News chief renews attack over ‘digital theft’

News Corporation chief executive Robert Thomson has renewed his attack on content aggregators, singling out Google for its disregard of copyright, and likened LinkedIn to “spam central” in a speech to the Lowy Institute in Sydney last night.

“We are living in the decade of content distribution, which is not necessarily good for the act of creation,” Mr Thomson said.

“I am fortunate to be a custodian in a company that invests in thousands of creative acts around the world each day, great journalism, compelling analysis, feisty blogs, captivating videos and brilliant books, fiction and nonfiction.

“The question for this creationist is whether my views are anti-evolutionary or anti e-evolution — already a bit backward and sliding ever more so.

“For the distributionists do indeed have powerful distribution channels, Google and Facebook, and pretenders like LinkedIn, which is spam central.

“None of them actually create content, and they certainly have little intention of paying for it, but they do redistribute the content created by others — they would argue that such redistribution is a natural extension of their role as social networks.”

Mr Thomson said he would argue that much of the redistribution is an unnatural act.

“There are broader issues that are still unfolding for media companies, who are themselves struggling to profit from their news and other content, while the distributionists are helping themselves to that content, co-opting and corralling audiences and consciously devaluing brands.

“The supposed idealism of these companies is in stark contrast to their actual behaviour. That Google’s newly conceived parent company is to be called Alphabet has itself created a range of delicious permutations: A is for Avarice, B is for Bowdlerize, through to K for Kleptocracy, P for Piracy and Z for Zealotry.

“It should be reassuring for news organisations that the distributors have suddenly started to realise that the quality of content is important, particularly as they try to build walled gardens — though it should be noted that the Chinese discovered that even a Great Wall didn’t work.

“The spammers at LinkedIn discovered that CVs are only burnished occasionally and anyone who tweaks their CV a few times a week is probably not worth hiring. Anyway, they now see themselves as a news distributor, and news organisations who cozy up too closely to them are guilty of techno trendiness. It is patently important to be aware of the trends but a grievous sin to be too trendy.”

Mr Thomson said the world was entering a new phase of development by the big distribution networks, a phase in which they were not only appropriating content but deciding what content was appropriate and inappropriate.

“They are appointing editors not to create but to curate. And these curators tend to have a certain mindset, a deep fondness for political correctness, and a tendency to be intolerant of ideological infractions,” he said.

“Silicon Valley is moving from the PC to being a purveyor of the PC.

“This transition is already underway. The stream of content is often a flow of soft- left sensibility, a stream of content consciousness in which genuine debate is in danger of drowning and alternative views rarely surface. This profound movement is taking place, and without much serious discussion of the social consequences.

“Newspapers have always been a little unruly, but they are characterised by public debate, wrangling, haggling, arguing, sometimes passionately about issues and consequences, about the impact on societies and on people. The philosophy, the point of great newspapers is clear. But now we have the exponential growth of purportedly neutral platforms built by e-elites that will be far from neutral, far from objective, succumbing to a stultifyingly samey subjectivity and sensibility.”

He said there was a deficit in reporting resources created by the egregious aggregation of news by distributors for whom provenance was an inconvenience and who were contemptuous of copyright.

“The words Intellectual Property don’t appear in the Google alphabet. Without proper recognition, without proper remuneration, well-resourced reporting will be ever more challenged,” Mr Thomson said.

“When I arrived in Beijing, many a US newspaper had China correspondents — now some of those papers no longer exist in printed form.

“Mismanagement played a role, as did journalistic hubris, but the digital age has been hostile to investment in reporters and reporting. Why pay professionals when you have UGC, user-generated content? And why pay when you can purloin?

“Interestingly these companies are moving on, as we have seen, but their new-found fondness for premium content still comes with an aversion to paying for it. They start from the perspective of form as function, that the canvas should be flawless, seamless, that low latency is more important that professional potency, that content should be captive. But source code is not necessarily a source of wisdom, and platforms that are supposedly ‘open’ will be distinctly vulnerable to closed minds.

“In this age, I am proud to work for a company that has both an egalitarian ethos and a commitment to investing in journalism and in understanding.

“Without Rupert Murdoch, many people in this room would not be in fine surrounds celebrating the continued importance of journalism — we would be in the backroom at a dingy pub lamenting its passing.

“I was born in a rural pub, with the blended aroma of VB and Vicks, so there is definitely nothing inherently wrong with a pub. There is, however, something inherently wrong when provenance is profane, and when the professional journalist is an endangered species.”

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