Murdoch's Politics: How One Man's Thirst for Wealth and Power Shapes Our World by David McKnight
How much influence does Rupert Murdoch wield?
Murdoch's Politics: How One Man's Thirst for Wealth and Power Shapes Our World
There is not and never has been anyone like Rupert Murdoch on the landscape of international news media. Men such as Randolph Hearst, Ted Turner, Roy Thomson, Conrad Black and Tony O’Reilly have also built publishing or broadcasting corporations and acquired wealth and influence. But Murdoch could fit them all into one pocket.
How did a rather unconventional Australian turned American citizen come from respectable Melbourne to be the most powerful figure in the news media across the English-speaking world?
Now in his 80s, he is still the confidante of political leaders, particularly in Britain and the United States. They know he has the power to sway the electoral processes on which they depend. He can influence world opinion on issues as crucial as Aids, energy and global warming. He can make it possible for nations to go to war. Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane was a mere dabbler by comparison.
Murdoch’s media consumables are everywhere. When we watch Sky Sports or purchase a book from HarperCollins, we are adding to his wealth and influence. We are buying Murdoch products when we read the Sun , the Sunday Times or, indeed, the venerable Times itself. He operates Sky News and the Wall Street Journal . The – literally – incredible Fox News is his chosen instrument to influence popular political thinking in the US.
And when his UK-based operations sank into disgrace over revelations of illegal phone hacking, with senior editors facing criminal charges, other elements of the Murdoch empire in the US and elsewhere remained unaffected.
David McKnight’s Murdoch’s Politics is part biography, part political analysis, part business story and altogether a disturbing documentary about something that has happened on the fault lines of democracy, particularly in the US and the UK.
At one level, Murdoch’s News Corporation might be seen as the embodiment of Edmund Burke’s “fourth estate”. It is a potent, independent force in public life, holding office-holders to account, challenging the establishment and disputing received orthodoxies. Yet – and here is the paradox – it is in certain ways more powerful than some of the governments it seeks to influence. It is answerable to no one outside of its proprietors, effectively Murdoch himself. It is so wealthy that it can absorb scandal, penalties and even political decisions that may be unfavourable to its commercial interests.
This account tells how Murdoch built powerful media organisations, such as the Sun and Fox News, out of virtually nothing. But there is arguably no new material here about Murdoch the man. What McKnight has done is to assemble a multidimensional portrait, drawing skilfully on existing sources (with meticulous footnotes) and on memoirs from figures such as Andrew Neil, Woodrow Wyatt and Alastair Campbell.
As a fellow Australian McKnight can offer an intuitive narrative of the influences that have shaped his subject. Born to wealth and privilege, educated at the exclusive Geelong Grammar School and at Oxford University, Murdoch has nevertheless always cast himself in the role of the outsider, the nonconformist, the rebel. Murdoch sees himself as personifying the Australian psyche, resisting privileges of birth, class and wealth. He may have been raised in a grand house, surrounded by servants, but he sees himself as a great egalitarian.
He combines this vision of himself with an undoubted intellectual ability. He can simultaneously compute the profit-and-loss account of a regional television station and formulate the policy platform he wishes to see followed by a candidate whom he may support in a US election. McKnight underscores the other key element in the makeup of Murdoch: he comes from a family long steeped in evangelical Protestantism. Murdoch, McKnight tells us, “is as much a preacher and a moralist as he is a businessman”.
If it stopped at this, there would be little reason to be apprehensive about Murdoch or the activities of News Corporation. Indeed, they might be said to fulfil perfectly the ameliorative role Burke prescribed for the press. But as the revelations of phone hacking in the UK have demonstrated, Murdoch’s media empire does not operate on the benign principles or with the integrity envisaged in the great parliamentarian’s address to the House of Commons in 1787. McKnight paints a deeply disturbing picture of an organisation driven by contrived polarities, half-truths and ideology-based spin.
Murdoch sees the world as divided between oppressive liberal elites and rebel, radical conservatives. In consequence, McKnight tells us, Murdoch media characterise certain ideas as orthodoxies. Attacks on liberal ideas and the elites who propagate them thus become the “legitimate protests of an oppressed group struggling against unjust domination”.
Murdoch sees Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and George W Bush as the crusaders who sought to roll back the tide of the welfare-state consensus. He is scathing about Democrats, liberals, socialists. And his editors are required to follow the neoconservative principles that his heroes have pursued.
Murdoch, McKnight tells us, is “not only one of the most powerful businessmen on the planet but also one of the most politically motivated”. But, unlike Citizen Kane, he is not content merely to exercise local or national influence. He sees his media empire as shaping key international relationships, in particular strengthening the alliances between the US and Britain at the expense of the latter’s relationship with Europe.
Nowhere was this more evident than in his support for the US- and British-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. As pressure mounted on the Saddam regime in Baghdad, Murdoch media across the globe trained their sights on those who still held out against full-scale war. Fox News hammered home the nightly warnings about weapons of mass destruction across the US. In the UK, the Sun alternately prodded and praised Tony Blair, finally adjudicating on the eve of the invasion that he had “won his place in history, alongside Churchill and Thatcher”.
The most disquieting aspect of the story is the apparent enslavement of politicians to Murdoch’s agenda. Thatcher, Bush, Reagan and Blair were seen to court him and his editors. The translation of his personal values into government policy appears to be accepted as part of the pact he makes with those who will be supported in his media.
One has to be thankful for the distance that is more generally kept between media and politicians here and in many other European countries. The relationships may not be perfect. But they are less likely to be subversive of democracy, and they are closer to the ideal set out by Burke in 1787 for the respective roles of the press and those who hold political power.