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.
Let me put this in another great journalist’s nutshell. “A great salesman never asks you what you want,” wrote Russell Baker. “He tells you what he’s got and why you want it.”
By and large, public interest depends on public knowledge. You cannot express interest in something you’ve never heard of. When Rupert Murdoch publishes “between 60 and 70 percent of the newspapers sold in Australia,” he effectively limits and controls what most Australians can have any interest in. This kind of dominance not only distorts the news, it corrupts the political world. Folkenflik tells us, for Murdoch in Australia, government favors have included “a paltry” price for prime publicly owned waterfront property for his Sydney film studio and a sweetheart deal with the federal government that gave him a 25-percent share and effective control of a national near-monopoly on pay-TV.
In the UK, Folkenflik recounts, a lot of editorial and campaign funding support was rewarded when Margaret Thatcher hand-carried him past British media regulators. When he was courting UK citizens, Murdoch said, “I think that the important thing is that there be plenty of newspapers, with plenty of different people controlling them, so there are a variety of viewpoints, so there is a choice for the public.” Forty years later, Murdoch owned four national newspapers, a network of satellite TV channels doing everything from news to sports to entertainment, and he had high hopes (shattered for now by the hacking scandal) of absolute control over the UK’s top satellite content provider.
In the US, he has somehow acquired and kept “waivers” that allow him to breach both kinds of bans on media “cross-ownership.” He has TV channels and newspapers in the same market. He has more than one TV channel in some markets. His film production company is allowed to supply his Fox TV network with programming. This is exactly what strong government and intelligent regulation is supposed to prevent.
And again, Murdoch’s “legalized” forays outside the rules have had a terrible spillover effect. Giving New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani unprecedented front-page as well as editorial page support advanced their political ambitions and, not coincidentally, helped grease the skids for the not-yet-naturalized Murdoch to buy not just the New York Post, but WNEW-TV (now WNYW-TV) as well. And his financial and editorial support for federal-level politicians has enabled continuing breaches of the rules others must follow on “cross-ownership.”
Folkenflik revels along with Murdoch and several of his top henchpeople in their self-description as “pirates.” But this ain’t cute Johnny Depp. These are real pirates, outlaws who survive by breaking or evading legal and professional codes, by pillaging their legitimate competitors.
And yet, so far at least, no Murdoch has been prosecuted or dispossessed of his ill-gotten gains, despite clear evidence that he and his company have broken British and American laws.
In the US, a rival London tabloid reported, Murdoch’s News of the World tried to corrupt a former New York cop-turned private investigator by hiring him “to hack electronic phone records for people who had been killed in the 9/11 attacks.” Although the report was based on just two anonymous sources, it produced calls, from US Rep. Peter King among others, for an investigation. If one was done, no one has seen a result.
Then there is the 1997 Federal Corrupt Practices Act, which banned American companies, like Murdoch’s News Corp., from bribing public officials abroad. As Folkenflik says, “Illegal payments to police officers fell squarely within that definition.” As the ongoing trials in London show, high-ranking Murdoch executives did just that. Federal prosecution, anyone?