As News Corporation’s public campaign against Google rolls on, the newspaper executives I’ve encountered find themselves rooting for Murdoch from the sidelines. Like 16th century ambassadors trying to anticipate the motives of a warrior king, they remain intensely curious about where all of this might lead.
What seems certain is that News Corporation didn’t start out down this route nine months ago without specific objectives in mind.
Murdoch’s logic seems obvious enough. Anti-trust authorities in Europe and the US aren’t willing to take on Google. The alternative of a frontal assault involving copyright law seems to have limited chances of success (although that’s not to say that lawsuits won’t emerge next year as part of a long term effort to build a case).
Accordingly, News Corporation has attacked the only remaining target: something extremely significant, which is prized by Google’s shareholders: the company’s reputation. By trashing Google in public, News Corporation aims to force its adversary to come to the negotiating table.
In speech after interview after speech, News Corporation has lined up a fearsome series of either/or propositions, none of which flatters Google. Roughly speaking, these alternatives have emerged as follows:
Creators vs exploiters
Value vs. free
Payment vs theft
Quality vs quantity
Culture vs. philistines
Brand loyalty vs, promiscuity
Humans vs. vampires
Real business vs. shady dot.com ad sales folk
Baghdad bureau vs. The Blogosphere
Early on, some of this felt like slapstick. But the tone has grown more serious. Murdoch and his henchmen know how to run a campaign in print. They know how to do it in real time, too. Repetition establishes a world view that becomes more and more credible with each iteration. This is corporate realpolitik, delivered with brute force on the public stage.
So what does Google make of all this?
One of Google’s biggest difficulties is that News Corporation has yet to articulate what it wants (at least in public). Instead, Murdoch has devoted his energies to changing the balance of debate. He is bent on making it progressively more difficult for Google to live in its comfort zone.
Google could choose to remain silent, hoping that News Corporation’s bombardment cannot continue indefinitely. But this seems unlikely. If Murdoch starts to turn the tide, a significant, and public, response will be required.
Statements from the PR department aren’t enough. And Google can only depend on third-party defences from the likes of Ariana Huffington for so long.
Yet the territory is uncertain: the corporate PR rulebook doesn’t say much about how Google should react to a global jihad proclaimed by a competitor on this scale. Potentially, the picture is complicated by discussions that may be taking place in the background.
Perhaps Rachel Whetstone, Google’s vice-president for public policy and communications, will draw upon lessons learned during her time as a spin doctor in Westminster. But there’s a problem here, too. The lesson of the Blair years (and the Kinnock era) is that you don’t mess with News Corporation.
Of course, there’s room for further tweaking of the relationship between search engines and news outlets. But News Corporation is publicly ridiculing what’s currently on offer, particularly Google’s long-established argument that click-throughs are adequate compensation for the use of content extracts in search results.
No doubt News Corporation wants a deal on money and data, the things that really matter. Presumably, Murdoch envisages a new settlement, which allows the news industry to bend the search industry to its purposes more frequently, and with significantly less effort.
In the long term, he might envisage shared platforms that yoke together search and journalism for the long haul, distributing royalties and ad revenues along the way.
Increasingly, Rupert Murdoch’s attack on Google feels like a defining moment for Big Media. News Corporation’s rhetoric implies lofty ambitions. But sheer volume of abuse carries risks, too. If the results generated by Murdoch’s rhetoric fall short of the intensity with which that rhetoric has been delivered, News Corporation will find itself in difficulties.