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Rupert Murdoch: Media, power & politics

When one of the world’s most powerful media owner, Sir Keith Rupert Murdoch; his son, James; and former Chief Executive of News International, the British subsidiary of News Corporation, Mrs. Rebekah Brooks, stepped into the House of Commons, last Tuesday, to face the Culture and Heritage Select Committee, and answer inquiries on the activities of the Murdoch media group, especially the allegation of breach of people’s privacy, via phone hacking, it was nothing short of a tragic odyssey for a man who has used media power at his beck and call.

BY HUGO ODIOGOR
Murdoch is not a politician but he wields economic and media power that any politician or celebrity can ignore at his or her own peril. Murdoch’s influence in the mass media market is so awesome that political leaders court him and do his bidding. He is a colossus in the global media business where he controls 40% of the world media.

For the past three weeks, the drama that has played out around the octogenarian media mogul and the managers of his numerous organisations has occupied global attention, but the incident of the attack on Murdoch on the floor of the House of Commons was a climax of the odium that people have held him and his men for the phone hacking scandal that has pitched the masses, the political class and investors against Murdoch.

The media world became tensed up, following the report of the hacking of phone of people as news sources including crime victims and those who are dead, ostensibly by journalists in the News of the World, one of the titles in the Murdoch stable.

Rupert Murdoch

The disclosure led to the closure of the offending 168-year old newspaper. The incident also led to the resignation of Brooks and her arrest and interrogation by the police; the exit of London Police boss, Mr. Paul Stevenson, while the alleged whistle blower died in mysterious circumstances.

There is pressure on the British Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, to sack Mr. Andy Paulson, a former employee of News International who is his communications director, a position that the British people believe was made to shield the Prime Minister from the scandal hounding British tabloids. Cameron is said to be a friend of Mrs. Brooks.

The revelation of hacking into the phone of a murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002 and families of service men in Middle East and Asia had precipitated public outrage against News of the World and its owners. The British political establishment was rattled by the revelations and the ripples of the scandal reverberated in the United States. Such is the power of Murdoch. The old man, 80, and son, James, 38, have profusely apologised for the action of a group of journalists who have caused the demise of the best selling newspapers in UK and the second best circulating newspaper in the world. Nick Ferrari, who worked for Murdoch in three different continents for 12 years, said the unethical behaviour for which over 200 people have lost their jobs was carried out by a few journalists who have been sanctioned. He said the owners of the company would not have endorsed their actions. The closure of News International, the parent company of the News of the World, was seen as a smart move escape litigations from over 4,000 people who may have had their mobile phones targeted in the hacking scandal. The company could have spent over £120million in compensation and legal costs.

 

Media Empire

The reaction of the British people and their counter parts in the United States seem to show a revulsion against concentration of awesome power of the media in the hands of one man, given the power of the media to mould and shape public opinion. That is at the heart of the travails of Murdoch. Labour Party Ed Miliband struck the nail on the head when he said “Murdoch’s grip on public media in the UK must be broken”. The Labour Party in UK is capitalizing on the scandal to shore up its image as it has reached families whose phones were hacked. First it was a Labour MP Chris Bryant, 49, who exposed the scandal which he said: “was the biggest scandal in British journalism and policing in the last 50 years.”In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched a probe into allegations that Newscorp tapped the phones of families of the September 9, 2001.

Murdoch, Australia-born, has unprecedented power and contact in the British political establishment, where he enjoys cozy relations with the powers-that-be. One time editor of Times, Mr. Harold Evans, said the media mogul became so influential during the time of Lady Margret Thatcher, that the Prime Minister was always privy to major stories of the newspaper. The Murdoch media machine stood behind the Thatcher hard line position against the British labour unions. Such is the influence of Murdoch that he has maintained close relations with all the British Prime Ministers. Cameron is known to enjoy such closeness;he even appointed some key staff from the Murdoch machine to the discomfiture of the British people. Similarly, he is influential in the United States where he is a dominant force in the media industry and the capital market. He owns the Newscorp worth over $65 billion, and Dow Jones which publishes the Wall Street Journal. Murdoch’s ownership of The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post is put at $6.1 billion. His investments in satellite and cable television where he owns Independent Television Network (ITN), Sky News, Fox News and National Geographical is put at $11.2billion while his investments in film is $7.6billion. He owns Harper and Collins publishing company valued at $1.3 billion. According to Dr. Stanley N. Ngoa, Murdoch alone controls 40% of the global communication system where the flow of information is skewed in favour of the industrialised nations. According to Ngoa of the Centre for Study of Democracy, Rhodes University and currently with Convent University Ota, “Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation along with Viacom, Time Warner, Bertelsmann, Disney and Vivendi constitute the ‘the Big Six’ multi-national corporations that dominate the global media system”. Even with the criticisms trailing the activities of News of the World and the person of Murdoch, he remains a heavy investor in the British economy.

 

The Man Murdoch

According to Ngoa, “Murdoch, who is an Australian, became British and American citizens for business and political penetration.” He was born in Melbourne, Australia, on March 11, 1931. His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was a newspaper publisher, and his mother a Jew. His parents had him as the only son, with three sisters. He later chose to be known as Rupert, the first name of his maternal grandfather. Young Murdoch was educated at Geelong private school in Australia and went on to the aristocratic Oxford University in England. Young Murdoch began his journalism career as a reporter with a British newspaper; he eventually became the chairman of the newspaper, a feat attributed to his family wealth and influence.

The Debate

The travails of Murdoch have opened once again the ideological debate of whether newspaper business should be for public interest or for profit motive. This was the question the House of Commons once posed to the Canada-born media owner, Roy Thomson, the founder of the famous Thomson Foundation and one time owner of The Times, and Lord Prufrock, the owner of Daily Telegraph then. It was a dialectical question that sought to draw a line between commercialism and social responsibility. There is the eternal belief that the media has a duty to preserve the ethical values of society and human community in the pursuit of public interest. There is another school of thought that believes that the business motive cannot be ignored in the pursuit of public interest. By 1992, Canada born Lord Thomson, who said he was in publishing business to uphold public interest, was left with Western Mail and Echo which were regional newspapers in Cardiff. He was literally forced out of business while Prufrock, the publisher of Daily Telegraph, who said he was in publishing business to make profit, was still thriving and known as an influential voice for the Conservative Party. Murdoch bought The Times and the Sunday Times from the family of Lord Thomson and has sustained the titles.

What seems to be the bone of contention is how to uphold the public right to know, the required responsibility to uphold “public interest” and at the same time attract financial patronage to remain in business. Can there be editorial purity in the media and can the media survive without patronage from advertisers? Then, how much influence can the man with the fat purse exert on editorial purity?, if such ever exists. Maintaining the delicate balance between ethical values of society, using the noble ideals of journalism profession, and pursuing the business side mass media practice seems to be at a conflict as critics are after Murdoch for bringing the noble profession of journalism from the Olympian height of respectability to the bestial level of dog eat dog.

Carl Bernstein accused Murdoch of bringing the high moral ethics of journalism down to the dogs in the phone hacking scandal. The use of unethical practices to get information, bribing law enforcement agencies to obtain privileged information to scoop the competition are all the crimes that Murdoch’s men are believed to have committed. Bernstein, one of the authors of All the President’s Men and one of the celebrated New York Times journalists who investigated the Watergate scandal knows that a journalist is as good as his contact. When himself and his colleague were contacted by the FBI contact “Deep Throat” who fed them with the details of how Republican Party thugs broke into the National Office of Democratic Party in Washington to steal vital documents, it was a scoop which was hailed probably because it brought down a man in a high office. It sent Mr. Richard Nixon out of office as the American president. The revelation by the New York Times, satisfied commercial objectives as well as met the needs of public interest. It boosted the newspaper’s sales and the image of the reporters. Murdoch has been likened to the character in Irvin Wallace’s The Almighty, who is a manufacturer of his own exclusive stories. He creates his own stories ranging from kidnapping to hijacking, assassinations and other high profile crimes that are usually reported first by his paper.

 

The limits of public interest

Back to those student days in 1992 in Cardiff, Wales, the argument was always on how fierce and ferocious the British tabloid were in their competition to outdo each other in the spirit of capitalism which drives the business. The targets were the royals, politicians, celebrities whom they scooped for sleaze and scandals to sell their papers. Editors dolled out huge sums of money to scandal and sleaze mongers who got to any length to steal confidential materials from the private closets of people. The telephone conversations between the late Princess Diana and her friend Captain Hewitt was hacked and sold to The Sun. This was shortly after Kevin Mackenzie, the editor of Maxwell owned Daily Mirror scooped the secret love affair between the then Culture and Heritage Minister, Mr. David Mellor and Actress Antonia Da Sancha. The Sun also tried to show how brutal it could be in the business of fretting out the secrets of prominent people when it paid to gain access into private premises where the wife of Prince Andrew, Sarah, and her daughters were holidaying in Italy.

The publication of photographs of the Duchess of York in swim suits, with her financial adviser, was too embarrassing that it cost her dearly. She lost her marriage and her reputation. Profit is the name of the game and the dog eat dog philosophy has been welcomed by the public who want more but those at the receiving end know the pain of the media. Princess Diana lost her life in Paris, France as she tried to evade a Paparazzi hunt for her. According to Ngoa, “The public interest which the media ought to serve is within the prevailing integrating, concentrated and ever-changing business of the media system. The dynamism of the media system is dictated by the business environment and what is often presented as public opinion or public interest may indeed be the opinion of loud minority in the midst of silent majority and conventional wisdoms seem to accommodate this view too. That is the elitist views about public opinion seemingly suggest that opinions, wishes and intentions of the loud minority represent majority opinion whereas that of the silent majority becomes a minority view”. Even so, John Stuart Mills, in his famous 1859 essay. Declared: ”If either of two opinions has a better claim than the other, not merely to be tolerated, but to be encouraged and countenanced, it is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in minority”. That is the opinion which, for the time being, represents the neglected interest, the side of human well-being which is in danger of obtaining less than its share.

The Murdoch saga has once again thrown up the debate on the structure and ownership of international media which, according to Ngoa, is completely dominated by the industrial countries of northern hemisphere. Mr. Ted Turner has almost turned his Cable News Network into a public relations department of the State Department and Pentagon and was almost becoming the almighty, with its slogan of being “the first to know.” According to Ngoa, the CNN single headedly proclaimed Mr. George W. Bush the 42nd president of the United States in 2000, when the vote of the state of Florida was still being counted. The emergence of Al-Jazeera may have emerged as a counterpoise, as the Doha based media offers alternative perspectives on global events especially events in the third world and the Arab region. But Ngoa said the station emerged from an environment and culture where violence as a means of attaining political goals has become entrenched and the agenda of the station, until recently, was to reinforce that notion regardless of how repulsive it may seem. Even with the attraction of Western journalists from CNN, the agenda of the organisation remains far from being a third world agenda. So there is the question of whether Al-Jazeera has resolved the issue of the skewed pattern of international flow of information?

There has always been a nationalist tinge in the criticism of the Murdoch’s control of the media industry in the UK and, by extension, control the minds of 60million British people. The Brits have never been amused by the fact that a foreigner has been allowed to wield such enormous influence and power in their national life.

Bernstein is peeved that Murdoch has downgraded the profession of journalism to a base level of invading people’s privacy, driven by the animal spirit of profit making, which is the true face of capitalism. On his part, Murdoch says there was no corporate policy that enjoined reporters to that extent to execute their job. Rather a group of self-motivated and ambitious journalists on his pay roll went overboard in the pursuit of the mandate. What the Australian will find hard to escape is the practice of bribing police men to gain access to vital information. It has to be established that it is only the newspapers in the Murdoch chain that are guilty of this infraction.

Without doubt, Murdock has never been liked by the British for having the audacity to penetrate to take control of such a powerful institution that controls and influences public opinion. His media empire remains in the eye of the storm with political leaders, investors, the public and the legal authorities trying to comb the books to find the leach to rein in Murdoch and his men. Even with the published public apologies and those tendered on the floor of the House of Commons, the public still remains angry with Murdoch. Arising from the experiences of Thomson and Prufrock it is argument about how to protect public interest in the face of ravaging face of capitalism or market forces. According to Ngoa, “the economic principle behind modern media – public interest simply becomes what the public is interested in” and it is not a “small task to define what the public interest means or how our mass media can serve in this capacity”. Those who care to follow the argument between protecting public interest and pursuing profit will tell you that the line of demarcation is blurred as pursuit of profit or commercial motives of the media cannot be separated. Citing Croteau and Hoynes (2001), Ngoa said the mass media has become a tool in the hands of power-players. Murdoch is a power player who has used all his media companies to advance his political and economic interests, his present travails may have diminished him but it is only for a while.

 

 


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.