“There might be other buyers more palatable to them. But who’s to say Rupert Murdoch is all that bad?”
Brian Rogers of T. Rowe Price, advising the Bancrofts to sell The Wall Street Journal.

The answer to this question depends on what you mean by bad—or good—and on who is a credible witness. Robert Thomson, editor of The Times of London, testifies for good. He says Rupert Murdoch’s control of The Times doesn’t distort its reporting, which is admirable if true. But Mr. Thomson is a Murdoch employee, and there’s some evidence that he is talking through his hat.

For Mr. Rogers, making money is generally “good,” but there are particulars in News Corp. that might trouble him. For instance, making money at newspapers like The Wall Street Journal is something Murdoch has been notably bad at. (The Times is a prime example.) We must estimate, since News Corp. doesn’t publish results for its individual titles. (There are about 175 of them, the best-known being the New York Post, in America; The Times, the Sunday Times, The Sun, and the News of the World, in Britain: The Australian, The Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, and The Mercury, in Australia). Media companies are often secretive, and News Corp. outstandingly so. If due diligence meant as much as Wall Street pretends it does, the Bancroft advisers would require disclosure before talking business.

Revenue aside, whether a journalism outlet is bad or good comes down to net effect. We know every police force contains villains, but if it catches more than it employs, society profits. We also know that every media group does some good. The Murdoch operation exposes numberless sexual peccadilloes, and much lesser crime—but not dud military campaigns or Enronesque frauds. There’s a good case that the world would be better off without News Corp. There’s certainly a good case that he should not own The Wall Street Journal.

And indeed we would be without News Corp. but for the kisses of life that have been applied to the corporation though the years by state power in various forms. And these kisses are applied not because of any journalstic excellence but the opposite—because journalistic incompetence gives News Corp. the unique ability to comfort officeholders. Thus the space it occupies is not altogether decided by the subjective preference of consumers. Market distortion, politically determined, is much involved.

If Mr. Rogers wants a serious answer to his question about Murdoch there are a number of books he could read. (See the sidebar, “A Rupert Reader,” for a decent list, which includes my own 2003 effort, The Murdoch Archipelago.) Meanwhile, there’s room here to illustrate essential principles. Let’s start at the tabloid end, for Murdoch’s business and political charisma largely consists in notions that the popular zeitgeist is his to command, making him the master-drummer of circulations.

When Murdoch, building from his father’s Australia-based media company, acquired his first big asset, the British News of the World, in 1968, it was selling 6 million copies. Today, the Sunday tabloid struggles to sell half that, though Britain’s population is 20% larger and much richer. It still pumps abundant profit but like its celebrated daily companion, The Sun, it is a property in decline.

As the best way to a small fortune is to start with a large one, the best way to a modest circulation is to start with something immense, like the British popular papers possessed in pre-Murdoch days. A universal—as against middle-class—appetite for news arrived in Britain later than in Australia and America. It fed on dramatic events of anti-Nazi warfare and social revolution, with stimulus from a rail network covering the entire nation overnight. “You cannot beat news in a newspaper,” ruled Arthur Christiansen, taking the Daily Express past four million — soon to be overtaken by The Daily Mirror passing five.

By the mid-sixties, intelligent people saw incipient decay, but Fleet Street executive ranks didn’t included many. (An Express director notoriously was fired just for raising the issue of declining sales at a board meeting.) These papers grew obsolescent each in its own way, but the News of the World story is encapsulated in its nickname, the News of the Screws. It lived by decocting vicarious spectacle from the output of repressive legal and social frameworks then clamped around criminal justice, sexual activity, marital failure, addiction, and lesser eccentricities. Liberation has both reduced the raw material, and made vicarious experience increasingly redundant, thus boring. Goodbye zeitgeist.

Bruce Page is the author and co-author of several books, including The Murdoch Archiplelago, published by Simon & Schuster in Great Britain in 2003. He has worked for several newspapers, including the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times of London, where he led the paper’s investigative teams. He was editor of the magazine New Statesman between 1978 and 1982.