Rupert Murdoch is one of the most powerful individuals in the world and inarguably the most powerful in global media. So he can’t help but make news. One day, he’s asking $29.7 million for his yacht, and on another, he’s divorcing his third wife, Wendi Deng. On a third day, he’s inspiring the much-admired British playwright Richard Bean, author of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” to write a play on the phone-hacking scandal at his News of the World tabloid for the National Theatre in London. And on a fourth day, he’s the subject of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s recently premiered “Rupert,” a new “cabaret-style dramatization” of the mogul’s life by Australian playwright David Williamson.
But Murdoch makes news in other ways as well. Indeed, he literally makes the news—and I don’t mean the scandals where “reporters at several of his newspapers routinely hacked into private cell phones” and worked hand in glove with law enforcement officials to cover their tracks. As shocking as many of those stories may be, they are small potatoes in relation to Murdoch’s ability to make and break governments and then direct their policies from his desk in New York.
Think about it. Why does Rupert Murdoch own so many money-losing newspapers? No one knows how much money the New York Post or The Wall Street Journal lose each year, but estimates fall in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Over in Australia, his largest newspaper, The Australian, has managed to lose $3 million a month in recent times—no small feat in a nation with so meager a population.
While Murdoch’s newspapers and other media properties are literally all over the globe, his footprint is largest in his native Australia. His News Corporation enjoys “a total audited circulation of 17.3 million newspapers [in Australia], according to company figures—a 59 percent market share.” So when he decided to go on the warpath against the outgoing Labor government, it mattered quite a bit.
On the day the national election was called, one of his newspapers, Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, ran a front-page editorial headlined “Kick this mob out.” Murdoch took this election extremely seriously. He sent a New York Post editor to Australia for “extra editorial leadership” for the election period, which may explain why Sydney’s leading tabloid pictured then-Prime Minister and Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd wearing a Nazi uniform one day and compared Stephen Conroy, the government’s information minister, to Josef Stalin, Kim Jong-un, and Fidel Castro on another day. (Fascist and communist at the same time. Quite a trick.)
Murdoch naturally denied the credit due him. When Liberal Party candidate Tony Abbott won the election, Murdoch tweeted, “Aust election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy. Others nations to follow in time.” Ironically, given how hard his papers pushed for Prime Minister Abbott, Murdoch had previously put his papers in the service of his opponent, former Prime Minister Rudd. According to a tweet from journalist Andrew Butcher, back in 2007, Rudd “[tipped] off journos to be outside News Corp NYC post-meeting [Murdoch],” where they were rewarded with a Murdoch quote in which he claimed to be “sure” Rudd would make a good prime minister. The two men went out to dinner afterward.
It’s far from clear what led to the falling out between Prime Minister Rudd and Murdoch, but The New York Times notes that Prime Minister Rudd’s government hoped to build a National Broadband Network that would deliver high-speed Internet access to much of the country. This would hence cut into the profits of News Corporation’s subscription TV service, Foxtel, which “remains the company’s most profitable Australian venture.”
Ironically, the whole embrace-a-Labor-candidate-for-prime-minister-only-to-fall-out-and-endorse-the-other-side thing happened in England as well, when Murdoch endorsed Tony Blair’s run for the top job against the conservatives. According to Alastair Campbell’s government diaries, he also pressured former Prime Minister Blair to serve as President George W. Bush’s wingman during the run-up to the Iraq War both personally and through his newspapers.
Of course that romance soured—as did Prime Minister Blair’s with his own party—and Murdoch began to support the Conservative Party leader, now-Prime Minister David Cameron, whom Murdoch met with no fewer than 15 times while Cameron was the leader of the opposition. Murdoch’s son, James, met with Prime Minister Cameron 12 times. And guess who was the first person to meet with Cameron upon his becoming prime minister? And guess whose editor of a wire-tapping, police-bribing, detective-hiring tabloid became Cameron’s top press aide—that is, until the scandal leaked and he was forced to resign in disgrace and later arrested?
If the United States had had the bad judgment to elect Rudy Giuliani president, Murdoch would likely have enjoyed similar indulgences, as he did in New York City when Giuliani was the mayor. Investigative reporter Wayne Barrett tells of a quid-pro-quo relationship between Murdoch and the then-mayor that goes far past the standard quid-pro-quo fare of political endorsements for lucrative tax abatements, though there were several of those. Never before—or since, really—had a mayor of New York gone as far for a friend as Giuliani did for Murdoch, up to and including forcing Time Warner to carry Fox News when it initially declined to do so. And Murdoch and his employees, including especially Roger Ailes, more than repaid the many favors.
Oh, and as a bonus: The Economist ran a 3,000-plus-word examination of Murdoch’s misdeeds during the hearings of the wire-tapping scandal, in which the magazine stated that “[f]ew outside the liberal blogosphere” were “buying” the likelihood of any connection between the empire’s criminal behavior in Britain and its operations in the United States. And who did the magazine use as a character reference? None other than Mayor Giuliani, who “called Rupert Murdoch ‘a very honourable, honest man.’”
Obviously Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and others are not merely deeply biased on behalf of Republican Party candidates and their political positions. But as we have seen in Australia, Britain, New York City, and elsewhere, Murdoch’s ambitions to control global politics go well beyond just the English-speaking world. (I haven’t even mentioned China, which is worth a whole book in and of itself.) How perilous it would be for our democracy, then, if Murdoch was allowed to get his hands on the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the other properties that would come from a Tribune Company takeover. Charles and David Koch may no longer be interested, but they are in many respects less dangerous to American democracy than the man who is already the most powerful—and dangerous—media man in the world.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.