Welcome to Murdochia
Britain is in an uproar over the News of the World revelations. But Murdoch's controversial media empire extends far beyond the English Channel -- and it's been no stranger to scandal across the globe.
The downfall of the News of the World, which is threatening to engulf the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron, has illustrated the extent to which Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers have become inseparably intertwined in the country's politics -- even hacking personal documents of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and obtaining the medical records of his son, who suffers from cystic fibrosis.
Murdoch's influence in Britain -- and the United States where the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and the New York Post are media fixtures -- was well documented, even before this recent scandal. But they're hardly the only places where the News Corp. empire has courted political influence and found itself in the midst of political scandal.
The downfall of the News of the World, which is threatening to engulf the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron, has illustrated the extent to which Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers have become inseparably intertwined in the country’s politics — even hacking personal documents of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and obtaining the medical records of his son, who suffers from cystic fibrosis.
Murdoch’s influence in Britain — and the United States where the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and the New York Post are media fixtures — was well documented, even before this recent scandal. But they’re hardly the only places where the News Corp. empire has courted political influence and found itself in the midst of political scandal.
The potential of China’s vast market had long entranced Murdoch, but his first foray into the country in 1993 was an unparalleled disaster. After buying a Hong Kong satellite TV station for nearly $1 billion, he made a speech in London boasting that modern media technology “proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.” China’s leaders were not amused and banned the ownership of private satellite dishes in retaliation, threatening the station’s viability.
When Murdoch tried again several years later, he was much more careful. He cultivated ties with Chinese leaders, entered into joint ventures with state-sponsored broadcasters, and dropped BBC news coverage from his Star satellite network because its critical coverage had angered Beijing. His efforts at outreach were ably assisted by his wife, Wendi Deng, a Chinese former News Corp. employee whom he married in 1999.
But flattery won’t get you everywhere in China. In 2005, News Corp. hit what Murdoch called a “brick wall” when a bid to acquire prime-time broadcasting rights fell apart. News Corp. sold control of its three Chinese TV channels to a Chinese firm last year. All in all, Murdoch poured more than $2 billion into the country and lost at least half of it.
Murdoch’s rise to international prominence began when he inherited the News — a daily tabloid in Adelaide — from his father, Keith, in 1952. Today, Murdoch owns dozens of newspapers and television stations in his home country, including the most prominent national newspaper, the Australian.
Murdoch has been an influential presence in Australian politics since the 1960s. He controls the majority of the country’s influential newspapers, and a meeting with the tycoon is considered de rigueur for sitting (or aspiring) prime ministers. While left-wing critics paint the country as a “Murdochracy” and note that his rise to prominence has coincided with a rightward shift in the country’s politics, Murdoch has, at times, supported leaders from both major parties as it suited his interests.
Murdoch had close ties to former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, dating back to when they cooperated on Murdoch’s acquisition of the Melbourne Herald Sun, now Australia’s most widely read newspaper, while Keating was national treasurer. Murdoch was an outspoken supporter of Liberal Party (politically conservative by U.S. definition) Prime Minister John Howard, but his suggestion that Howard ought to step down and his endorsement of Kevin Rudd helped tip the 2007 Australian election.
Murdoch is less close to current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, particularly when it comes to environmental issues, but a Gillard spokesperson was nothing if not diplomatic in describing her country’s best-known business export: “Of course we don’t agree on everything — but I think it’s fair to say we should be proud he’s a product of Australia.”
In Australia, as elsewhere, Murdoch generally seems less interested in pushing a social or ideological agenda than one that benefits Murdoch himself.
Murdoch and Italian media mogul/Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi were once close friends and used to dine together at Berlusconi’s villas in the mid-1990s. But Murdoch’s efforts to expand his holdings in Italian media have, predictably, irritated Berlusconi. Between the private television stations owned by Berlusconi’s Mediaset and his de facto control over the country’s state broadcasters, the prime minister enjoys near hegemonic influence over his country’s media landscape.
That control looked set to be challenged by Sky Italia in the early 2000s, a satellite network owned by Murdoch that began to peel away Mediaset’s viewers and hire away its talent. And it surely didn’t escape Berlusconi’s attention that Murdoch’s British newspapers, particularly the Times, were relentless in their coverage of the Italian prime minister’s sex and business scandals. Berlusconi has dismissed the critical British coverage as part of a campaign by Murdoch to force his way into the Italian media market. The News Corp. chief dismissed the allegation in an interview with the Fox Business Network: “I don’t control what the editor of the Times says in London or the Economist, which have been attacking him, saying it’s a disgrace to have him as prime minister for the last five years.”
Murdoch’s son and partner James, chairman of News Corp. Europe and Asia, has described India’s media as “a sleeping tiger waiting to be awakened,” and the company has moved quickly and aggressively to claim a slice of the prize. News Corp.-owned Star India is the undisputed leader in Indian satellite television. One of its channels, the Hindi entertainment network Star Plus, has 45 of the country’s top 50 programs and 56 million viewers. In 2008, Murdoch expanded this commitment, investing $100 million in the country.
Expansion in India has not always been easy for Murdoch, however. For a time, due to laws governing foreign media ownership, Star News had to request permission from the Indian government every week — just to continue broadcasting. Several arrest warrants have also been issued for Murdoch in India: the first, in 1995, when a judge issued a warrant after a guest on a talk show on one of Murdoch’s networks referred to Mahatma Gandhi as a “bastard bania” — his caste. In 1998, a warrant was issued over “vulgar” films aired on his networks such as Stripped to Kill and Big Bad Mama.
In 2007, a Hindu nationalist mob attacked the offices of a Murdoch-owned news channel in Mumbai after it aired an interview with a young couple — a young Hindu woman and a Muslim man — who had run away from their families.
Murdoch’s media empire has often been a thorn in the side of governments worldwide, and more than one head of state has probably secretly wished they could simply give the boot to News Corp. But, to date, the only one who has actually done it is Fijian junta leader Frank Bainimarama, who came to power in a bloodless coup in late 2006. Soon after he took power, complaints began over the harassment of journalists, including those employed by the country’s oldest and most popular newspaper, the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times. The newspaper briefly suspended publication shortly after the coup rather than comply with a demand from the new regime to allow the military to check each edition before publication for anti-government material.
The junta eventually backed down, but 18 months later, deported Evan Hannah, the Australian publisher of the Times, after declaring him a threat to national security. The paper continued to run critical coverage of Bainimarama’s regime, but News Corp. was finally forced to sell the property in 2010 after a new law was passed requiring Fijian newspapers to be 90 percent locally owned.
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