Sunday, July 25, 2004

Ted Turner: Murdoch controls Great Britain

The popular U.S PBS T.V. program Charlie Rose interviewed a number of prominent people this week. Most impressive was an interview with billionaire and former media mogul Ted Turner. Turner, who described himself as an independent, and mentioned his friendship with a number of prominent Republicans in the live audience (Rose interviewed Turner at a conference), blasted President Bush for his Middle East polices, most notably the Abu Gharib scandal and the Iraq war, which he said have set U.S. diplomacy back by 30 years. Turner, who founded CNN, also blasted rival billionaire and media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News, known for its supposed right-wing bias. "Murdoch controls Britain", through his media influence, Ted Turner claimed (being rather uncharitable to the people of the UK), "he almost controls Australia" and "he'd like to control" the United States, and, ultimately "the world." Turner thus came out strongly against media concentration and the proposed FCC rules change, which would presumably allow Murdoch's empire to control an even bigger slice of the U.S. media market.

Turner claimed arch-rival Murdoch was only interested in money and power. He never, as far as Turner knew, gave anything to charity (unlike Turner, who reminded the audience has given more than billion dollars to the United Nations), and, as he pointed out to Charlie Rose, Murdoch "never" gives interviews.

Turner's description of Murdoch made him almost sound like the juvenile archvillian media mogul in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, who quoted (the historical media baron) William Randolf Hearst's instructions to his photographers prior to World War I: "You give me the pictures, I'll give you the war." Turner's description of Murdoch makes him sound almost responsible for the Iraq war, much like the ficticious villian in the Bond film used his billions in an attempt to ignite a war between the U.S. and China, because a war would be good for his news empire business.

Turner is perhaps being somewhat uncharitable towards the people of the UK and Australia in his claims the Murdoch "controls Britain" and "almost controls Australia" through his vast media empire. Turner claims he told British PM Tony Blair years ago "maybe you should do something about Murdoch", saying he had acquired too large of an media empire for the public good, to which Blair supposedly replied that there was nothing he could do about Murdoch; Blair supposedly claimed he would be a nobody without Murdoch's media support and was effectively powerless to do anything against Murdoch's wishes. Turner claims that Murdoch does not yet control the United States. However, public support for the Iraq War was much stronger in the U.S. than it was in Britain or Australia, despite the fact that (according to Turner) Murdoch supposedly has less influence here than he does in Great Britain.

Concerns about media concentration have been the subject of past articles in DFW Documentary to Document Fox News Bias. However, it is best to be a bit skeptical when evaluating claims of the magnitude being made by Turner. Turner admitted to Charlie Rose that his comments on media concentration may be partially motivated by revenge against his former and associates arch-rivals in the media business.

Ted Turner mentions he has an article in Washington Monthly coming out, in which he discusses some of these issues. He complains however, that no one reads Washington Monthly, which has a monthly circulation of only a few thousand. To put this into perspective, we've had more readers on some days on this blog, so perhaps he should have posted his article here. ;-).

Returning to the issue of big media influence, Charlie Rose also had an interview with Stanford law professor and computer enthusiast Lawrence Lessig, who is promoting his new book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity.

The fight over copyrights was recently in the news, prompted by concerns over TiVo's technology, despite TiVo's assurances they will adequately cripple the device to prevent mass piracy of television programs (news article). I previously mentioned TiVo (article) as a very useful time-saving technology for watching coverage of the forthcoming political debates, as well as a device that everyone says will change the way you watch television.

Prof. Lessig, who argued (and lost) a challenge before the US Supreme Court to Congress' recent retroactive extension of copyright durations (allegedly to protect certain vested U.S. Corporate interests, more notably a certain animated character tied to some very profitable theme parks whose copyright was able to expire), feels that large corporate interests hold nearly all of the cards when it comes to intellectual property. He is promoting his organization "Creative Commons", which is a logo you'll see at the bottom of some blogs, that offers hip alternative styles of intellectual property protections.

For example, webmasters can chose to protect their works under the GNU copyright, originated by MIT Professor Stalman, better known as RMS. (He commented on an article on this blog). Rather than placing the work in the public domain (where it can be pilfered and resold by corporate interests), the GNU copyright allows others to build upon the work, provided they continue to distribute the work under the same terms. If corporations want to use the work for profit, they have to go back to the authors and obtain separate permissions.

Prof. Lessig is also promoting his "Founder's Copyright," where webmasters and others can put their work to a copyright similar to that envisioned by the founders --- 14 years (with one 14 year extension), rather than today's century-long plus copyright. The idea being that this will signal to the world that work will be in the public domain within 28 years, and others can plan to build their own creative works on top of this work with that in mind. (Currently, most authors will have forgotten about their works in 28 years, creating a huge burden on innovators as they try to determine the copyright status of old, forgotten writing, software, &c, that they desire to re-use.)

Here is where I disagree with Prof. Lessig. While I see the utility of a GNU copyright, which will encourage others to build upon GNU copyrighted works (and potentially make related products more valuable within an Open Source or "free software" business model), I don't understand the point of a 28-year copyright. A 28-year copyright made sense in 1790, where the only thing being copyrighted were books. Today we have movies, and software, which are much more expensive to produce and have a much longer commercial shelf-life than 28 years. (I do agree with the idea of forcing everyone --- especially big media --- to periodically renew copyright, however, as works which the authors have lost interest in should expire after some reasonable period of time. I agree with Prof. Lessig that, with a 100-year copyright it is currently too difficult for innovators to find out which old works are available for use and which aren't. Forcing copyright holders to actively declare their intent to continue to protect their copyright after some reasonable period of time --- 28 years --- would cause works of no real commercial interest to expire into the public domain.)

If current patent and copyright laws mainly favor large commercial interests, than having the "little guys" voluntarily limit their copyright to 28 years to be hip while big businesses get a 100+ year copyright just tips the scales more towards big business. Small content providers are less likely, for example, to be able to sell the license to something whose copyright that they've restricted voluntarily to 28-years. (Perhaps what we need is a copyright that expires by automatically turning into a "GNU" Copyright after 28-years, unless the copyright holder expresses interest in retaining full copyright a year or two before that expiration. This would tip the scales back towards the user, since rather than being placed into public domain, works would acquire a GNU copyright after 28-years provided the author has lost interest in them. And, authors would still have 28 years to try to sell the full copyright to big media, so their economic interests would be protected during that period. The GNU copyright would let people build on the work provided the derived work is also made available; commercial interests could still go back to the original copyright holders to license other terms of use.)

MIT economist Thurow (DFW review), incidentally, argues the opposite point in his book. He points to the example of the old record store in Harvard Yard going bankrupt because undergraduates were obtaining all of their music illegally off the internet, free of charge. Prof. Thurow says all businesses need to take note of what has supposedly happened to the music business. According to Thurow, all business models could someday be impacted in similar (negative) ways by the Internet. Economist Thurow, therefore, is at least somewhat sympathetic to the draconian new copyright laws that Prof. Lessig appears to argue against. To argue his point, Thurow points to the recent offshoring of even highly technical professions (such as the formerly high-six-figure medical radiological profession) via Internet technology.

Charlie Rose also interviewed senior CIA analyst Anonymous, the author of Imperial Hubris, which we've discussed before on this blog (article). Anonymous, who has since been named in various media sources (his anonymity was at the request of his employer, the CIA, which must approve all his books), was perhaps the least impressive of the Rose's interviewees this week, coming across as nervous and less than eloquent. His primary argument is that it is in the U.S. interest to be less favorable towards Israel, although he blasts the Bush administration's policies in his book for a number of reasons. The book received very favorable reviews from other members of the intelligence community. Since it is rare for senior CIA analysts to write books, when one does I suppose we should listen.