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‘He (Chomsky) also disagreed that a platform in the mainstream media was necessary to influence the debate.

“If you take a look at the progressive changes that have taken place in the country, say, just in the last 50 years – the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, opposition to aggression, the women’s movement, the environmental movement and so on – they’re not led by any debate in the media,” Chomsky said. “No, they were led by popular organizations, by activists on the ground.” ‘

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation, a term of art coined by Clayton Christensen, describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.

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The basic idea behind Disruptive Innovation is that a firm which is satisfying its clients and making a reasonable profit, doesn’t notice or acknowledge change until it’s too late to do much about it. A good example would be several of the old computer companies. They housed big computers, and people would bring work to them. When Apple started producing their “toys”, the old computing industry didn’t see that as a threat. These computers were too small to meet the needs of a business. And besides, why would anyone tie up capital to buy a computer when it was so easy to use a specialist firm. But before long, personal computers were powerful enough and cheap enough to change the way that people did business. Companies who acknowledged the future reality had a chance of survival; the others argued, until it was too late, that they were irreplaceable. Of course, I’m sure that there were monks arguing that the printing press will never take the place of hand-written books.

As I look at Murdoch’s attempts to deal with the disruptive effect of the Internet on his business model, I can’t help but think of the story of King Cnut (or Canute, as he is more popularly known) – the king, who in popular folklore went to the sea and commanded the waves to turn back.

According to Henry of Huntingdon’s twelfth-century Chronicle of the history of England:

Tertium, quid cum maximo vigore imperii, sedile suum in littore maris, cum ascenderet, statui iussit. Dixit autem mari ascendenti, tu meae ditionis es, & terra in qua sedeo mea est: nec fuit qui impune meo resisteret imperio. Imperio igitur tibi, ne in terram meam ascendas, nec vestes nec membra dominatoris tui madefacere praesumas. Mare vero de more conscendens pedes regis & crura, since reverentia madefecit. Rex igitur resiliens ait. Sciant omnes habitantes orbem vanam & frivolam regum esse potentiam, nec regis qempiam nomine dignum praeter eum, cuius nutui coelum terra mare legibus obediunt aeternis, [Rex igitur Cnut nunquam postea coronam auream cervici sua imposuit, sed super imaginem Domini, quae cruci affixa erat, posuit eam in aeternum, in laudem Dei regis magni

For those of you whose latin is a little rusty:

The third, that with the greatest vigor he commanded that his chair should be set on the shore, when the tide began to rise. And then he spoke to the rising sea saying “You are part of my dominion, and the ground that I am seated upon is mine, nor has anyone disobeyed my orders with impunity. Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor to wet the clothes or body of your Lord”. But the sea carried on rising as usual without any reverence for his person, and soaked his feet and legs. Then he moving away said: “All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of kings is vain and trivial, and that none is worthy the name of king but He whose command the heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws”. Therefore King Cnut never afterwards placed the crown on his head, but above a picture of the Lord nailed to the cross, turning it forever into a means to praise God, the great king.

But back to our modern day Cnut, Rupert Murdoch. If we examine his responses to the changes over the past twenty years, he has embraced those where he has perceived a chance to make a profit, and attempted to turn back the waves where he sees his profit under threat. His lack of understanding of the nature of the new consumer led to a poor investement in Myspace, but apart from that, he seems to want to apply the old models to his new products.

Photo: The Age

Photo: The Age

He was fully behind the attempts to enable regulators to shut down web-site providers whose clients were infringing copyright without understanding the logistical difficulties of this. And his determination to put his digital newspapers behind paywalls and stop the ABC giving us our news for free reflects an inability to understand that the world has changed. Many people will not pay for their news because they can get it for free. Others recognise that so much of what we call “news” is a perverse voyeurism into other people’s tragedies. Do I need to know that a truck has crashed into a bedroom in Queensland, or that a desparate man held police at bay for 16 hours in South Australia? Perhaps some stories may be a cautionary tale, but for most, it would in no way affect me if I never heard them. Political decisions which might have some impact on my life are often reported in so little detail that I need to seek information from other sources.

Rupert may be right when suggests that people will pay for “quality journalism”, but so little of what appears in his papers could be considered that!

The costs of printing and distributing newspapers was always a much greater cost than obtaining the stories (even allowing for the outrageous price of corruption these days), and the cost of purchasing a newspaper only partially covered these costs. The money was in advertising. So, I don’t see why a modern online newspaper wouldn’t be trying to ensure that their readership – and, therefore, what they can generate in terms of advertising – was as wide as possible even if that meant making it free. And, I expect that others will start to do this, even if the monolithic Murdoch empire will still try and shut them out, rather than compete.

Perhaps, he just doesn’t like the concept of things being free. It does seem to be his objection to the ABC. Or rather, the objection raised in his newspapers. Not that he tells them what to write. They just all reach the same unbiased conclusion because it’s Right.

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