The monster behind a media empire

July 19, 2011

Despite his loud complaints about "big government," Rupert Murdoch built his business empire by hitching his fortunes to the wagons of many different politicians.

WHEN ONE of the most arrogant men in the world is forced to issue a full-page apology in national newspapers, you know that he feels he has little other choice.

That must have been the calculation in the inner sanctum of News Corporation when billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch signed off on a full-page ad in several of his (and his competitors') British newspapers. The ad, presented as a personal letter from Murdoch himself, led with "We are sorry..." It proceeded to apologize for the "serious wrongdoing" of his News of the World, whose reporters hacked e-mails and phone messages of ordinary people in search of tabloid scoops.

Murdoch even made a personal apology to the family of one of Milly Dowler, a British teenager murdered in 2002. News of the World hacked into her phone to listen to messages, and even deleted some, giving the family false hope that the girl was still alive. Perhaps Murdoch's lawyers figured a personal apology couldn't hurt, especially if the Dowler family is considering a lawsuit.

Murdoch's newfound humility was a far cry from 1992, when his Sun blared "It Was the Sun Wot Won It"--bragging that the paper single-handedly swung the British election that year to the right-wing Tory Party.

No doubt readers of are watching the unfolding scandal in the Murdoch media empire with a mixed reaction.

On the one hand, one has to feel horror at the invasions of privacy that Murdoch's tabloids carried out against ordinary people. On the other, you can't help but feel a sense of "schadenfreude"--a delight in misfortune--when considering the scandal's toll on one of the vilest entities to pollute the media landscape for decades on end.

MURDOCH GOT into the news business as the designated successor of his father, the wealthy Australian newspaper magnate Sir Keith Murdoch.

Sir Keith groomed Rupert in elite Australian prep schools before shipping him off to Oxford University. When Sir Keith died, Rupert returned to Australia to take over the family's media properties. From there, he began to build his empire by acquiring suburban newspapers before launching Australia's first national newspaper, The Australian, in 1964. The Australian--a center-right "quality" newspaper rather than a trashy tabloid--gave Murdoch the national profile he wanted to launch his forays into Britain (in the 1960s) and the U.S. (in the 1980s).

What Murdoch's history proves is that his self-promoted image as an "outsider" and "buccaneer" is a fraud--and that to end up as a billionaire, it helps to be born a millionaire.

Murdoch made permanent enemies of socialists and trade unionists when he, in collaboration with the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, fired more than 6,000 print workers during a 1986 strike against Murdoch-owned papers in Britain. For months, the British left and unions battled Murdoch's thugs and the police to defend jobs that allowed print workers to take vacations and have secure retirements. In breaking their union, Murdoch opened a largely automated print plant in the Wapping area of London.

Months after the strike was lost, the late British journalist and socialist Paul Foot noted a Financial Times report showing Murdoch raking in huge profits, even as newspaper circulation and quality had declined. Foot observed:

The profits will enormously increase the power and greed of one of the most powerful and greedy men on earth. They will enable Rupert Murdoch to tighten further his monopolist's grip on the American media, and to continue his campaign against the BBC and all standards and regulation over the media anywhere on earth.

If anything, the 25 years since have shown that Foot underestimated just how powerful and greedy Murdoch would become--and how pervasive his media stranglehold would be.

Today, News Corporation is an $82 billion media and entertainment empire with properties all over the world. It markets "news" just as it markets 20th Century Fox films, television shows like The Simpsons or satellite TV subscriptions. In fact, its revenue from journalism pales next to its television and film properties.

A media empire this large and with as many parts allows Murdoch to lop off sections of it--for example, shutting down the 168-year-old News of the World when the outcry in Britain rose high enough--while retaining the more profitable parts.

ACCORDING TO accounts in the left-of-center British Guardian, the hacking scandal grew out of an ultra-competitive environment that management at Murdoch's tabloids encouraged. Like factory managers and workers pressed to meet production quotas, editors and journalists were continually pressed to produce scoops and "news" to beat the competition. Murdoch's employees were reminded that their jobs depended on their production.

In that sort of environment, it's not surprising that journalistic standards would go out the window. In the world of celebrity gossip sheets, it's common for photographers and writers--known as the paparazzi--to stalk celebrities in the hopes of catching them in scandalous situations. In this way, the paparazzi "create" news where it didn't exist.

Taking a leaf from that book, News of the World staff moved more aggressively to insert themselves into the news production process--hiring private investigators, paying off police to get "inside" information on developing stories, and, ultimately, hacking into people's personal data.

Practices like employing private investigators or specialized researchers have a place in legitimate journalism that serves some concept of the public interest. Think of the role that Northwestern University journalism students, working with private investigators, played in winning the release of the falsely convicted Anthony Porter from Illinois death row in 1999. Porter came within days of being executed before he was exonerated--that was one of the key events to expose the Illinois death machine--and eventually lead, earlier this year, to abolition of the death penalty in the state.

But of course, the routine use of these techniques at Murdoch's tabloids didn't meet that standard. They were aimed at producing "news" that sold, even if it had little or no redeeming value. Not only did this violate the privacy of individuals who didn't ask to be celebrities, but it mostly served the purpose of titillation and increased media sales--nothing that would inform the citizenry about important matters.

Even the revelation from a News Corporation paper that former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's son was born with cystic fibrosis--obtained from hacks into the Brown family's medical records, according to recent reports--can't be justified as a contribution to democratic debate.

From using hacked personal data to make headlines, it's only a short hop to the manufacture of completely phony stories. Here, News Corporation has also been a pioneer. The Murdoch empire's flagship in the U.S., Fox News, is one of the go-to venues for the likes of Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe, the right-wing provocateurs who specialize in retailing "news" based on entrapment, eavesdropping and out-of-context quotations.

The end result of all of this is a media culture where resources and shady tactics redefine what "news" is: the emotional state of crime victims, the personal foibles of politicians and celebrities, or some completely fabricated outrage.

Lost in all of this is any sense that the press should actually devote resources to questions that matter--like the jobs crisis plaguing the U.S. today, or Wall Street's rip-offs of the public. When the media get around to reporting on some aspect of government or business policy, they often avoid going after the real culprits.

Murdoch's tabloids--like Fox News--pose as "populist" advocates for the ordinary Jane and Joe. They use flashy graphics, rock music and pictures of topless or scantily clad women to mock the "elite" conventions of the New York Times or the BBC.

In content, though, their "populism" is almost always reactionary--whether it's the sexist "page three girls" of British tabloids, or a campaign to whip up outrage against immigrants, welfare recipients or public-sector workers with their "gold-plated" pensions.

DESPITE HIS and News Corporation's right-wing view that "Big Government" is the enemy of free market innovation and social progress, Murdoch built his empire by hitching his business fortunes to the wagons of rising politicians.

Lance Price, a former BBC journalist and adviser to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, astutely pointed out that:

Murdoch will always back a winner. Convince him you're going to succeed and he'll throw his weight behind you. Not just because it creates the impression--falsely, in my view--that leaders need his support to get into Number 10.

Murdoch is a businessman first, second and last. Playing politics for politics' sake comes very low down his list of priorities...News Corporation's commercial interests are well served if the man or woman inside Downing Street feels indebted to its titles.

During his early career in Australia, Murdoch aligned himself with the Labor Party government that ruled in the mid-1960s. In the 1980s, when he was expanding his holdings in Britain, Murdoch was a Thatcherite. Then, in the late 1990s, when it was clear that the Tories would lose the next election in a landslide, Murdoch and his press threw their support to Blair's New Labour.

The current British government is now trying to obscure just how tied up it is with the Murdoch empire. Until earlier this year, Andy Coulson, one of the editors of News of the World when it hacked the phones of victims of the 2005 suicide bombings in London, was Prime Minister David Cameron's communications director.

And while Fox News peddles nonsense about President Obama's birth certificate and his "socialist" policies, Murdoch even had nice things to say about candidate Obama when Obama looked like a winner in 2008.

The point is that despite News Corporation's rants against Big Government, Murdoch has always depended on friendly relations with politicians to advance his business interests. In 2003, for example, Tony Blair supported "a communications bill in the British Parliament that would loosen restrictions on foreign media ownership and allow a major newspaper publisher to own a broadcast television station as well--a provision its critics call the 'Murdoch clause' because it seems to apply mainly to News Corp," reported the Atlantic magazine.

And lest anyone think that this sort of overlap between News Corporation and politicians is confined to Britain and Australia, it's worth remembering the Fox News personality, the late Tony Snow, who was one of George W. Bush's press secretaries. Fox is currently employing or has recently employed Republican presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, and last year, News Corporation donated $500,000 to the Republican Governors' Association.

Fox serves as a sort of media arm of the Republican Party, feeding its loyal viewers in the Republican "base" with a daily stream of right-wing propaganda and partisan talking points. Along with other News Corporation media properties like the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal, Fox forms the crucial axis of the "right-wing noise machine" that amplifies conservatism in U.S. politics.

Nevertheless, Murdoch operates according to the maxim that when money is at stake, political principal is secondary.

According to the Center for American Progress, the supposedly staunch anti-Stalinist Murdoch vetoed the publication by News Corporation's HarperCollins unit of the memoirs of Chris Patten, the last British colonial governor in Hong Kong. Patten criticized China's rulers, whom Murdoch was courting to expand his satellite TV business into their country. Murdoch also banned the BBC from his Star TV in China when it insisted on airing reports about Chinese human rights violations.

An even more insidious relationship between the state and Murdoch's media pivots on the role of police agencies in the British phone-hacking scandal.

In arresting former Murdoch media executives Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, perhaps Scotland Yard is engaging in its own damage-control operation. The obvious question is: Where did News Corporation find unlisted phone numbers of murder victims and witnesses if not from the police, or from corrupt elements within the police? If a committed investigator wanted to go there, this is one thread that could unravel the whole fabric of corruption underpinning the enterprise.

In today's digital age, when the state snoops through all sorts of personal and communications data, via warrantless wiretapping and other means, and big business tracks mountains of information, from credit scores to medical records, is it any surprise that "big media" doesn't feel any inhibition about hacking peoples' voice mails, especially when there's money to be made?

Besides feeling satisfaction at watching the Murdoch sleaze merchants get their comeuppance, we should keep an eye on how this ever-widening scandal develops. News Corporation and its top boss have connections to politicians of all kinds, on both sides of the Atlantic.

For now, the sheer outrageousness of the scandal has forced politicians to get more serious. Reading the writing on the wall, Murdoch withdrew his bid to take over all of Britain's Sky satellite television network--a deal that would have sailed past parliamentary and regulatory hurdles only weeks ago.

With the arrests of Coulson and Brooks and the resignations of Sir Paul Stephenson, head of London's Metropolitan Police, and Les Hinton, chief of Dow Jones & Company, the scandal has already claimed more high-profile figures than one would have expected. If more of Murdoch's victims--or perhaps a few disgruntled News of the World employees just tossed on the scrap heap--come forward, we may find out about sleaze we can't even imagine now.

And as the scandal moves closer to Murdoch and his designated successor, son James Murdoch, it threatens to migrate across the Atlantic. The FBI has opened an investigation into allegations that News Corporation personnel may have hacked into the phones of 9/11 victims. If any of those allegations stick, Fox News and Murdoch's tabloid New York Post could face a crisis similar to that of their British cousins.

We can only hope.

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