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The threat monopoly media ownership poses to democratic politics is laid bare in a compelling new study of Rupert Murdoch’s use of his corporate power, argues Paul Hartley

David McKnight, Murdoch’s Politics: How One Man’s Thirst for Wealth and Power Shapes Our World (Pluto 2013), 272pp

During the Leveson inquiry all sides of the British newspaper industry leapt to the defence of press freedom against state interference. But it was a strange notion of freedom that was defended. Almost no mention was made of the real threat to press freedom in the UK: the concentration of media ownership in a small number of hands. A free press is essential for a functioning democracy, but the concentrated ownership of the British media greatly restricts the possible scope of debate, and confers extraordinary power and influence on the owners.

The publication of Murdoch’s Politics, which analyses the political influence of the world’s most influential press baron, could not be timelier. Rupert Murdoch controls nearly 40% of all newspaper circulation in the UK, and his attempt to increase his media share to more than 50% by taking full ownership of BSkyB was waved through by the coalition government, against little dissent in official circles, before the phone hacking scandal hit.

These simple percentages in fact do little justice to Rupert Murdoch’s influence. As David McKnight argues, Murdoch is no ordinary businessman: he is ‘as least as devoted to propagating his ideas and political beliefs as he is to making money’ (p.18). He actively uses his empire to shape the political culture of the countries in which he operates. Far from being the media plurality that his papers advocate, Murdoch’s news outlets actively promote his personal brand of conservatism, and he has bought himself enormous influence in the political establishments of several major countries. In the US, Fox News alone enables him to set the tone of debates in the Republican Party.

It is useful to give a cursory overview of the scope of Murdoch’s global empire. In Australia, where it began, News Corporation owns approximately 146 papers, including the largest national daily paper, the Australian, and 45% of the national news agency, Australian Associated Press. In total, News Corporation papers amount to 64.2% of the total metropolitan circulation. News Corporation also owns 25% of the main pay television provider, Foxtel.

In the UK, it fully owns the Sun, whose Sunday edition replaced the News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times, or 37% of national newspaper circulation. News Corporation owns 38% of BSkyB, which accounts for 67% of residential pay TV subscribers. In Europe, it wholly owns Sky Italia, which has 4 million subscribers, and partly owns Sky Deutschland. It also owns major assets in India and China.

In the US, News Corporation is one of only five companies that own the vast majority of all media. It owns the New York Post and Dow Jones & Company, which includes the Wall Street Journal. It owns major TV networks, including Fox Broadcasting Company, which is regularly rated the most watched network in the US, and MyNetworkTV. It owns 27 local Fox TV stations, and its other channels include the National Geographic. It also owns ten hugely profitable film companies, including 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures. In addition, it owns the major publishing house HarperCollins, which operates in the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand.

McKnight argues that Murdoch set out to shape the world. Throughout his career he has engaged in an array of direct political activities – some overt, some secretive – which are secondary to his business interests. Murdoch’s Politics documents the vast political influence that Murdoch has exercised in three countries over a period of decades. He has funded right wing think tanks and anti-communist groups. In addition to funding and supporting favoured political candidates, he uses his personal connections with political leaders to shape policy. In Britain today it would be almost unthinkable for a party to form a government without the support of the Sun and the Times. He has used this power to gain such intimate access to prime ministers that during the Blair government he was described as ‘the 24th member of the cabinet’ (p.149). He ensures that books by political allies are published, regardless of the profits they make, and his titles provide a soapbox for writers who share his particular brand of conservatism. He was, for example, instrumental in promoting the right wing American sociologist Charles Murray, whose notion of ‘welfare dependency’ has now passed into standard political discourse.

A vital section of McKnight’s book analyses Murdoch’s personal political beliefs and motivations. McKnight argues that Murdoch has a clear political vision. He champions anti-statist neoliberal capitalism, coupled with a pro-American, militaristic foreign policy. He is vehemently opposed to trade union power, sometimes becoming personally involved in disputes, and regards himself as locked in a battle against established liberal elites. He despises the UK’s relationship with the EU because he considers the connection to weaken Britain’s subservience to the US, and he dropped his support for John Major’s government because of what he perceived to be pro-EU politics. It was not always like this. As a young media baron, his papers supported Labor in Australia and Harold Wilson’s government in the UK. McKnight records that he even had a bust of Lenin in his room at Oxford.

His politics in part derive from his image of himself as a rebellious outsider and champion of the ordinary man against established interests, however much this image is at odds with his background. Murdoch is the son of a wealthy family at the heart of the Australian establishment: his father was a media baron and a knight, and the young Rupert attended the elite Geelong Grammar school, Australia’s equivalent of Eton, and Oxford University. Nonetheless, this image has sustained his career, and when he was denied access to Britain’s elite circles in the 1960s, he vowed revenge on the whole political edifice.

In Ronald Reagan he found a political soul mate who shared his idea of a right wing populist crusade against liberal elites. Reagan’s neoliberalism was an ideology to which he devoted himself over and above even that of Thatcher, whom he was willing to chastise publicly when she veered from the pro-American line. By mobilising his media outlets in favour of the Reaganite cause, Murdoch became instrumental in laying the intellectual ground for the neoliberal revolution that Reagan and Thatcher ushered in during the 1980s.

Central to Murdoch’s power is the unique way in which News Corporation is run. Despite its enormous size, it still remains under the control of Murdoch and his family. McKnight describes News International as ‘an empire run by an autocrat whose personal idiosyncrasies dominate in place of the needs of shareholders’ (p.18). Its culture is highly politicised, with regular political seminars for editors and executives. Murdoch is not lying when he claims that he does not dictate orders to the editors of his papers: he does not need to. His political views are so well known to his editors that they rarely need to be explicitly prompted to toe the line. A clear illustration of News Corporation’s political agenda is Murdoch’s willingness to sustain massive losses on papers that extend his political influence. The New York Post, which, prior to the creation of Fox News, was Murdoch’s primary agenda-setting outlet in the US, has not made a profit in twenty years; for much of its history, the Times has been supported by the Sunday Times; and the Australian loses $25 million a year.

McKnight’s insights into the agenda-setting function of the news media are extremely valuable. He shows how Murdoch’s ownership of the New York Post enabled him to exercise disproportionate influence over the whole of the American news media by validating certain issues and invalidating others, setting the language of debates and creating an ‘inter-media agenda’ (p.27). McKnight pithily remarks that ‘news media do not tell audiences what to think, but what to think about’ (p.26).

An illustrative and particularly frightening example of the depth of Murdoch’s influence on politics is his role in setting the stage for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The rapturous support of the Murdoch press for the Iraq war immediately prior to the invasion has been well documented. Despite Murdoch’s protestations of editorial independence in News Corporation titles, every one of Murdoch’s papers around the world supported the war. It is less well known that Murdoch actively pushed for full-scale invasion as early as the mid 90s.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, the Republicans were split between an isolationist wing and an aggressive, neoconservative wing. Murdoch wanted to steer the American right back towards a Reaganite foreign policy, and in 1995 he set up the magazine the Weekly Standard. The impetus for the magazine came from Bill Kristol, one of the most vocal proponents of war against Iraq, who became its long-term editor, but it was Murdoch’s support that gave it its enormous influence. Kristol approached Murdoch seeking funding to launch the magazine, but Murdoch took complete ownership and published it as a News Corporation title.

The Weekly Standard became a platform on which Kristol and Murdoch promoted neoconservative politics. It ran articles by senior neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz against the US’s sanctions policy against Iraq, but in favour of full invasion, and became a rallying point for that cause. Copies of the magazine were distributed gratis to influential political figures, and its losses of $30 million in fifteen years were covered by News Corporation. Murdoch’s investment paid off. The Weekly Standard became the primary means by which he was able to influence decision makers on the right, and it created a culture favourable to invasion long before 9/11.

Murdoch’s role as an agenda setter, pushing his particular brand of anti-statist conservative politics at home and militarised, pro-American policy abroad has not been severely damaged by the phone hacking scandal, the collapse of the News of the World, or the splitting of News Corporation in two. In the UK, the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times remain strongly committed to the ideological vision of their owner. Although News International’s alliance with Cameron’s government is fragile, they have found common ground in promoting austerity politics and attacking the welfare state. The support that a large sector of the public still gives to Cameron’s disembowelling of the welfare state can, to a great extent, be attributed to the public campaigns against benefit claimants that are mobilised largely by Murdoch’s papers.

Murdoch’s Politics should remind us that the Leveson inquiry and the debates about press freedom have enabled the real issue to be resolutely avoided. The issue that we should be debating is the extraordinary concentration of the press in a small number of hands and the enormous political power that the owners wield. Unless media ownership is dispersed, we will never have a free press.

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