Profit needs purpose too: Elisabeth Murdoch at Edinburgh TV Festival

PURPOSE requires to be added to profit as a motivating force to being an independent media organisation, according to the daughter of media mogul, Rupert Murdoch.

In a delicately-negotiated MacTaggart Lecture – the keynote speech at the annual MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival – Elisabeth Murdoch also acknowledged the phone-hacking scandal, that led to the demise of the News of the World, operated by News International, a subsidiary of News Corporation, founded and chaired by her father.

She also warmly praised the BBC, including saying: “At the moment, the BBC seems to be furthest ahead in understanding our new world demands new eco-systems [of how the media should operate].”

She was speaking three years after her brother, James, delivered the MacTaggart and 23 years after her father did likewise.

And she took issue with at least one element of her brother’s speech, insodoing setting out her own, distinct manifesto.

The chair and chief executive of News Corporation-owned independent TV production company, Shine Group, is the first woman to deliver the lecture for 17 years, since Janet Street-Porter, and only the fourth since the first MacTaggart in 1976.

She said: “James was right that if you remove profit, then independence is massively challenged but I think that he left something out: the reason his statement sat so uncomfortably is that profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster.

“As an industry – and indeed I would say as a global society – we have become trapped in our own rhetoric. We need to learn how to be comfortable with articulating purpose and reject the idea that money is the only effective measure of all things or that the free market is the only sorting mechanism.

“Do we have such faith in the imperatives of the market that we need have no will of our own other than to succeed on its terms? It’s us, human beings, we the people, who create the society we want, not profit. It is increasingly apparent that the absence of purpose – or of a moral language – within government, media or business, could become one of the most dangerous own goals for capitalism and for freedom.

“Independence may be characterised by the absence of the apparatus of supervision and dependency’ as James said, but independence from regulation and the freedom we need to innovate and grow is only democratically viable when we accept that we have a responsibility to each other and not just to our bottom line. Profit must be our servant, not our master.

“After the past year of scrutiny into our media standards and the sometimes self-serving relationships between the great institutional pillars of our society be they police, politics, media or banking, we would all do well to remember Voltaire’s – or even Spiderman’s caution, that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. To be reminded of this is simply to state the obvious – it’s not paternalistic or romantic. Without a common statement of purpose there is no credible answer to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“Let’s see what the Leveson inquiry [into press standards] recommends but when there has been such an unsettling dearth of integrity across so many of our institutions, it is very difficult to argue for the right outcome – which must be the fierce protection of a free press and light touch media regulation. Sadly, the greatest threats to our free society are too often from enemies within.”

Later, she continued: “I believe the biggest lesson for us to take on board is this: in the same way that we have allowed our priorities to be confused between purpose and profit, we seem to have got the emphasis wrong between building a community and selling a commodity. The imperative to build community has massive implications to how we approach the television business.”

Earlier, she had said: “Obviously News [Corporation] is also a company that is currently asking itself some very significant and difficult questions about how some behaviours fell so far short of its values.  Personally, I believe one of the biggest lessons of the past year has been the need for any organisation to discuss, affirm and institutionalise a rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose.”

As for the BBC, she was explicit: “Let me put it on the record that I am a current supporter of the BBC’s universal license fee. It’s what mandates its unique purpose it continues to act as a strategic catalyst to the creative industries of this great country.”

And she praised her father’s words of 23 years ago, that said “the freeing of broadcasting in this country is very much a part of this democratic revolution and an essential step forward into the Information Age with its Golden Promise, freeing it from the dominance of one narrow set of cultural values, freeing it for entry by any private or public enterprise which thinks it has something that people might like to watch, freeing it to cater to mass and minority audiences, freeing it from the bureaucrats of television and placing it in the hands of those who should control it – the people”.

Read the full text of her speech, here.

Pic: Rob McDougall.

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