New Internationalist 322 April 2000
It’s hard to find anyone outside of those indicted for war crimes who attracts more public bile than the media magnate from down-under. Fellow (though more liberal-minded) US media czar Ted Turner, founder of Cable News Network, has compared Murdoch to Hitler, called him a ‘scumbag’ and threatened to ‘squish him like a bug’. The dying British playwright Dennis Potter named the cancerous tumour that was killing him ‘Rupert’ after the man he felt was having a carcinogenic effect on the media and popular culture. Journalist John Pilger describes Murdoch’s media empire as ‘built on cronyism, deregulation, debt and non-payment of tax... this is a bandit capitalism’.
Murdoch started out some 40 years ago when he inherited a small daily in Adelaide, South Australia. Today he owns newspapers, TV-stations, publishing companies, a massive satellite TV network and, most recently, sports teams. The global reach of his News Corp (previously News International) is such that it can be said – as it once was of the British Empire – that ‘the sun never sets’ on it. Murdoch regularly goes on media-shopping trips across the US, Europe and in Asia – where he owns 128 newspapers. His preferred journalistic formula is crime, sex, political scandal and, increasingly, sports. But he is certainly not the only media monopolist in the world. He ranks just fourth in total assets, with a nine-billion-dollar annual revenue flow. So why all the fuss?
A catalogue of Murdoch’s corporate shenanigans is revealing in this regard. Here is a man who purchased and promoted Hitler’s Diaries, trying to cash in on popular fascination with Nazi evil, until they were unfortunately exposed as a fake... The man who killed the publication of the memoirs of Hong Kong’s last Governor, Chris Patten, in order not to offend the Stalinist dictatorship in Beijing, where Murdoch has extensive business dealings – he is reportedly obsessed by the potential of the Chinese market... The man whose publishing company gave million-plus advances to help court such unsavory despots as Deng Xiaoping’s daughter ‘Maomao’ and right-wing zealots like Jeffrey Archer, Margaret Thatcher and former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Newt got a cool $4.5-million book advance at a point where Murdoch was trying to sort out regulatory problems over his extensive US media holdings.
Murdoch is the man who introduced the junk ‘infotainment’ news format to TV with his half-hour celebrity-and-scandal show A Current Affair – now standard fare on most US networks... The man whose bottom-feeder tabloid newspapers from the New York Post to the British Sun are regularly turned into propaganda sheets to push for Murdoch’s favourite (usually conservative) politicians and causes... The man whose media empire was at one time so mortgaged that he was said to owe $20 for every person in the US, Britain and Australasia... The man who, when a major media property comes into his hands, is renowned for labour-shedding practices for both economic and political purposes.
As Murdoch stalks the globe from Manhattan to Melbourne, he works the phones with his odd combination of charm and menace – beguiling a nervous politician here, scaring a timid regulator there or putting the fear of God into his various editorial flunkies. According to his daughter, Murdoch didn’t actually live anywhere – mostly in airplanes with ‘two weeks in LA, two weeks elsewhere and a lot of time in Southeast Asia’. Rumour has it that Rupert has now spent several million on a penthouse in Manhattan (where he has always had the ear of New York’s Mayor) for himself and a new bride – he plans to settle down a bit more. His publishing empire is very much a family business with daughter Elizabeth playing a key role in the British-based Sky TV operations and son Lachlan (until recently Sydney’s most eligible bachelor) pitching in on the newspaper side. Business gossip columnists speculate endlessly on who will emerge as the old man’s successor. But he’ll be a hard act to follow.
What makes Murdoch so vile is the same thing that makes him such a good entrepreneur. He always keeps his eye on the ball and doesn’t let his right-wing politics stand in the way of a good deal. After all, there is no point in supporting the British Tories when they are 20 points down in the polls (he supported a very grateful Tony Blair in the 1997 election) or getting all fussed about human rights in China when there is market share to be thinking about. He also lives by the old adage: ‘Nobody ever lost any money by underestimating public taste.’
As the Financial Times commented on Rupert’s sixty-fifth birthday, he ‘has no scruples about cheapening and coarsening products if it will boost sales’. So taste is no obstacle, whether it’s the topless Page Three Girl in the Sun or his WSVN-TV Fox local affiliate in Miami, voted worst local news in the US for running non-stop crime stories and dramatizing them with music. For Rupert the way to the top is certainly through the bottom. Perhaps one reason Murdoch’s crass brand of media capitalism is so unpopular with the educated classes is that it represents such a denial of the Enlightenment ideals of understanding and knowledge, replacing them instead by titillation and diversion.
If infamous or not-so-famous
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