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Murdoch Eats Humble Pie

Media empires are not built—or destroyed—in one day. (Photo by: Alessandro Abbonizio/AFP/Getty Images)

Murdoch’s Minor Setback

Don’t believe the humility: The mogul’s empire is not crumbling.

BY Chris Lehmann

It’s easy to lose sight of just why Murdoch properties on both sides of the Atlantic embarked on this evermore rapid race to an ever-deeper bottom.

Christmas came in July for Rupert Murdoch’s many longtime foes. In the great London beachhead of the Australian mogul’s empire, executives abruptly resigned, and just as swiftly were marched off to police detention. News International, the Murdoch family’s British corporate home, had to cancel a long-planned

$12-billion takeover of the BSkyB satellite network while shutting down its lurid, 168-year-old News of the World tabloid. There were televised parliamentary hearings and breathless speculation that this debacle could mark the end of Murdoch’s great global reign across countless media platforms.

For all the scandal’s digital trappings and rapid-fire corporate intrigue, it seemed like nothing so much as a throwback to the age of Victorian melodrama–torn, perhaps, from the final pages of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 masterwork The Way We Live Now. And indeed, the incident responsible for touching off the great Murdoch meltdown was a base moral trespass worthy of that novel’s arch-villain financier Augustus Melmotte: Some as-yet unnamed News of the World scribe had reportedly hacked into the voicemail of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler, giving her family the false hope that their missing daughter was in fact alive. There were other shocking accounts of purportedly rampant hacking at News of the World (as well as at Murdoch’s other U.K. tabloid property, The Sun) and the larger phone-hacking scandal had been percolating through the British courts and media for several years prior to this summer. But it was the gruesome violation of the privacy of a murder victim and the callous disregard for her family’s plight that sparked the most heated inquiries into the Murdoch boardroom, and set off a long string of pro forma apologies from senior News International managers, from Rupert on down.

But the real story of the Murdoch age has less to do with despoiling the memory of a murdered innocent than with the brute bid to overrun competitors and establish total market dominance. As undeniably gratifying as it is to see the Murdochs of the world kowtow before public servants–a spectacle U.S. audiences may also soon savor, should Congress choose to investigate allegations that the News of the World hacked into voicemails belonging to family members of 9/11 victims–the true outrage in this whole sordid, unspooling scandal is what the public is expected to embrace as “news coverage” in an editorial regime that long ago surrendered any remote purchase on news judgment driven by anything other than the bottom line.

Throughout all the furor over the Dowler case, no one has really bothered to note that the hacking of the victim’s phone was not merely ethically abhorrent, but journalistically pointless–the grotesque action didn’t yield even a revelation about the case slender enough for News of the World to pimp on its front page. Nor should we forget that the original News of the World “stories” that summoned this whole sordid mess into public view concerned the effort to uncover something–anything–that could be made to seem tawdry in Hugh Grant’s personal life and the breathless account of an injury to Prince William’s knee.

Amid the laudable and necessary efforts to run down accountability in this morass of predatory impunity and vacuous pseudo-information, it’s easy to lose sight of just why Murdoch properties on both sides of the Atlantic embarked on this evermore rapid race to an ever-deeper bottom. The best answer comes not from the seedy precincts of Fleet Street, but rather from the world’s most titanic potential consumer market in Asia. Long before News of the World became so bewitched by the saga of Prince William’s knee, Rupert Murdoch was assiduously gilding the content of his other media holdings to flatter the vanity of his fellow oligarchs atop the Chinese regime.

His dream of Asian dominance died last year, when he sold off his three major China-based operations to the central government of China, which failed to relinquish its distrust of foreign media owners. But scarcely missing a beat, Murdoch’s global satellite network, Star TV, zeroed in on bold new opportunities in India, while also launching a battle with the Australian Broadcasting Company over foreign-broadcasting rights for Australian TV, the English-language service best positioned for wider conquest of Asian markets.

The financial stakes could not be higher: According to a recent New York Times report, the market analysts at Media Partners have found that the far-flung News Corp. Asian properties are projected to turn their highest-ever profit in 2011, to the tune of $250 million out of $1 billion in overall revenues–sums both potentially greater than all of this year’s projected returns for News International operations in Britain.

And what has Rubert Murdoch done to cultivate this bounty? Well, back when China was still News Corp.’s pearl of great price, in 1998, he appears to have intervened personally to kill an unflattering account of the handover of Hong Kong to mainland sovereignty, penned by the island nation’s former governor, Chris Patten, that News Corp.’s book publishing company HarperCollins was about to release. And in 1995, he made sure that HarperCollins shook loose a $1 million advance for an adoring memoir that the daughter of Chinese leader Deng Xiaopeng composed about her dad, which was an utterly predictable commercial and critical failure upon publication.

Now that the company’s Asian growth plans are pivoting into India, look for similar mogul-approved emoluments to start flowing into South Asian markets. And with Murdoch’s bid to storm the Middle Kingdom effectively stunted, he has leveraged the Star TV empire into the fast-growing Indian market: As a Reuters analysis of News Corp.’s post-BSkyB strategy notes, Murdoch “has made a fresh $100 million investment into Indian regional television channels under the Star umbrella. He owns 26 percent of the popular Hindi-language news channel Star News, meeting the needs of many of India’s 138 million TV households hungry for news in local dialects, especially in hamlets and smaller-tier cities.”

In the classic Roman Polanski film Chinatown, the obscenely rich L.A. water-and-real-estate baron Noah Cross (John Huston) fields a simple question from J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson). “Why are you doing it?” Gittes asks about Cross’ latest land grab. “How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”

Cross’ reply is equally straightforward: “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.” And as viewers will no doubt recall, Cross was also none too fussy about deranging the odd dead girl’s family to get there. 

Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor of In These Times, is an editor of Book Forum and the Baffler and the author of Rich People Things (Haymarket, 2011). He is now working on a book about American religion and the money culture.

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