Sunday, 1 July 2012

RUPERT MURDOCH: An Investigation of Political Power by DAVID McKIGHT

RUPERT MURDOCH: An Investigation of Political Power
Allen&Unwin, 2012, 285 pages, $29.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

An adviser to the former New Labour government of Tony Blair in the UK called the right-wing media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, the ‘24th member of cabinet’, adding that 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 the UK, US and Australia.  A senior member of Cameron’s Tory government met a Murdoch executive once every three days, whilst the editor of Murdoch’s scandal-plagued News Of The World, Rebekah Brooks, visited New Labour Prime Ministers, Blair and Brown, six times a year.  Thatcher, Reagan, Rudd, Gillard – every Prime Minister and President has dined with and wooed the powerful media proprietor.

Murdoch’s influence is also exercised as part of the background political culture with his media empire pumping out reactionary propaganda to promote a set of right-wing political values - ‘public bad, private good’ plus 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’ where their ‘left-wing bias’ dominates via the coercive orthodoxy of ‘political correctness’.  This fantastic claim is immune to the hypocrisy of Murdoch’s own membership of a 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 three million viewers, its political virus spreads far wider, as it 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 metastasizing formula of “sleaze, scandal and crime stories”) but his political influence, especially cementing Australia and the UK into a military alliance with the US.  Murdoch helped to make the case for invading Iraq in 2003 by “mobilising his editors, commentators and journalists” with direct edicts on how to report the war, and by presenting non-existent ‘evidence’ of Iraq’s armoury and terrorist links as fact.

This is markedly different to Murdoch’s treatment of the overwhelming factual consensus on the science of human-induced climate change which 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 the UK).  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 in 2011 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 Murdoch’s approval.  Murdoch, for example, dumped the UK Tories for New Labour at the 1997 UK elections because Labour posed less of a threat on media regulation restricting cross-ownership of large newspapers and terrestrial TV.  All those meetings with politicians are for some purpose, after all, and not just a convening of a mutual appreciation society.

Most Murdoch observers are mesmerised by Murdoch’s highly successful business dealings (his personal wealth is $6 billion, News Corporation is a $30 billion juggernaut) but, adds McKnight, 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, Fairfaxes and Conrad Blacks 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 Australian Broadcasting Commission, for example, mimics the self-proclaimed ‘fair and balanced’ Fox News by using 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 (and they are differences 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.

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