Page last updated at 01:53 GMT, Monday, 31 August 2009 02:53 UK

Murdoch sparks talks on TV future

By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

James Murdoch
Mr Murdoch had a stand-up row with the BBC's Robert Peston

Twenty years after Rupert Murdoch launched a scathing attack on the state of British television in Edinburgh, his son James has done much the same - setting the tone for some heated debates, not least with BBC business editor Robert Peston.

In 1989, the older Murdoch criticised the BBC-ITV duopoly, saying the public service channels were obsessed with class and the past, and dominated by anti-commercial attitudes.

James Murdoch - who now runs much of his father's media empire - attacked the BBC and TV regulators, calling for a radical overhaul of broadcasting policy.

The thesis of his keynote McTaggart Lecture was that digital technology had broken down the boundaries between TV, newspapers and publishing.

'Land grab'

Yet, it argues, broadcasting is still dogged by central planning, unnecessary regulation and "state-sponsored journalism"- what he called "analogue attitudes in a digital world".

The News Corporation and BSkyB chairman accused the BBC of launching a land grab at the expense of its commercial rivals, and said the scale of its activities and ambitions was "chilling".

We have to ask whether there is any rational basis for believing that withdrawing all regulation and subsidy from the news market would be any less costly to our way of life
Robert Peston

He cited the growth of BBC Radio 2, the takeover of the Lonely Planet travel guides and the expansion of BBC News online, which he claimed was "throttling the news market", threatening its plurality and independence.

Mr Murdoch claimed the BBC Trust had an "abysmal" record of keeping the BBC's growth in check - and that Ofcom generated an "astonishing" amount of detail in regulating content - "every year, roughly half-a-million words telling broadcasters what they can and cannot say".

Among the audience of TV executives and producers, there was considerable support for his comments about excessive regulation - but less backing for his attack on the BBC.

The chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, said the Trust was there to strengthen the BBC for licence payers, not to emasculate it on behalf of commercial interests.

Alan Rusbridger
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was also criticised by Mr Murdoch

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who was also criticised by Mr Murdoch, said the News Corporation boss seemed to be arguing for the Americanisation of the British media, yet the American newspaper market was on its knees.

And Robert Peston had a stand-up row with Mr Murdoch at a dinner following the speech. Both sides acknowledged there was a "vigorous exchange of views".

Giving his own lecture the following day, Mr Peston referred to the near total collapse of the financial infrastructure, thanks to "misguided deregulation of banking".

He went on: "We have to ask whether there is any rational basis for believing that withdrawing all regulation and subsidy from the news market would be any less costly to our way of life."

But Mr Murdoch's speech got a better reception from the Conservative MP John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons select committee on Culture Media and Sport, who said much of what he was saying was "natural Conservative territory."

Stars' pay

In other sessions, the BBC came under fire for its refusal to publish the pay of its top stars, such as Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton.

Shadow culture minister Ed Vaizey said he thought that was "extraordinary" and the public had a right to know the salaries of people paid out of the public purse.

Jana Bennett, director of BBC Vision, said that because the BBC operated in a commercial marketplace, disclosure of individual performers' fees would very likely drive up costs - but it was committed to publishing its overall spending on such talent.

The following day, there was another blow to the BBC's case, when Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards said he thought it was almost inevitable that the BBC would have to publish its stars' pay.

He said the combination of MPs' expenses and the Freedom of Information Act now meant that when the public was paying for something, it wanted to know how that money was spent.

On both issues - the Murdoch speech and the stars' pay - there was much discussion about what the Conservatives might do if they win the next election.

In that event, publication of performers' pay may be the least of the changes the BBC can expect.

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