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Category: Media Trends
Perhaps the most perceptive prediction in the fall-out from James Murdoch’s demand that the BBC should be forced to limit its “land-grab” of online journalism was the suggestion that News Corporation will get a “much more sympathetic” hearing from a government led by David Cameron.  David Elstein, a former executive with both Sky and Channel 5, believes that a Conservative victory in next year’s general election will provide News Corporation with a fresh opportunity to put pressure on the BBC to scale back the £180 million a year which it is spending on BBC News online. Elstein, who has long argued that the BBC should be funded by a voluntary subscription rather than a compulsory licence fee, reminded viewers on Newsnight (28.8.2009) that the BBC Trust was forced to back down after Cameron wrote a “very fierce” letter saying the BBC should stop the development of ultra local television services because of the threat they would pose to the development of newspaper websites. “I think James Murdoch has chosen his moment…I think David Cameron will listen much more sympathetically to News Corporation…and BBC online is next in line…Currently it is being funded through the licence fee by £7 a year from every household in the country…No-one can compete with that.”   Elstein’s view is that there should be a charge to view BBC News on line – a step that would be welcomed by News Corporation as it moves to charge for access to the content of its newspaper websites. In his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival (28.8.2009), Murdoch said the BBC’s “land-grab” through its “expansion of state-sponsored journalism” had to be reversed.  “Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet…If we are to have that state sponsorship at all, then it is fundamental to the health of the creative industries, independent production, and professional journalism that it exists on a far, far smaller scale”. In supporting Murdoch’s claim that the BBC’s online operations were having a “chilling” effect on the independent sector, and in predicting that a future government led by Cameron would be more sympathetic, Elstein was simply highlighting the reality of the current political situation:  in recent months the Conservatives’ broadcasting policy has become increasingly aligned with the commercial agenda of News Corporation. Either Cameron himself or the Conservatives’ spokesmen on broadcasting have already signalled their support for the bullet points in Murdoch’s shopping lists for curbing the BBC. Not only did the shadow culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, oppose the BBC’s £68 million plan to extend its local news services, but he has also suggested that the Radio One franchise might be sold to the private sector and warned repeatedly about the need to freeze BBC licence fee increases. Another highly-significant move was David Cameron’s proposal that under a Conservative government Ofcom would lose its policy making powers. Other moves which have appealed to News Corporation have included the consultation document published in March 2008 which recommended that the rules on political impartiality should be relaxed for those broadcasting organisations which are not in receipt of public funds or subsidies – another long term objective of Rupert Murdoch & Son. Over the last decade or more the governments of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have done all they can behind the scenes to appease News Corporation; allowing newspaper websites to be self-regulated by the Press Complaints Commission is a recent example.  But the pitch which the Conservatives have developed towards winning back the support of the Murdoch press looks like being far more attractive as the election campaign hots up and future broadcasting policy increasingly moves higher up the political agenda. END