Saturday, October 10, 2009

Murdoch: China's "digital door" must be opened

On Friday Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon whose media empire stretches around the globe from Australia to the United States, called on China allow a more open media sector. He was not alone in expressing such views, though the tone of the criticism was subtle. In particular Rupert Murdoch appealed to the Chinese government to open the door for its Internet companies to operate commercially. "China will naturally make its own rules and proceed at its own pace," he said, "But it has an important national interest in working to drive this digital revolution instead of simply reacting to it."

David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters, also called for "openness, transparency and accountability" in the media as a "precondition to a truly healthy, stable and successful system". "All involved need to help the media help society by accepting that while openness, transparency and accountability may lead to momentary discomfort and sometimes embarrassment, they are ultimately worthwhile," he said.

The gathering of some 300 media executives at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing follows a period that has seen the government impose its strictest media and Internet censorship in years. Since March the authorities have blocked the information flow through social media by an almost constant blockage of YouTube, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter and some Chinese equivalents. Even tools regularly used by journalists to share ideas have been blocked. Scribd, where documents may be shared online, is blocked, and recently the https version of Google Docs has been blocked, giving rise to suspicions that the censors are attempting to spy on user content.

Murdoch made a subtle reference to the restrictions towards the end of his address saying that China needed to be less hostile to criticism. "As China emerges, it will be the subject of more criticism, in the true sense of the word. The people in this hall will sometimes be doing the critiquing," Murdoch said. "My personal advice is not to take it personally. It is now beyond pass to observe that the digital world is borderless, but I think we are yet to properly appreciate how borderless our planet can and should be."

Much of the media mogul's critique was reserved for those that thrive of news content without paying for it. "There are many readers who believe that they are paying for content when they sign up with an Internet service provider, presuming that they have bought a ticket to a content buffet," he said. Murdoch has been a strong advocate of charging for online content. News Corp. already owns the newspaper industry's most successful Internet subscription model in The Wall Street Journal, with more than 1 million customers who pay for online access.

"Too often the conventional media response to the Internet has been inchoate," Murdoch said, "There should be a price paid for quality content, and yet large media organizations have been submissive in the face of the flat-earthers who insisted that all content should be free all the time."

His comments were echoed by Associated Press chief executive Tom Curley. "We content creators have been too slow to react to the free exploitation of news by third parties without input or permission," Curley told the World Media Summit's assembled delegates. "Crowd-sourcing Web services such as Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook have become preferred customer destinations for breaking news, displacing Web sites of traditional news publishers," Curley said. "We content creators must quickly and decisively act to take back control of our content."

He also criticised content aggregators, such as search engines and bloggers, who he said were directing audiences and revenue away from content creators. "We will no longer tolerate the disconnect between people who devote themselves, at great human and economic cost, to gathering news of public interest and those who profit from it without supporting it," Curley said.

Such blatant plagiarism was at the heart of Murdoch's critique. "The aggregators and plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content. But if we do not take advantage of the current movement toward paid content, it will be the content creators, the people in this hall, who will pay the ultimate price and the content kleptomaniacs who triumph," he warned.

But there are certainly some news organisations who blatantly plagiarise news content. Anyone who has worked at Xinhua will know how it is common practice to lift stories directly from news websites and via news aggregators like Google and Yahoo, editing them and reposting them with only a reference at the bottom saying 'Agencies'. Such practice is dubious and may even contravene copyright, an issue brought up by Kyodo news agency's head Satoshi Ishikawa. Three principles of reliable reporting should be established and protected in the face of new media. "First is to secure access to news sources. Second is to protect the rights of content providers or the authors. And third is to ensure that consumers of the news have access to what they want," Ishikawa said.

Google seem unrattled by the criticism fired across thir bows. Eric Schmidt spoke recently on the subject saying,""I think in this case Google is a proxy for the Internet as a whole. So the people would make the same statements about the Internet as they do about Google. Substitute the Internet for Google and you get that idea. And because we play such a central role in information, we've become somewhat used to being blamed for everything. In some cases people don't understand that we're a conduit to other people doing things. They think Google did it when in fact somebody else did it and made it available." And as regards the comments by AP's Tom Curley, Schmidt was also rather dismissive. "I was rather humored by the public criticisms because, there was all this criticism, we have a deal with The Associated Press that's in place today. So, and surely they're aware of this," Schmidt said.

One industry analyst, who preferred not to be named, told the Independent newspaper, "If anything, the newspapers should be paying Google and the rest of them for carrying the index of the stories in the first place." Some have also suggested that his pay-per-read approach and his anti-Google aggregation vendetta may backfire. Murdoch's papers may be removed from Google and News Corporation's content may retreat behind their paid-for content models. But Google is unlikely to lose any sleep. Murdoch may however lose his share of some 300 million clicks, and see web traffic plummet.

With a rise of citizen journalism, and with countless free-to-air and free-to-Internet news sources from the likes of the BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera, Murdoch's plan may fall dead in the water. While his and others' comments are laudable, media has changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet. Newspapers have had 15 years to adapt to the new online world, and still haven't. In the meantime most Internet users are used to free news on the web, albeit paid for by advertising or sponsorship.

As for encouraging China to open up its digital borders, Murdoch may also make little headway. China is quite used to doing things its own way. It may soon be the second largest economy on the planet and with that too comes a "responsibility" Murdoch claimed. "China will ultimately decide its own fate, but unless the digital door is opened, opportunities will be lost and potential will not be realized." In this he may be right, but there are none so blind as those who refuse to see. And the media in China is a prime example. Whether or not it sees a problem or criticism, it is rarely reported.

China is hosting this media summit, and there is plenty of online content on the Xinhua website. But there is no reference to the criticism of China's failing to open up. Murdoch's comments were reduced to only four lines, mostly taken out of context and without reference to problems media companies face in China. Running under the headline "News Corporation chairman praises China's openness to foreign media", Xinhua quoted Murdoch as saying, "China has never been more accessible" and that there had "never been a better time to be a news reporter in China." Xinhua also referred to Murdoch's comments on China's fast development. "I know as well as everybody that this country is changing real time with enormous speed," Murdoch was quoted as saying. None of these comments came from his long address at the summit itself, which was mostly ignored, but instead during an opening ceremony of the Dow Jones Beijing Grand Office.

For Beijing the World Media Summit is about prestige, but for foreign observers it is little more than a propaganda exercise. For all the hot air and rhetoric little will change and most western media organisations have paid little attention to the story at all.

No comments: