By Denise Tessier
Heartless Man in Spineless World!
That’s a Mother Jones headline – from 13 years ago – referring to Rupert Murdoch, and it graced the cover of an MJ magazine that included a tabloid “EXTRA” insert, the headline for which blared – in classic Murdoch style – “WORLD DOMINATION PLOT EXPOSED! Now, the inside scoop on Rupe!”
Looking at that September/October 1998 insert today, it’s a virtual primer on the unbridled power that set the stage for the voicemail hacking and police bribery scandal now unfolding in Murdoch’s media empire. That scandal and its repercussions for newsy publications on both sides of the pond – including the once venerated Wall Street Journal – is the lead story in today’s WSJ and The New York Times and sensational enough to warrant space on the front page of today’s Albuquerque Journal as the only non-local story.
While the allegations of voicemail hacking – not only of celebrities and politicians, but even of a 13-year-old murder victim – might seem astonishing, I’m guessing real journalists around the world are wondering what further allegations of outrageous, unethical behavior by Murdoch’s so-called “news” outfits might surface as investigations continue. For scandal is the bread and butter of Murdoch’s media world, which, as Mother Jones so simply stated 13 years ago, is fueled by “instinctual, cold-blooded capitalism” — not by a desire to tell stories, to record history or even to simply entertain. In other words, his media world is unbound by old-school tenets of journalism.
In 1985, Murdoch became a naturalized U.S. citizen, reportedly simply to satisfy the legal requirement on owning American television stations. In the time since the MJ articles were written, Murdoch, whose media empire includes a pages-long list of newspapers, television networks (including Fox News), movie studios, satellite systems and publishing houses around the world, has further ingrained himself into American life and politics. Keep that in mind when reading some tidbits from just one article in the 8-page MJ insert from 1998, grabber-headlined, “Rupe courts pols to grab more goodies!“:
Murdoch can boast decades of experience in the black arts of realpolitik, switching allegiance between politicians to further his business interests. He has been a newspaper proprietor for 46 years (note: that was in 1998; it’s now 59 years) – much longer than any of his competitors and longer than most world leaders have been in politics.
When he bought the Sun in 1969, it supported Labour, then in power; by 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, the paper staunchly supported the Conservatives. His efforts were repaid. When Murdoch bought the London Times and Sunday Times in 1981, the government did not refer the deal to the Monopolies Commission (to the surprise of many, seeing that it gave Murdoch control of four national newspapers.)
At one point, the House of Lords tried to introduce legislation to stop Murdoch’s “predatory pricing” – that is, the practice of taking a loss on the cover price of the London Times, which “enabled the paper to double its circulation in the past five years. The Times’ less well-bankrolled competitors have suffered from the tactic.”
Britain’s Tony Blair refused to back the pricing legislation. As MJ wrote: “That’s what friends are for.”
Blair also took some heat when he supported Murdoch in the face of a global tax inquiry – government officials in Murdoch’s then-four main areas of operations – the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada joined forces to investigate the tax affairs of News Corporation, his core company, according to MJ, but:
. . .despite warnings in the non-Murdoch press that Blair was supping with the devil, the courtship continued. . . .six weeks before the 1997 election, the Sun endorsed Blair.
If the wooing paid off spectacularly for Blair at the polls, Murdoch can also feel satisfied. Apart from the government’s refusal to outlaw his pricing policing on the Times, there is to be no legislation to protect people’s privacy from the attentions of marauding tabloid reporters.
Here, MJ is referring to the legal stalking trade of the paparazzi, which came to my mind when reading about the alleged voice mail hacking. Thank goodness the British (and the U.S.) still have laws against voice mail hacking, or these unethical practices might never have come to light. And it appears that the sad fact that paparazzi act with impunity can be traced back to Murdoch if one relies on the MJ story, which said:
Calls for such laws intensified after the death of Princess Diana, but they would have cramped the style of the Sun and its Sunday stablemate, the News of the World.
Again, MJ aptly summed it up when, it wrote that News Corp.’s New York Post “follows Murdoch’s blueprint for his papers around the world: crime, sex, celebrity, political scandal and sports. Lots of sports.”
. . .Murdoch did not invent sleazy tabloid journalism but he believes fervently that there is no disgrace in supplying any legal commodity for which there is popular demand. He learned in his early years that the most successful papers are those whose headlines scream the loudest. Conrad Black, the Canadian owner of the London Daily Telegraph, describes him as “a cynic who thinks the average person is of fundamentally down-market tastes.”
The biggest casualty of the current scandal, aside from the firing of prominent News Corp. individuals, is the closing of the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid, which, as the Associated Press reported in the Journal, resulted in the arrest of the paper’s “newspaper chief” and which “tossed 200 other journalists out of work.” News of the World’s web site announces the closure as an epitaph, calling itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper 1843-2011.”
Granted, calling oneself the world’s greatest is like a wayside diner boasting that it makes the World’s Greatest Hamburger, but to be clear, this was a scandal rag, not a newspaper. And if they’re hacking emails, they’re not journalists. They’re hacks.
Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves, and it’s coming from non-Murdoch media.
“Now, Murdoch is struggling to tame a scandal that has already destroyed News of the World, cost the jobs of Brooks and (Wall Street Journal publisher Lee) Hinton and sunk the media barons’ dream of taking full control of a lucrative satellite broadcaster, British Sky Broadcasting,” the AP report said.
In 59 years of acquisitions, Murdoch has come close to achieving his goal of world media domination, reaching an estimated three-quarters of the world’s population through his outlets. Murdoch’s empire and the allegations against it make a solid case for breaking up media monopolies, limiting media ownership — and its influence.
It’s certainly bad enough that he’s got enough influence to “tame” this scandal in ways we’ll likely never know.