Roy Greenslade 

Why Murdoch’s legal threats against search engines are hollow

Jack Shafer, Slate's excellent media commentator, has seen through the charging-for-content smokescreen erected by Rupert Murdoch in a piece headlined Read between the lies
  
  

Jack Shafer, Slate's excellent media commentator, has seen through the charging-for-content smokescreen erected by Rupert Murdoch in a piece headlined Read between the lies.

It points to the truth behind the phoney war of words launched by "Murdoch the talker" who attacks Google, Microsoft, Ask.com and the BBC for (allegedly) stealing his News Corporation newspaper content and then claims "he's going to put a stop to it with fair-use lawsuits and pay walls to keep the poachers out."

But Shafer contends that, despite the threats, Murdoch must be aware that he would not win a fair-use action otherwise he would have sued already. He writes:

"I'll bet that Murdoch's lawyers have advised him against filing a fair-use lawsuit against the search engines because it could backfire, expanding fair-use rights rather than limiting them.

"Evidence of his low confidence in the wisdom of erecting universal pay walls resides in the fact that he hasn't built them, even though he's been threatening to do so for months.

"And for evidence that he doesn't really hate Google, look to his refusal to add to his sites the robots.txt file that prevents Google from adding them to its search database.

"Murdoch is simply jawboning. Three months ago he promised that News Corp would start charging for its newspapers by June 2010. Now he doubts that the company will hit that mark. In typical Murdochian fashion, he's sowing confusion and harvesting bewilderment."

I pointed out last month that Murdoch is really engaged in a paid-content propaganda campaign. Shafer evidently agrees, arguing that Murdoch is shouting about paywalls to signal to his competitors "his desperate desire for them to follow."

But there is a flaw to erecting a floor-to-ceiling paywall even at the Wall Street Journal - which already charges for access while allowing non-paying visitors to view some content - because it would block Google and thereby lose the paper's website 25% of its traffic.

Shafer also calls into question Murdoch's argument about the need to recoup the costs of providing quality journalism and that "an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalising its ability to produce good reporting." Shafer counters:

"Remember, he's the guy who drove the price of newspapers down in London (and later tried the same in New York). He's also delighted to give away content — to allow it to be "cannibalised" if you like — if he can get the numbers to work in his favour.

"All of his terrestrial-broadcasting properties are free, which is to say advertising-supported. No user pays Murdoch for the right to settle down in News Corp's MySpace, either."

He reminds us that during his brief stage of internet enthusiasm - in 2005, when News Corp acquired MySpace - Murdoch declared that young people "want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it."

And the following year Murdoch sounded even more like a digital missionary when he "spoke with some satisfaction about power 'moving away from the old elite in our industry—the editors, the chief executives, and, let's face it, the proprietors.'"

That's the time when I thought Murdoch had grasped the future pattern of media. It fitted with his long-held overall belief that the market should decide. After all, he has excelled in the past by giving the people what they want, to use a phrase much favoured by his tabloid editors.

But he has turned around, revealing that he is a big media reactionary, a member of the "old elite", who cannot face the consequences of allowing the people to take control of the media.

He is right: it is not profitable, not in his terms. That, of course, is the point. Big media is steadily being edged aside because it cannot bear to scale down its ambitions.

If you want a glimpse into a very different future with different business models then go to Jeff Jarvis's latest posting, The future of business is in ecosystems.