That Wyatt and others should consider Murdoch an electoral rainmaker is a plain enough danger to democracy. But there are subtler dangers, concerning Murdoch’s basic attitude toward government, which emerge clearly in his dealings with China, where democracy doesn’t complicate the issue.
He has often denounced government in libertarian terms, but mostly the real target of such rhetoric is the regulatory activity of democratic states—designed to sustain competitive diversity, and apt therefore to inhibit News Corp.’s desire for monopoly and uniformity. Many times he has persuaded the political masters of such states to bend rules in his favor—by feeding, in some form, their appetite for electoral support.
By the early 1990s, his triumphs were so many and his tone so triumphalist as to make him sound—even, perhaps, to himself—like the kind of libertarian who resists government power on principle. In September 1993, he made a remarkable speech prophesying that authoritarian governments of every kind would soon fall before the liberating technologies deployed by News Corp. Particularly this meant satellite systems, enabling “residents of many closed societies to bypass state controlled television channels.” He had just taken control of Star TV, broadcasting from Hong Kong—then British territory — with a large potential audience in mainland China.
Exactly this kind of cross-border challenge had been posed frequently in Europe. But Chinese regulators had no Western inhibitions to control the aim of dish aerials. They simply announced that mainland reception would cease unless Star TV’s content received their approval. And they could not be deterred, as their masters cared nothing for News Corp.’s basic currency—electoral support.
Murdoch immediately set out to “make peace with the Chinese government,” as he told Forbes magazine. His most notorious gesture was dumping the BBC’s high-quality World Service Television channel—which drew Western criticism because it gave Beijing censorship powers over free audiences in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Murdoch apparently empathised with official Chinese dislike of the World Service. Its references to the Tiananmen massacres of 1989 were “driving them nuts.” Perhaps his most astonishing conciliation was putting $5.4 million into People’s Daily, the centerpiece of Beijing’s vast system thought-control system. To many, this was humiliation, but not to Murdoch. He called his earlier libertarian rhetoric “standard clichés” (which hasn’t stopped him recycling it subsequently) and said authoritarianism possibly wasn’t all bad.
What this shows is a Murdoch attitude toward governments that is essentially the same whether they are democratic or authoritarian. If possible they will be seduced or bullied. If not, the recourse is obedience. Lacking dominance, News Corp. truckles.
And for a democratic government no worse disservice exists. Most politicians and journalists know this—uneasily, because honest but critical interaction is mutually arduous. In the crucible politicians inhabit, particularly during an emergency, loyal critics in news media are an indispensable link in self-correcting processes. Implicitly the Constitution says so, but it hardly suggests it can be easy for anyone concerned (or that “critical” equals “correct”).
An alternative view is that in war and kindred cases the media must support national leaders without questions that weary the homeland and refresh enemies. That idea has numerous supporters (who often think it will guarantee victory). As a first general point, they are very far from a democratic majority. Second, News Corp. is the particular here, and a glance at Fox News shows it already offers what that persuasion wants. The question is whether it can also match the American way as normally defined.
Murdoch knows China hurts him, for there was other appeasement: a book by Chris Patten, Britain’s last Hong Kong proconsul, cancelled; also curious gaps in coverage by The Times. It helps to have Robert Thomson saying he hasn’t been censored since his appointment in 2002. The proposition is that Rupert is reformed, and that News Corp. has been clean for several years. Against this, the adverse record is very long, and so far from improving in retrospect, it develops new blemishes. The Wyatt diaries in Britain and the Scorpion files in Australia only appeared after decades of amnesia, to show that what had been known was barely the half of it.