The sheer onion-ness of President Obama’s Nobel win yesterday has deflected international attention from the fact that a conference of media Canutes had just declared war on the Interwebs. The announcement came at a three day “world media summit” between Western media elites and Communist cadres that Japanese Kyodo News dubbed “Beijing’s Media Olympics”. Among others, Associated Press’s CEO Tom Curley and News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch joined Chinese leader Hu Jintao on stage in the Great Hall of the People to denounce the people for the way they used media content. (photo of Internet pioneer Vinson Cerf by centralasian)
Today, that bastion of free media, the Chinese state press agency Xinhua, published the full text of the World Media Summit Joint Statement. The Forbidden City conference theme of “Cooperation, Action, Win-Win and Development” was a signal that management doublespeak lay ahead. Most of the sentences failed Bill Easterley’s not-test of summit outcomes. The not-test asks whether it is possible to negate it and create a sentence that a sane person would utter. Who, for instance, would NOT hope that “media organisations around the world will provide accurate, objective, impartial and fair coverage of the world's news events.” There was nothing in the bland communiqué that suggested war was on its way.
But many of the media leaders at the conference departed from the prepared script. The boss of AP passed Easterley’s not-test with flying colours by saying many sentences that sane people will disagree with. For Tom Curley the problem was nothing less than regaining control from “crowd-sourcing Web services” such as Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook, search engines and blogs. They were all hurting his business model but he was not going to take it lying down. Curley said AP would “no longer tolerate the disconnect” between those who gather the news and those who “profit from it without supporting it."
78-year-old Rupert Murdoch was equally bellicose about the future. He described fellow conference invitee Google as “parasites” who make money off traditional media. He said the “philistine phase” of the digital age was almost over and “the aggregators and plagiarists” will soon be forced to pay for “the co-opting of our content." He saw the contest as a battle to the death between content creators “the people in this hall” and “content kleptomaniacs”.
But Murdoch needs to remember content kleptomania is a two-way sword. In August, his own Sky News weren’t initially keen to pay for using an eye-witness picture to a London police shooting a citizen journalist named Joe Neale had posted on Twitpic. It was not until Neale tweeted to the world “Newscorp use your photos without permission but have plans to charge for reading their content” that they came to the party and paid him £330.75.
New media won this particular battle but it will be harder to win the war. Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff said this week in Vanity Fair war is Murdoch’s natural state. The enemy is the Internet. When Wolff explained to Murdoch a news aggregator business he is involved with, the media mogul said “so you steal from me”. Wolff said Murdoch did not understand the Internet and his online investments were all failures (Delphi, iGuide, Myspace, Pagesix.com). Murdoch runs his business not on the basis of giving the consumer what he wants but through more old-fashioned methods of structural market domination. Wolff called him “a scold who can intimidate the market into doing what he wants it to do.”
Weston Kasova at Newsweek was unimpressed with the scolding Murdoch and Curley dished out at the Beijing conference. He called it “macho outrage” which was calculated to be quotable but is fake. Kasova said aggregators actually draw audiences towards traditional media sites and their advertisers. News Corp and AP could shut off this traffic with one small piece of code (User-agent: Googlebot. Disallow: /) but of course they don’t do it. “They'd rather blame someone else for their failure to compete in a changing marketplace,” says Kasova pointedly.
Link economy advocate Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine also condemned the “Proletariat of the Press”. He said the Beijing conference was a “suicidal attempt to protect outmoded models and fight the future”. Jarvis prefers a different template of the future based on “new efficiencies, specialization, targeting, [and] value that comes with the collaboration that the internet and its links enable.” It was the “irresponsible stewardship over journalism” that was killing newspapers not the Internet. “We are not kleptomaniacs,” said Jarvis. “We are the new (free) distribution.”
US media academic Robert McChesney puts the question more pointedly in a rare old media act of contrition from Le Monde Diplomatique. McChesney wondered when the debate took place which ratified large corporations as the guardians of American media. “When, exactly, did Americans approve of the idea that a handful of corporations selling advertising were the proper stewards of the media or that it was inappropriate to ever question their power?” he asked. “When had the American people ratified the corporate media system as the proper one for the United States?” The answer is, of course, “before the Internet arrived”.
Let the war commence.