Feeling kinda droopy? Like you had “tired blood?” Well, better than Geritol would be a dose of David Folkenflik’s new book, Murdoch’s World (Public Affairs Press, 2013). If the NPR media correspondent’s tale of “buccaneer” Rupert Murdoch doesn’t get your blood percolating, call 9-1-1.
Most of your bloodboil will come directly from Murdoch, but once in a while, you may sizzle when the author’s “fair and balanced” reporting seems to lack a spine of judgment.
Let’s first dispense with what Murdoch’s World is not. It is not a meticulously detailed, deeply meditated “definitive biography.” That title still goes to Michael Wolff’s The Man Who Owns the News. What Folkenflik has written is a breezy and bright update of Wolff’s 2008 account, emphasizing the phone hacking, cop-bribing scandals that have wracked Murdoch’s London tabloids for the past decade.
Even there, Folkenflik has pulled together an excellent summary, full of reporting and research, but the book finesses a judgment of the sordid mess, the cover-up that followed it, and the Murdoch culture that enabled everything. He does have one significant scoop: that Murdoch’s “best friend,” Robert Thomson, then the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, tried, according to reporters there, to kill, and then helped to neuter a WSJ investigative report on the phone-hacking of a dead 13-year-old girl, Milly Dowler, by the now-closed Murdoch London tabloid, The News of the World.
Even now, the former editors of The Sun, Murdoch’s”surrogate daughter” Rebekah Brooks and UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s one-time spokesman Andy Coulson, are on trial in London, charged with buying cops and lying about it, paying private investigators, and paying off the people the PIs hacked and spied against. Ms. Brooks is also in danger after she, her husband, and her assistant were discovered hiding, trashing, and apparently attempting to destroy evidence that might be held against her.
Barely relevant, but supremely titillating, and, alas, too late for Folkenflik (or perhaps for Murdoch’s World’s first edition) came news this week that over this very period of gutter journalism, Brooks and Coulson were having “a romantic affair.” Both were separately married at the time.
The hacking-bribing scandal forced Coulson to quit his political job, and eventually, forced Brooks to resign. Perhaps it is they Murdoch was talking about when he whined to Parliament, “People I’ve trusted—I’m not saying who—I don’t know what level, have let me down, betrayed the company and me, and it’s up to them to pay.”
Folkenflik’s book strongly suggests that this cold dismissal and pathetic blame-shifting is the worst kind of chutzpah, the unbelievable arrogance of assumed impunity.
After detailing more cringe-inducing Murdochian testimony before a Parliamentary Committee (“This is the humblest day of my life,” he all but sobbed) including this pathetic denial of responsibility for his newspapers’ spying and lying: “I didn’t know of it. I’m sorry [but] the News of the World is less than 1 percent of our company,” Folkenflik adds only,”He was a notoriously involved CEO, especially when it came to his tabloids.”
Throughout the book, he seems to accept as unknowable the answer to the questions, “What did Murdoch know and when did he know it?” Too bad.
But Murdoch’s World does show him to be more than just notoriously involved in his media empire; he was amazingly delusional about it and himself.
Murdoch revels in his self-created role as an “outsider,” a hater of “the elites” and “the toffs,” forgetting, perhaps, that he was the son of a well-off Australian newspaper publisher, privately schooled until he was sent off to Oxford for his BA.
Folkenflik reports that Murdoch’s deep-seated “contempt for government interference” stems from the Australian “taxes levied against his father’s estate.” Left over, it must be noted, was more than enough capital to be the cornerstone of Murdoch’s later investments in journalism and entertainment.
The affronts of being forced to pay taxes and work his way through—or weasel his way past—government regulations meant to enforce standards and limit competitive dominance on news media ownership are, Folkenflik says, are what lies behind the consistent agenda of almost all Murdoch media: a strong military, smaller government, less regulation, and resistance to immigration.
The first and last may only be sops to his right-of-center, nationalist audiences, although Murdoch himself is a successful immigrant, whose devotion to Australian nationhood—a big meme in his Aussie papers—didn’t prevent him from selling his Ozzie passport for a mess of American TV stations. But it’s the Murdoch mantra of smaller, weaker government and radically diminished public oversight that seeps self-interest.
One howler that Folkenflik lets go unremarked is Murdoch’s definition of “the public interest” as that in which the public is interested.