Murdoch’s Politics – Book Review
Murdoch’s Politics: How One Man’s Thirst for Wealth and Power Shapes our World, by David McKnight (Pluto Press)
Review by BBC News Correspondent, Nick Higham
To his admirers (mostly on the right) Rupert Murdoch is the man who built the world’s first truly global media empire, created entire businesses from scratch and smashed the stranglehold of the Fleet Street print unions. He’s a champion of the free market and an outsider, cheekily running rings round a succession of business, political and social elites which have consistently underrated him.
To his detractors (mostly on the left) he’s a pernicious influence, a man who uses the brute force of monopoly to crush competitors, and his media properties to advance his own interests. He corrupts public taste by pandering to the lowest common denominator and debases journalistic standards – a process which culminated in the UK in the miserable phone-hacking scandal and led to the closure of the News of the World.
David McKnight’s Murdoch’s Politics is the case for the prosecution. The author was a journalist who worked for the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC television (neither controlled by Murdoch) and is now a media academic at the University of New South Wales.
Australia is the smallest of the three anglophone countries in which Murdoch has enjoyed business success and the one in which his political influence has been most dramatic. It was in Australia that he managed both to make and then unmake a government: in 1972 his newspaper empire helped Gough Whitlam’s Labour party to power; in 1975 it campaigned successfully for Whitlam’s sacking by the governor-general.
McKnight chronicles Murdoch’s career first in Australia, then in Britain and latterly in the United States, with a glancing reference to China, whose ruling Communist party proved to be the one establishment that Murdoch the perennial outsider couldn’t outfox.
Along the way McKnight outlines Murdoch’s shifting political opinions (at Oxford he was something of a dilettante lefty) and dismisses the widely-held view that the mature Murdoch is a political opportunist, supporting politicians of both right and left on occasion if he thinks it’ll help his business, while having no real political ideology of his own.
McKnight sees a common thread in Murdoch’s support and admiration for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the money he has donated to free market, conservative and neoconservative groups like Bill Kristol’s Project for a Republican Future in the USA and the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK, and his (at the time) covert support for what McKnight calls an “extreme right-wing group” run by David Hart, an enthusiastic Thatcherite.
At one point McKnight gives Murdoch’s creed a name: “militant conservatism combined with opposition to elites”. And he suggests his politics have sometimes led him to pursue political objectives – like opposition to greater European integration – for their own ends and not just because it might benefit his business.
In the US McKnight analyses the reporting by Fox News of issues like Iraq and climate change and concludes that the network paradoxically uses balanced debate to foster right-wing bias, not least by treating climate change as a matter of political opinion rather than scientific consensus, and mounting debates between pros and antis as if it were just any political issue.
Fox is a long-standing liberal bete noire, but McKnight reminds us that the feeling is mutual: Murdoch, he says, has long believed that the mainstream news media are dominated by a left-wing elite to which Fox News is a much-needed counterbalance.
McKnight ends his book with a brief essay on Murdoch’s children and their political opinions, crediting James with softening his father’s deeply hostile views on climate change. But, since Rupert shows no signs of slowing down, or giving up and handing over to a successor, their politics are for the moment academic.
Murdoch’s critics will find plenty of ammunition in this book; his supporters will probably dismiss it as another hatchet job. McKnight makes a good case for consistency in the adult Murdoch’s political views; his claim that politics lies at the heart of everything Murdoch does is less persuasive.
For Murdoch is also a gambler, an inveterate deal-maker and a man with a passion for newspapers (which in the present state of the newspaper industry looks increasingly irrational, and politically pointless). A powerful businessman, yes; a politically-engaged one, certainly; but mainly or exclusively political? I think not.
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