the history of British copyright law, arguing that it was established to help protect the interests of content producers and that it must still play that role today. He argues that even those who do wish to publish their content free of charge stand to gain from copyright law, and that copyright incentivises content production.

Despite this concession, he later makes clear his stance on free content:
"If you want to offer your product for free, then there is nothing to stop you --- and it's a lot easier these days to do so. The only temptation you need to resist is the idea that what you want to do is what everyone else should be made to do."

Further, he argues that the future of the "creative industries" should be considered in an "economically serious way". This is probably the most revealing comment he makes betraying his attitude towards freedom of content: it's unserious; it's silly, hippie utopianism that can't stand up to the might of capitalist media imperialism. Those who are involved in free content cannot be serious about what they produce.

Finally on the subject of objecting to the free, he argues that if news producers do not charge for their content, then the only people who would be able to produce news would be "the wealthy, the amateur or the government." Of course, in some regimes state-sponsored news may be biased and even harmful, but this happens not to be the case with the BBC which has a remit of impartiality. But even more concerning is his implied assumption that the private sector is likely to produce higher quality, and less partial news content than governments, amateurs and the wealthy. In fact, private sector content producers (especially in news) rely on, and therefore are subject to the opinions of, the wealthy. These wealthy are actually often responsible for the nature of how news gets reported and even what news gets reported by private sector news businesses.

My main criticism, then, is of his assumption that paid for, private sector content is necessarily better than free and/or public sector content. However, there are two other points I find interesting in this lecture.

First is his use of the term "content" to describe and generalise the published work he wants to protect. "Content" is a very digital age notion, it implies a late twentieth century conception of knowledge capital and of knowledge work that seeks to reduce literature to information that can be quantified, homogenised, stored, transmitted. Content (in this sense) has de-coupled arts from practice: inscriptive mechanisms---printing, recording, digital encoding---change the nature of art works from practice to text. It's this text that Murdoch obsesses over, while creative practitioners, in fact, are increasingly returning to art as practice. His failure to realise the importance of practice against content de-values his universal claims for paid-for's supremacy.

The other is his conception of the "humanities". At one point he effectively equates the humanities with "the creative industries". He also (when describing the importance of private sector news production) appeals to those who "really care[s] about the humanities of tomorrow" to feel the same as he does about private ownership of media. This implies a total lack of understanding of the critical (by which I mean being critical) role the humanities must play. Humanities cannot be privately sponsored and subject to bias and politicisation. Humanities must be independent, state-sponsored, and provide a voice of criticism in the world of content production, business and politics.

[User Picture]From: sunflowerinrain
2010-05-25 10:01 am (UTC)


Hear hear!
Unfortunate that his kind of argument gets most of the attention, but understandable given the vested interests.
I love your final paragraph: very well put.
[User Picture]From: katsmeat
2010-05-25 12:28 pm (UTC)


Depressing... I used to take a small comfort that, in a decade or two, nature would take it's course with the old man and we would've been rid of him. Unfortunately, he seems to have managed to clone himself. The son isn't a, comparatively harmless, drug-addled wastrel as is traditional.

Saying that, I'm assuming he'll look a twit when the paywalled Times crashes and burns. Actually, I'm hoping he'll look a twit. It'd be profoundly worrying if the enterprise succeeds.