Murdoch, moguls and democracy

Posted on January 2, 2010


The vast expanse of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire means millions of people across the world are reliant on it for their news, yet this responsibility is not one that Murdoch has ever taken seriously. My view is that the provision of news is crucial to any democracy, and therefore that the it should not be entrusted in such great concentration to somebody whose main ambitions are the accumulation of profit and the purveying of propaganda, in that order. Murdoch is not the only media mogul currently active, but he is the most prominent, and thus an analysis of him is a viable demonstration of the inadequacy of the globalised media in general. The subjection of journalism to business is not acceptable in a true democracy, and I have to agree with McChesney when he notes that historically journalism is ‘an activity directed toward non-commercial aims that are fundamental to democracy- aims that could not be bought or sold by powerful interests’[1].

Murdoch has used his media outlets in a variety of unsavoury ways in order to facilitate his moneymaking. He agreed to drop BBC News from his Chinese Star Television network, for the reason that its reporting had angered the government[2]. Murdoch denied viewers of his network access to independent news, and thus struck a deal with the unelected leaders of China, for the sake of profit. He dealt a blow to free speech when he personally intervened to prevent Harper Collins publishing the memoirs of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, which were critical of the Chinese[3]. Back in Britain, Murdoch is reportedly editor-in-chief of the newspapers he owns here in all but name[4]. His influence on his media outlets is not a daily one, as this would be unmanageable. Rather, ‘there are chain policies. The chain hires and fires its local editors and publishers, the most definitive mechanism of control possible’[5].

His influence in this country is so significant that The Sun felt free to declare that it had won the 1992 election for John Major[6], while both Tony Blair[7] and David Cameron[8] have worked hard to win the favour of Murdoch. Ben Bagdikian’s comment on the United States is equally applicable to this country: ‘Politicians treat the country’s most powerful media corporations with something approaching reverence’[9]. Yet politics is just a means to an end for Murdoch. As Michael Wolff notes: ‘Politics for Murdoch is a subsidiary holding- which could be sold, or spun out, or refinanced at any time’[10]. When he has chosen to engage in politics, he has done it cynically and with calculation, always seeking to back a winner. His ability to offer campaign contributions and the scope of his media empire mean he is somebody whom politicians seek to obtain the support of. I would not go so far as Wolff in suggesting that ‘the media has replaced politics’[11], but I recognise the fears the author has over the importance of the moguls. We have a situation where a vast proportion of news is provided by a man who has a clear agenda to make a profit at the expense of all else. If you believe, as I do, that journalism and the media industry are crucial to the functioning of democracy, then the all-encompassing power of Murdoch and other media moguls, and subservience of politics to them, represents a serious threat.

The rise of the modern media mogul is part of the ongoing process of what Curran and Sexton called the ‘industrialisation of the press’[12]. No newspaper baron in history managed to secure such a wealth of power as Murdoch has. The media must be taken seriously by politicians, but only because of the power of the media to hold them accountable for any failings or illegal activities. Elected power should not be beholden to the media because it fears the retribution of a very rich group of men merely seeking to make themselves richer. Even Murdoch himself must know that he is on thin moral ground, given that he does all he can to make it appear as though he does too much influence over content. In spite of everything, people still expect a good level of public service from their news organisations, and thus owners do all they can to make it appear that such a service is provided. I must again disagree with Wolff, who argues: ‘Moguls want power, but they want it with a certain order of ritual deniability’[13]. This deniability is not ‘ritual’, but a necessity if Murdoch and others are to continue making profits while the rest of us suffer a democratic deficit.

The role of the media should be in holding political leaders to account and educating people as to what is happening around them. I understand why businessmen like Murdoch do as they do, as Bagdikian notes: ‘no corporation, media or otherwise, will fail to use its power if it feels a threat to its future or to its profits’[14]. Yet it is unacceptable that a person’s democratic right to news and information is affected by this capitalist desire. There is a media trend to ‘subordinate editorial fare to commercial values and logic’[15]. It is certainly a challenge for the new technological age to find a form of independent and sustainable media to challenge the vast empires of the moguls in providing news and democratic impetus. I agree with McChesney when he argues that such media reform is ‘elementary to our democracy’[16].

[1] Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times(The New Press, New York, 2000) p.49

[2] Joseph Khan, ‘Murdoch’s dealings in China: It’s business, and it’s personal’, New York Times, June 26, 2007.

[3] Andrew Buncombe, ‘Patten sues Murdoch publisher after Hong Kong memoirs axed’, The Independent, February 27, 1998.

[4] Stephen Brook, ‘Neil: Murdoch does interfere at Sun’,, January 23, 2008.

[5] Ben Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly (Beacon Press, Boston, 2004) p.178

[6] ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’, The Sun, April 11, 1992.

[7] David Hencke and Rob Evans, ‘Memo Shows How Blair aided Murdoch’, The Guardian, November 1, 2008.

[8] ‘Labour’s Lost It’, The Sun, September 30, 2009.

[9] Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly p.29

[10] Michael Wolff, Autumn of the Moguls (Harper Perennial, London, 2004) p.160

[11] Wolff, Autumn of the Moguls, p.28

[12] James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (Metheun, London, 1985) p.24

[13] Wolff, Autumn of the Moguls, p.107

[14] Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly, p.205

[15] McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy p.42

[16]McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy p.xxviii

Posted in: Issues, Media, Politics