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.
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?
And where is the corporate outrage? As credentialed observers of American business Nell Minnow of GMI Ratings and Laura Martin of Needham and Co. noted respectively, “Murdoch’s leadership is a big, big mess,” and “if this had happened at a normal company, in theory, the board would have required the CEO to resign.”
Not our Rupert.
Here’s how Murdoch deals with questions from in-house. At the 2009 annual plutocrat party at Sun Valley, Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney asked Murdoch to address the phone-hacking, cop-buying scandals, and got: “I’m not talking about that issue at all today.”
“No worries, Mr. Chairman,” said Varney,”That’s fine with me.”
Rather than romanticizing them as rebels, let’s call them the pirates that they are. Murdoch’s “matey” army, “built,” Folkenflik says, “on personal and family ties [had] a clubbiness or mateship that was almost impossible for outsiders to penetrate.”
Folkenflik prefers a different, more legitimizing reference: “People invariably compared Murdoch to William Randolph Hearst, [but] that seems too limited a comparison. Perhaps he was more like the nation’s oil barons who pockmarked the countryside in drilling, [and] provided millions of Americans with a product they came to view as indispensable.”
Maybe you can see where this is heading. Incredibly, depressingly, Folkenflik outdoes even Murdoch’s latest fetid bribery defense, made off-the-record to employees at The Sun: everybody does it. “Payments for news tips from cops,” Murdoch was secretly recorded saying, “that’s been going on for a hundred years. It was the culture of Fleet Street.”
Everyone who reports does it, Murdoch says; and everyone who reads or watches is complicit, Folkenflik volunteers. He ends his book by saying, “Murdoch could not have accumulated his fortunes without our help. We are all, as consumers of media, involved and even responsible for the creation of Murdoch’s World.”
As guilty as the people of Bhopal were for swallowing Union Carbide’s lethal gas. That’s a comparison in which the real-world relationship of corporate pirates and government regulation are revealed. It’s that kind of bite, of passion, of judgment, which David Folkenflik has unfortunately eschewed.
Murdoch’s World is a good book, full of interesting material. But for me, its one failure is a big one: It doesn’t add up.
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