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Rupert Murdoch: The Most Dangerous Man in the World?

John Simkin

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Interesting article by Peter Wilby in today's Guardian:


I do not usually admire middle America, but on this occasion I wonder if it should be an inspiration to us all. OJ Simpson - who, while acquitted of actually murdering his ex-wife and her friend, was held responsible in a civil court for her death - was about to give the world, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch, a "hypothetical" account of how he could have committed the crime. Murdoch's News Corporation had a book lined up, a TV interview that would be syndicated across America and, no doubt, countless spin-offs in other countries and media. Public opinion, including bookshop and TV staff, cried "enough". For once Murdoch couldn't do what he liked. On Monday he agreed to stop the project, and fragile standards of public taste and decency survived for another day. Gosh, the great man even apologised for an "ill-considered project", which is a bit like an ayatollah admitting he'd misread the Qur'an.

But this, I fear, will cause just a ripple in the Murdoch empire: the emperor can afford to behave decently from time to time, and we are all very grateful - just as when he decided to stop publishing rubbish from global-warming deniers and take an interest in saving the planet. Of more importance is Murdoch's sudden purchase (to be precise it was James Murdoch, son of Rupert and chief executive of BSkyB, but the distinction isn't important) of 17.9% of ITV shares. Sir Richard Branson, with the cable company NTL, was planning a £6bn takeover of ITV. It might not have happened anyway (ITV's board yesterday rejected the bid while implying it might look kindly on a higher price), but Murdoch's intervention makes it highly unlikely.

Though Murdoch is just within the 20% limit for cross-media ownership of ITV shares, the media regulator Ofcom is to investigate. But don't expect spectacular results. The Times assured us yesterday that Labour was "happy" and the Conservatives "content", and that only the dear old dotty Lib Dems were at all bothered. So that's all right, then.

Well, no, it's not all right, particularly since the insouciance of the big political parties is entirely down to their anxiety about securing Murdoch's support at the next election. We are talking information here, and Murdoch controls a vast amount of the information that flows around the world, from China to California. As the OJ Simpson affair shows, he's a cultural, as well as political, gatekeeper. That's why, though we should worry about Branson, we should worry more about Murdoch. Branson also has a gigantic network of interests, but he's essentially a brand label that can be slapped on anything from jeans to jumbo jets, and doesn't have the same influence on how we perceive the world.

What is Murdoch up to at ITV? All you need to grasp is that we don't really know; we never do with Murdoch. "In any deal that Murdoch does," one biographer has written, "there is always a second strand running below the public transaction, known only to insiders, and then there is a third strand running under that again, which no one ever sees." Without many people here noticing, he picked up 7.5% of Fairfax, his Australian rival, a few weeks ago. "Just to make it difficult for anybody to take them over," explained Rupert - who presumably calculates that, in his native land, they appreciate plain speaking, whereas the Brits can be told the ITV share purchase was just "a long-term investment". It looks as if this is the new Murdoch mission across the world: to stop predatory capitalists from gobbling things up. As long as the predatory capitalist isn't called Murdoch.

In other words, if he can't or won't get actual control (and, depending on the strength of other shareholders, 17.9% seems very close to it), Murdoch will continue to do what he has always done: to weaken his rivals, not by producing better quality content, still less by developing original TV programmes or innovative films, but by exploiting his dominant market position. He wants to maintain what amounts to a monopoly position in non-terrestrial British TV programming and, if Branson and NTL got their hands on ITV's content and programme-making experience, that might be threatened. Keeping his rivals weak cheats the public. Murdoch endeavours to stifle competition, and thus bring everything down to his level of mediocrity and bland populism.

We've seen it before. His newspaper price war in the 1990s caused the Independent to lose its independence and threatened its survival. In its headline circulation figures, the Daily Telegraph clung on to its market leadership among daily qualities, the only sector of the national market where Murdoch isn't undeniably dominant. But its full-rate UK sales are now significantly below those of the Times.

Murdoch can live with small, relatively weak rivals, such as Channel Five, the present ITV, the Telegraph, the struggling Mirror papers, and so on. Look, he will say, readers and viewers have plenty of choice, so how can you accuse me of excessive control? He will muse, from time to time, about a democratic revolution, in which technology allows anybody freedom to publish. He said it after the move to Wapping, the advent of digital TV and the growth of the web - but the new age never quite comes to pass.

What Murdoch will not tolerate is anything big enough to challenge him. He has only two serious rivals in the UK media industry: the BBC and Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday. He has disrupted the latter by starting a freesheet, the London Paper - as a rival to Associated's free Metro, distributed on the London tube, and to its evening paper, the Standard. The BBC, meanwhile, is subjected to relentless knocking propaganda from the Murdoch press that aims, at the least, to pressure the government into starving the corporation of resources by holding down the licence fee. BBC news services are consistently accused of being dominated by a liberal bias: a chilling echo of similar charges levelled at the public broadcasting channels and great metropolitan newspapers in America from, among others, the Murdoch-owned Fox News.

Murdoch is so much a part of the landscape that we sometimes lose sight of how outrageous his power is; we think his behaviour is just that of a natural businessman, as in some senses it is. But British political leaders cross the globe to pay him court, like tribal chiefs from outlying provinces offering tribute to a Roman emperor. He pays only the tax he feels like paying, which isn't much. To a remarkable extent, his political agenda - light business regulation, tight shackles on trade unions, a semi-detached status within the European Union, support for the American neocons in Iraq - is also the British political agenda.

Murdoch is an object lesson in the dangers of concentrated cross-border power. Such power is always problematic because it is apt to reduce diversity, squeeze out the regional and local, and stifle dissent. When it occurs in the information industry, it threatens democracy. It's doubtful that anybody can stop him buying his 17.9% of ITV: ownership regulations, last relaxed three years ago but with the usual assurances about "safeguards" for the public interest, nearly always turn out too weak to prevent Murdoch doing what he wants to do. It is time more people followed the example of middle America and took him on.

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This may not be my most insightful post, but here goes,

One is reminded of the question posed to Ed Nortons character in the movie 'Fight Club', "IF you could fight anyone in the world living or dead, who would it be?".

My answer would of course be Rupert Murdoch.

I will now open the floor to some rather more intellectual debate!


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