Potter on Murdoch

June 13 2009

Dennis Potter, final interview in April 1994 (the month Netscape was launched), with Melvyn Bragg, a few weeks before dying from cancer. Up to 1:22 what he says apropos Murdoch is still true. Things, of course, have become much worse. His next remarks are partly a swipe at John Birt’s internal-market reforms at the BBC. Potter seems to be implying a link between them and the dependence of the Murdoch-controlled media and their like on external markets, but really the Birt reforms were nothing to do with monopolies or advertising. In the longer view, they probably saved the BBC. (The funniest person on the subject of the philistine Birt isn’t Potter but John Drummond, controller of Radio 3 from 1987 to ’92, in his autobiography, Tainted by Experience.)

The power of media owners, which Potter blames for the decay of broadcasting, journalism and political discourse, is supposed to have declined since then, as the control of media has become decentralised. Large providers are wondering how long they will be able to control the dissemination of news. New Labour from 1997 made a historically last-ditch attempt to manipulate the mass media. Tony Blair’s crew were anyway spiritual allies of Murdoch.

There are now many channels, so that striving for monopolistic control ought to be impossible and cultural criticisms that assume that monopolies are operating ought to seem out of touch. Yet nearly eight million people read The Sun every day. The worst papers may survive the longest. The residual problem won’t be monopolies, but the absence of channels that can set standards. With a proliferation of channels, the costs of excellent programming, in the way Potter had understood and contributed to it, can’t be met. The energy that programmers used to derive from the knowledge that they would reach large audiences has already gone. Each fragmented provider is in danger of being the prisoner of a small interest. Governments retreat hopelessly to Twitter. The watery culture of the cable channels feeds into channels that ought to be able to resist it, such as the BBC. Blogs are as bad as the old monopolies at leading you, in Potter’s words, to “discover something you didn’t know”: they are usually the voice of one person whom you have pre-selected.

These are the problems 15 years on from Dennis Potter.

There is more from this interview on YouTube.

3 Responses to “Potter on Murdoch”

  1. richard Says:

    Over in the US it doesn’t seem so obvious that the internet will save us from the messages of monopolists, partly because there are efforts afoot to restrict its content and partly because the political consensus, which is engineered apparently far away from where people live and work, is so stridently and consistently pumped out by the big media channels. People who take an interest and feel they have the time to inform themselves from multiple sources might form a very different picture from the Fox News watchers, but they appear to be a tiny minority. Meanwhile, scarcity of information has given way to glut and the problem of filtering, which is just as susceptible to Orwellian control, perhaps more so, because where information is scarce any lone voice in the silence is heard, whereas now the main problem is to be heard above the chatter.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    All true. I’m not a pessimist. Most of what I wrote was rather obvious. Edited since posting.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Successors of Potter and Drummond – ie satirists of the post-Birt BBC – are Peter Hitchens and Jonathan Miller.

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