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Thu 11 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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The grandmaster speaks, will anyone listen?

It's been a great week for journos who love debates about their industry, says Damian Reilly.

The grandmaster speaks, will anyone listen?

All journalists love nothing more than debating the state of their own industry. On those terms, at least, this has been fabulous week for us here at Arabian Business.

First Sunil John, CEO of Gulf public relations giant Asda'a (his clients include Damas, Etisalat and Emaar) told us he thinks his industry - generally accepted to be the sworn enemy of journalism everywhere (except for when we need something or are invited on astonishingly decadent press trips) - had done more for increasing transparency in the Gulf than all the reporters and magazines and newspapers put together.

And then the findings of the largest ever youth survey in the Middle East were released: it turns out newspapers are still a good deal more popular than websites with young people from Amman to Beirut to Riyadh. Fantastic news, that, if, as many journalists do, you worry you will soon be out of a job because one man in his bedroom can produce a website as good as, say, ours is, or The Times' is. (It is of course ludicrous to believe that one man in his bedroom could ever do such a thing, but journalists are by nature worriers. Always have been).

And then, as if that wasn't enough, the capo di tutti capos, the grandmaster, the very high wizard of media himself - Rupert Murdoch - materialised in Abu Dhabi to give audience to the Media Summit there.

Murdoch's speech - complete with a quite amazingly dramatic pregnant pause when the teleprompter gave up the ghost for a good minute and a half (just as he was talking about censorship) - was rather wonderful. After scrabbling round to find his written speech notes, Murdoch talked about the torrential outpouring of creativity that this region was "aching" to unleash on the world. He talked about the challenges the state faces to nurture a truly flourishing creative sector, and thereby harvest the benefits of massive job creation doing so would achieve.

He talked about making sure advertising revenues reached the content creators, and of the importance of conducting proper market research so advertisers could better understand the market.

He also, repeatedly, returned to the truism that "a creative sector flourishes best in societies where governments intervene with a light hand." It was all delivered with his typical poker-faced nonchalance, but what he was advocating was a massive, revolutionary shake-up, and thereby modernisation, of Gulf media. Given the sums of money Abu Dhabi and Dubai, particularly, has already spent on media premises and technology, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar are in the throes of spending, it would be reasonable to expect his advice was not falling on deaf ears.

Here's what he had to say about censorship: "With increased global attention comes the occasional inconvenient or unwelcome story... I have learned that this kind of coverage is a fact of life in a modern media society. I have learned too that it is the price one pays for success. In the face of an inconvenient story, it can be tempting to resort to censorship or civil or criminal laws to try to bury it... In the long run this is counterproductive. Markets that distort their media end up promoting the very panic and distrust they had hoped to control."

Damian Reilly is the editor of Arabian Business English.

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