Rupert Murdoch’s global media monolith—which includes key players in America’s right-wing media echo chamber, Fox News channel, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal—is in meltdown.
A headline in Britain’s Independent newspaper Thursday morning cried: “Murdoch Empire in Crisis.”
Murdoch’s News Corporation announced Thursday that it would close Britain’s 2.8 million–circulation News of the World—once the highest-circulation newspaper on the planet—in response to a scandal that has exposed the sleazy practices of Murdoch’s employees. The immediate decision to close the 168-year-old newspaper came following revelations that a private investigator employed by the newspaper had allegedly hacked the cellphones of the families of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The closure of one of the largest newspapers in the world is a desperation move by Murdoch’s media empire, which is attempting to salvage its reputation and influence in the face of a scandal that has dominated the news in Britain for the past several days. It has now gone global (full disclosure: I’ve been commenting on it for the BBC World Service) and it has shaken Murdoch’s international empire.
In Britain, the damage is running deep, as members of Parliament—including Labour Party leader Ed Miliband—have called for placing a hold on the anticipated purchase by News Corp. of British Sky Broadcasting, a hugely-profitable satellite TV enterprise that Murdoch has coveted for years. The protest group Avaaz has led an aggressive campaign to challenge what was until not long ago expected to be the swift and easy approval of the purchase. Support for that campaign has surged in recent days. The closure of the News of the World by Murdoch is seen as a last-ditch attempt to secure approval of the deal. But it may not work.
Scotland Yard and other police agencies are reportedly investigating the abuses. Lawyers for victims of the hacking are describing the practice as “diabolical.” An emergency debate in Parliament brought allegations that News Corp. executives were “perverting the course of justice by engaging in a cover-up.” And the outrage in Britain is such that a dozen top companies have withdrawn advertising from the highly profitable News of the World.
News Corp. share values tanked to such an extent that it was estimated Murdoch and his family lost hundreds of millions on Wednesday alone. And the closure of a major property, and the threat to a high-stakes deal, will likely make things worse.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, a favorite of Murdoch’s media, had made his break from Murdoch’s grip, declaring: “Let us be clear. There will be an inquiry, perhaps inquiries, into events. It is no longer just celebrities and politicians, but murder victims. The whole country is appalled.”
Appalled he should be. Every hour brings new revelations of hacking—the BBC says thousands of cellphone accounts may have been targeted by Murdoch’s minions—that has violated the privacy rights of politicians, celebrities, soldiers, crime victims and others.
Should Americans be appalled by a scandal in Britain? Certainly.
It raises huge questions about how news stories are and will be obtained in an era of new media, and about the extent to which supposedly personal communications are private. These are not just British questions. Ask Anthony Weiner.
And they also raise questions about how Murdoch’s media plays politics —on camera, and off.
Murdoch’s empire is not merely a network of media that spreads around the world. It is widely viewed as a political project that is usually conservative, frequently prowar and consistently corporate-friendly.
Above all, it has maintained influence over the political players who make definitional decisions about the shape of the media landscape on which News Corp. is often a dominant player.
“The relationship between politicians and Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire is also under close scrutiny,” explained the BBC on Thursday, noting that “media commentators have argued that for the past two decades no politician with any prospect of power has dared to attack his empire.”
Though the focus today in on the British scandal, that statement need not apply merely to British politicians. American candidates, officeholders and powerbrokers have often displayed a subservience to Murdoch that parallels that of their British counterparts—as Robert Greenwald so ably confirmed with his documentary Outfoxed. (More disclosure: I was a commentator on that project.)
Famously, at a critical stage in war on terror, when international pressure on the United States was exceptionally high following a 2004 raid that was thought to have killed a key player in Al Qaeda, then–Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice took an extended break from her duties to participate in a private satellite briefing for Murdoch’s editors from around the world.
The ties between the Bush administration and the Murdoch empire ran deep. It was a Fox News “call” on election night 2000 that declared Bush the “winner” of Florida and the presidency—a “call” that was not based on actual numbers but on the hunch of Fox’s analyst, who happened to be Bush’s cousin. The relationship deepened as the United States steered toward war with Iraq: a project Murdoch passionately favored.
When the war in Iraq began, the three international leaders who were most ardently committed to the project were US President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard. On paper, they seemed like three very different political players: Bush was a bumbling and inexperienced son of a former president who mixed unwarranted bravado with born-again moralizing to hold together an increasingly conservative Republican Party; Blair was the urbane “modernizer” who had transformed a once proudly socialist party into the centrist “New Labour” project; Howard was the veteran political fixer who came up through the ranks of a coalition that mingled traditional conservatives and swashbuckling corporatists.
But they had one thing in common. They were all favorites of Rupert Murdoch and his sprawling media empire, which began in Australia, extended to the “mother country” of Britain and finally conquered the United States. Murdoch’s media outlets had helped all three secure electoral victories. And the Murduch empire gave the Bush-Blair-Howard troika courage and coverage as preparations were made for the Iraq invasion. Murdoch-owned media outlets in the United States, Britain and Australia enthusiastically cheered on the rush to war and the news that it was a “Mission Accomplished.”
Now, Bush, Blair and Howard are all out of office, and all in relative states of disgrace.
No problem for Murdoch. Politicians come and go, but his empire’s political influence has been a constant —until, perhaps, now.
With the exit of Bush and the election of Barack Obama in the United States, Murdoch’s empire briefly flirted with the idea of embracing what seemed to be a shift in the direction of American politics. But in short order it returned to the old project of turning America to the right. Fox News and its print partners in the Murdoch stable have all been busy fostering the fantasy that the United States is going broke. And they have equally focused on the task of identifying the ideal Republican presidential candidate for 2012.
Murdoch and his media outlets—in addition to Fox, his News Corp. stable includes the feisty New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, both of which maintain editorial pages that are unrelenting in their corporate-friendly conservatism—are unrivaled in their influence over the Grand Old Party.
The Murdoch machine had been positioning to dominate the 2012 election cycle in the United States as it did the 2010 cycle in Britain, when the empire’s candidate, David Cameron, led his Conservative Party to power.
Now, Cameron is calling for investigations of abuses by Murdoch’s media in Britain.
But Murdoch’s project in the United States continues uninterrupted, just as Murdoch’s efforts to win favor with regulators—at the Federal Communication Commission—carry forward. (The FCC has so overstepped in its subservience to Murdoch on media ownership that a federal circuit court on Thursday rejected rules drawn by the supposed regulators because they failed to protect the public interest.)
There is an appropriate question to be asked of American politicians—particularly, but not exclusively, the Republicans who would be president or vice president: When so many of them have worked for Fox (Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin) and so many more of them have been made national figures by Fox (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Paul Ryan), what assurance can Americans have that top conservatives will serve the public interest rather than Murdoch’s interest once elected? Will the conservative contenders be willing to attack the empire? Would a conservative president be willing to hold it to account if the abuses now under scrutiny in Britain were exported to other lands?
Give Britain’s big “C” Conservative David Cameron credit. He appears to have declared independence—although the real test will come with regard to the BSkyB deal. But will America’s small “c” conservatives do the same?