Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation Of Political Power
By David McKnight
Allen & Unwin, 2012
285 pages, $29.95 (pb)
An adviser to the former New Labour government of Tony Blair in Britain called right-wing media tycoon Rupert Murdoch the “24th member of cabinet”.
The advisor said no big decision inside No. 10 was ever made without “taking into account the likely reaction” of Murdoch.
David McKnight reveals the extent of Murdoch’s influence on governments in Britain, US and Australia. A senior member of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s government met a Murdoch executive once every three days. The former editor of Murdoch’s now-closed News Of The World, Rebekah Brooks, visited New Labour prime ministers Blair and Brown six times a year.
Murdoch’s influence is also exercised as part of the background political culture. His media empire pumps out reactionary propaganda to promote a set of right-wing political values ― based on “public bad, private good”, and loathing of socialists, trade unions, greens, feminists, anti-racists and gays.
Murdoch is a right-wing populist, claiming to represent “ordinary men and women” against a “liberal elite” who have “captured government, the mass media, science and the universities”. According to Murdoch, their “left-wing bias” dominates via the coercive orthodoxy of “political correctness”.
Such fantastic claims are immune to the hypocrisy of Murdoch’s own membership of the genuine elite, a billionaire whose self-interested political correctness prescribes low-taxing and non-interfering governments, privatisation and the primacy of the market in all things.
It is not news that Murdoch is right-wing. Born into an establishment newspaper family, educated at Australia’s most elite private school (Geelong Grammar) and Oxford University, Murdoch is a tireless leader of the hard right.
What is new in McKnight’s book is the scope of Murdoch’s political ambit. Murdoch promotes the Tea Party in the US (the most reactionary wing of the Republicans), he has funded right-wing political causes (including secret financing of ultra-Thatcherite activists and US neo-conservatives) and he runs loss-making conservative magazines and newspapers aimed at shifting the White House and the Republican Party even further to the right.
Murdoch’s more overt media assault is noisily dominant. His US cable news channel, Fox News, is populism on steroids, fronted by angry, bullying “shouting heads” who spruik fear (of terrorists, liberals, gays, etc.).
Although preaching to just 3 million viewers, its political virus spreads far wider. It also does in Australia, where Murdoch’s reactionary ranting, aided by his 70% control of Australia’s newspaper market, “sets the agenda” and the political tone for other media (radio, television, on-line news and the “Twitterati”).
One of the biggest consequences of Murdoch’s rise as a newspaper and television mogul, says McKnight, is not so much the “tabloidisation” or “dumbing down” of the industry (through his formula of “sleaze, scandal and crime stories”) but his political influence, especially cementing Australia and Britain into a military alliance with the US.
Murdoch helped make the case for invading Iraq in 2003 by “mobilising his editors, commentators and journalists” with direct edicts on how to report the war. The Murdoch media presented non-existent “evidence” of Iraq’s armoury and terrorist links as fact.
This is markedly different to Murdoch’s treatment of the overwhelming consensus on the science of human-induced climate change. It is routinely scorned by the Murdoch stable of climate change deniers (such as the sneering and abusive Andrew Bolt in Australia and Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson in Britain).
Murdoch’s “conversion” in 2007 to the science of global warming, however, surprised a few when he announced to his employees that “climate change poses clear catastrophic threats” and that the debate needs to shift from whether it is happening to how to solve it.
Like the populist he is, Murdoch may have been worried about being left behind by a popular swelling of concern about climate change, but, argues McKnight, it seems to have had more to do with placating his son and heir-apparent, James Murdoch, who believes the science.
Rupert Murdoch’s subsequent announcement last year that News Corporation was carbon neutral, however, was a “hollow gesture” given his failure to enforce his views on his mouth-foaming, attack-dog climate change denialist commentariat.
In return for ideological services rendered, Murdoch receives handsome favours from politicians. He plays favourites with those most eager to cultivate approval.
Murdoch, for example, dumped Britain's Tories for New Labour at the 1997 elections because Labour posed less of a threat on media regulation restricting cross-ownership of large newspapers and free-to-air TV.
All those meetings with politicians are for some purpose and not just a convening of a mutual appreciation society.
Most Murdoch observers are mesmerised by his highly successful business dealings (his personal wealth is US$6 billion, News Corporation is a $30 billion juggernaut). However, McKnight says they tend to underestimate Murdoch’s political and ideological crusading.
McKnight’s book usefully readjusts the focus but, like many who decry the odious influence of Murdoch, the effect of being too Rupert-conscious, without a contextual analysis of the broader capitalist media, is to make the non-Murdoch media look good by comparison.
McKnight argues, for example, that non-Murdoch journalists, editors and media owners are part of the “democratic process” by “revealing facts that the authorities would like to keep quiet”. But the media of the Packers and Fairfaxes have shown as much parade-ground discipline as Murdoch in toeing many government lines (especially on wars) or have restricted debate to narrow limits (especially on climate change).
It is also the case that, as McKnight himself notes in passing, that the granting of electoral favours bestowed by the Murdoch media are engaged in by “nearly all newspapers” and that all powerful media owners have “reasonably good access” to politicians.
The state media, too, are often no better than Murdoch and his private peers, especially on climate change. The ABC, for example, also uses the ruse of “balance” to pair up denialists and climate scientists in debate, creating the perception of a legitimate controversy over global warming where no such scientific dispute exists.
Focusing on the differences (which are of degree, not substance) between Murdoch and his media stablemates underplays their similarities. A capitalist media diversity, which dilutes the influence of Murdoch, is a very limited diversity.
In the end, McKnight ponders whether the slightly less awful Murdoch progeny (Lachlan, James, Elisabeth) will moderate the old man’s ideological fervour when he moves on, and return the Murdoch media to some sort of integrity, concluding that the family heirs face the “old, old choice between money and principles”.
McKnight sounds sceptical about which way they will jump, and whether the Murdoch-enthralled politicians, once the temporary unpleasantness of phone hacking and police bribery scandals blows over, will show any more courage in standing up to the Murdoch media empire.
Don’t hold your breath waiting, for as long as the Murdoch media, like its corporate cousins, remain capitalist concerns, the defence of their profits and the ideological defence of capitalism will come first and truth-telling a distant last.