The unrivalled power of a media giant
The Murdoch Archipelago
By Bruce Page
Simon and Schuster, 2003
580 pages, $24.95 (pb)
REVIEW BY RUSSELL PINK
Bruce Page's The Murdoch Archipelago is, at nearly 600 pages, the most comprehensive and penetrating study of how two men, father and son, went from humble press beginnings to unrivalled worldwide power in mass media.
The investigator, a veteran journalist, has clearly mastered a huge range of source material concerning the rise of Keith Murdoch, proprietor of the Melbourne Herald Group from 1930 to 1952, and only son Rupert, who later built a small Adelaide-based company into the media giant we know today as News Corporation.
A Sydney Daily Telegraph or a London Sun hack would never present to the public a similarly unflinching, in-depth study of the Murdoch universe. Page is of a rather different cast from writers Murdoch generally employs. Page worked for the respected Sunday Times in Britain before its takeover in 1981 by News Limited, and at other papers in London and Australia. Luckily he was never a Murdoch newsroom inmate, possibly avoiding that fate because of a sharp intellect combined with high personal integrity. Such assets seem to have been in low demand in most News Corp offices for the past half-century, perhaps more so after the Murdoch empire expanded into satellite-based communications around 1990.
Page's meticulous work is tinged with irony, behind which lurk some serious implications about the Murdoch "dynasty". As a highly capable career journalist, it is not surprising that Page admires and cites the lives and work of other press mavericks and truth-seekers; people believing that good newspapers have responsibility for genuine investigative work. This sort of pride in the finest heritage of journalism and editing is often scoffed at or discounted by a contemporary public used to a diet of Murdoch trivia and sensation. Page, knowing our likely opinion of today's press in general, urges us to recall that in many places and times, newspapers have spearheaded moves for social improvement and higher public or corporate ethics.
Page doesn't offer a straight chronology of the Murdoch rise and rise to world influence. There are at least five full biographies about Rupert Murdoch in existence, most having been largely informed by "The Boss" himself. This book is clearly an independent survey, and moves beyond life story, into a fine study of the whole domain of the modern print media. It is an old industry in which the Murdochs have actually played a small part until recently.
Page is certainly on target when dealing with Murdoch deceptions, chicanery and arrogance, but rather than making a vitriolic attack, he displays consistent objectivity and balance. He allows for complexities of motive in behaviour or tactics, and he acknowledges those News Corp editors who acted from honesty and courage against executive opposition. (Most of them were, however, given their marching orders soon enough, and often went to papers where real journalism had more chance of expression.)
Page presents a host of facts and incidents that, in total, exclude Rupert Murdoch from valid membership of a group of press "nobility". Examples are Thadeus Delane of the Times and Laurence Godkin of the original New York Post. Murdoch eventually nabbed both papers for prestige reasons. The cunning way in which he did so is examined under Page's microscope.
Next to the honed intellects and fine personal consciences found among newspaper editors in the past, Murdoch's men emerge as moral inferiors. And among newspaper proprietors, Lord Northcliffe emerges more attractive in this book than Murdoch, despite his sins. Page cites many first-hand accounts that confirm the view that Murdoch's newsrooms were rarely fun workplaces. He enjoyed upbraiding even capable editors and interfered at whim in his papers' daily running. Worst of all, however, Murdoch used the press to play secretive politics at a national level, bending or skewing government policies in directions that best suited him. And he seemed to do so more easily as the 1970s and '80s progressed.
Page not only criticises Murdoch; he offers the reader clear evidence of superior standards of journalism that put Murdoch and the quality of his newspapers on the bottom rung of the ladder. Five decades of wily corporate dealing and manipulation of governments and bureaucrats have rightly earned the News Corp baron pariah status among many onlookers.
Predictably, Murdoch wears fear and loathing of him almost as a badge of honour, and makes light of those who find him wanting morally. In a strange way he appears to believe his own myth of himself as a defender of the "underdog" and a detective of political misdeeds against the people. That he has personally abetted social division and meddled politically is a fact he wants to edit out of his dull lectures and interviews.
Page's crusade in The Murdoch Archipelago is not simply against the palpable lack of ethical journalism at News Corp under its authoritarian chief. He is lobbying energetically for the newspaper as a positive force in democratic society. Via strong defence of his former profession, Page seeks to change a notion that slick "pseudo-newspapers" flogged for dollar revenue confirm an eternally sleazy essence in the print media. He shows that Murdoch's career has sullied a worthy institution with an ethos owing to people of exceptional character — among them, the US thinkers Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. These men promoted the notion of journalism as a genuine fourth estate in democracies. Page also points to modern instances of brave editing, risk-taking by newspapers such as Katharine Graham's Washington Post in 1973-74, and revisits documents that encourage honest journalism.
The task of defeating Murdoch's negative influence is not easy as he continues to use cunning, charm and sheer chutzpah to wield significant influence on many governments. From 1960 onwards, Murdoch has projected his will onto political affairs as a result of credulity and/or exaggerated fear among politicians of both left and right, and many still dance nervously to his tune. A typical case of such influence was Murdoch's "cosiness" with Margaret Thatcher's Tory regime in Britain using cabinet adviser Woodrow Wyatt as his conduit.
The Murdoch Archipelago is heavy with accounts of unpleasant Murdoch methods in practice. The verdict is grim, given his mistreatment of so many who even remotely defied the famous policy of not delivering "real" news, but of publishing inflammatory, juiced-up reports on major public events as diverse as IRA terrorism, the "Son of Sam" murders and the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy in 1989. Page evinces particular disgust for Murdoch's financially "necessary" deal with the repressive Beijing regime in 1994. He obliged Communist China by removing BBC World News from Satellite TV Asia Region (Star).
What concerns Page is that relatively healthy democratic states, where the press is not holding the ruling class to ransom, underestimate Murdoch's potential for long-term damage. This may be closer than ever, with the ascendancy of his corporation to global level via satellites beaming out slanted, even false information — essentially News Corp's role in an unwritten contract with US President George Bush and his close allies.
Page issues a warning to us as citizens that whatever the future of Murdoch's media empire — it may decline as others arise — unless we actively refuse and negate its power at the nation-state level, barely perceived dangers could await the free society.
From Green Left Weekly, March 16, 2005.
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