Speaking on Aug. 13 at Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, Thomson delivered a powerful speech in which he decried, among other things, the business practices of "distribution" companies like Google, the commentariat's disdain for markets, the theft of intellectual property and the politically correct mindset of Silicon Valley.
Though now CEO of one of the largest newspaper and publishing companies in the world, Thomson has spent most of his life as a journalist, having earlier in his career been an editor of the Financial Times, The Times newspaper in London, and The Wall Street Journal. And it's these experiences that inform his views about the media and more.
Speaking about markets, Thomson had this to say:
When some commentators speak of markets it is in the abstract, slightly pejorative sense — markets are actually an aggregation of collective effort and hope and action. As they get more complex, markets need monitoring, but if it were not for the role of individual decisions, the individual acts, the individual aspiration that was emancipated by reform in China, a large percentage of Asia's population would certainly still be living in grinding poverty. It is patronizing in the extreme, and verging on the immoral, for Western elites not to recognize that undeniable fact.
On Google and other distribution companies:
None of them actually create content, but they do redistribute the content created by others. ... 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, coopting and corralling audiences and consciously devaluing brands. The supposed idealism of these companies is in stark contrast to their actual behavior.
And on the distribution networks, and Silicon Valley generally:
We are entering a new phase of development by the big distribution networks, a phase in which they are not only appropriating content but deciding what content is appropriate and inappropriate. They are appointing editors not to create but to curate. And these editors tend to have a certain mindset, a deep fondness for political correctness [PC], and a tendency to be intolerant of ideological infractions. Silicon Valley is moving from the PC to being a purveyor of the PC.
What makes Thomson's comments so striking are not the sentiments behind them. Though Google, for instance, likes to posture itself as a friend of the media, loving and loved alike, the truth is that sentiments like Thomson's are common among publishers here and abroad, and not just publishers. Motion picture studios, broadcasters, recording companies — indeed, virtually the whole of the content creation industry is filled with people who say things like this all the time. But the difference is that they rarely do so publicly.
So three cheers for Robert Thomson, whose remarkable speech should be required reading for publishers, journalists and policymakers alike.
Maines is president of the Media Institute, a nonprofit think tank that promotes freedom of speech. The opinions expressed are those of Maines alone.