Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Murdochisation of the global media

Out of the few years in my journalism degree, there was one important piece of knowledge that did not escape my memory. The idea that the media was to symbolise the "Fourth Institution" in Western society. The role that the media was to play in our society has its origins in the drafting of the US constitution over 200 years ago.

The US constitution engulfed three institutions of power to govern the country. The Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. Three independent organs to hold each other in check to enable free democracy to prevail. The First Amendment declared the freedom of press, thus highlighting the important and delicate role of the media.

The media composed another vital organ of the nation that would be independent of the three institutions, ensure that information was transparent to the public and that leaders were held accountable for their actions. Recognised for its importance in society, the media was unofficially dubbed as the 'Fourth Institution'. This gave precedence to the notion of the "free media" as we know it in the Western world.

Of course, in real terms, the conflicts of business interests, political interests and journalistic integrity have always tested the boundaries of the media. Everyone would love to get their hands on one of the most powerful organs in society. The media was responsible for the knowledge of the average layman. It held the key to information. Whoever controlled the media, had access to that key. Therefore, throughout the decades, it has been to the consent of media moguls and politicians to control the flow of information to public to avoid French revolution-like dissent and questioning of authority and elitism. A system was in place in Western society, and those who held the seats of power were not interested in having that change.

The explosion of the internet radically changed those conventions. The Information Revolution accurately reflected the change in the role of the media. Yes, new technologies were always introduced and the media was always forced to adapt to the changes (such as radio and then television). However, the internet proved far more potent. The WorldWideWeb was the technology that finally snapped the media's monopoly on information. Now, any individual can hop online, produce their own content as well as explore information beyond the limits of a TV box or radio. The public was to become more engaged with the information that flows throughout the world, and for the first time, the media could do little to stop it.

The media has adapted to the internet well, with many corporations "converging" their various streams to form a "synergy". There's no more a newspaper, a radio station, a TV channel, it's all become one big happy family under the name of "synergy". Of course, this has come as a result of extreme pressures on business interests. As the internet grew, print media was losing out. The only way to salvage reputable and large corporations was to invest in a complete overhaul, which they have done. This has meant a total reformation of how news is produced, and how it is distributed. To cut things short, journalism has suffered immensely as the need for profit has taken urgent precedence. Since the internet's introduction, an orgy of corporate merges and takeovers have taken place, Time Warner and AOL just to name one. Journalists are facing a losing battle to remain independent and ethical in their work as the convergence of media technologies has placed many household names under a single roof (or hand in Murdoch's case).

Most media analysts have asserted that the critical mind of a journalist will always be required, even with the abundance of information now available. The professionalism to dissect news is a quality a journalist has, and that will always be sought after. In the long run, most predictions are positive.

However, such assertions are forced to be questioned when media moguls like Rupert Murdoch continue to threaten the principles of the "Fourth Institution". Does a "Fourth Institution" still remain? A single man has created an empire that has destroyed the freedom the US constitution was supposed to guarantee journalists. As the internet gave us hope that we were free of the chains of elitism, one man attempts to reimpose the monopoly on information. What is a free media when the world is viewed through the eyes of one?

The revered Wall Street Journal will lose much of its integrity as its independent reporting becomes greatly undermined in the latest wave of Murdochisation. The article below demonstrates the hostile reaction by readers and reporters alike to the news that journalism just suffered another major blow.

The conflict between business, politics and journalism in today's media has just become more brutal. From the journalists' point of view, one can only mourn the loss of an important figure in Dow Jones. But the war will go on.

Read below for a good response to the Murdoch takeover by The Independent:

Planet Murdoch: is nothing out of his reach?

Rupert Murdoch’s spectacular $5bn takeover of America’s revered ‘Wall Street Journal’ is the crowning moment of half a century’s deal-making and empire-building. Is anything out of his reach? Stephen Foley reports

Published: 02 August 2007

"Rupert is my boss. Rupert Murdoch has bought Dow Jones. Dow Jones owns my paper. So I am now an underling in the world's most evil corporate empire."

This anonymous blog entry from a Wall Street Journal reporter just about summed up the sense of misery as the news sank in. At the paper's newsrooms across the US, journalists held impromptu wakes. "We stood around a pile of Journals and drank whisky," one told a reporter from a rival paper.

"The readers' comments on really got to people," another Journal veteran lamented. On the paper's website, reader after reader threatened to cancel their subscriptions. "This news is like hearing from an old friend that he has a debilitating, fatal disease," said one, in an unconscious echo of the late British playwright Dennis Potter, who called his cancer "Rupert".

"Murdoch will defile it and turn it into another example of his legendarily low-brow offerings," predicted one reader, and throughout the discussion, wags were coming up with tabloid-style headlines for the media business coup of the decade. The best: "D'oh! Simpsons boss Homers in on Journal".

It has taken Rupert Murdoch many years to become as hated in the US as he has been in the UK for more than two decades, and in his native Australia for longer still. But he has sealed that status thanks to his takeover of The Wall Street Journal – pious organ of the American financial establishment for over a century. Its previous owners, the Bancroft family, agonised about their duty to protect a national icon handed down through generations, but they could not turn down $5bn (£2.5bn), nearly twice what the paper was worth.

His success proves what his detractors fear most: he is rich enough, powerful enough and audacious enough to get anything – anything – that he wants. Now that his News Corp empire is absorbing the second best-selling newspaper in the US (one of its two or three most politically influential) he is more powerful than almost anybody without access to a nuclear button.

And the most extraordinary thing of all is that Rupert Murdoch is 76. What of rumours last year that he was starting to slow down, take more of an interest in consolidating the legacy for his children, retire from the daily grind and the nightly party circuit? Blown out of the water. The people with him throughout his four-month chess game with the Bancrofts say he has been as alive as ever, as vigorous and immersed in the detail and the plotting – indeed more so, since this is a trophy he has coveted personally for more than a decade rather than something News Corp is likely to make a large return on.

"This is what he likes to do, this is what keeps him going," says Michael Wolff, Vanity Fair's media commentator. "He thrives on this sort of confrontation, this insistence on his primacy. It is part of the Rupert Murdoch brand. That's the real value of spending $5bn: he gets to look once again as if he is unstoppable."

The Journal is the missing piece of the puzzle in the US, where his influence on the news is limited – if limited is the right word – to the country's newest and already most watched news channel, Fox News. Its unabashedly unfair and unbalanced right-wing outpourings, plus its mix of trashy personality stories, has utterly changed the landscape of television news, pushing CNN into second place and forcing the established channel to react in ways that critics allege have blurred the boundaries between news and comment. He also owns the New York Post, a trashy tabloid and a guilty pleasure for many New Yorkers, keen to see which misbehaving celebrities and politicians are being terrorised in its famous gossip column, Page Six. It is through the Post – which he rescued from bankruptcy, thanks to a waiver of media ownership restrictions – that Murdoch has waged feuds with the judge who imprisoned his business associate Michael Milken, politicians such as Teddy Kennedy ("Fat Boy", the Post calls him) who have opposed liberalised media laws, and business rivals such as Ted Turner.

And it is therefore in New York that Murdoch is concentrating his time, lounging in the 8,000 sq ft apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side that once belonged to the mighty Rockefellers – another trophy asset that he coveted for decades and only finally got the opportunity to buy in 2004.

With his wife, Wendi Deng, 38 years his junior, whom he first wooed when she was an executive at Star TV in Hong Kong, Murdoch has been extending his dynasty, with two daughters aged five and four. His renewed vigour may have much to do with the confused state of any succession plans – Lachlan, his eldest son, flounced out of News Corp in 2005 in a dispute over inheritance plans for the new daughters, leaving Murdoch without an obvious successor. The younger James is running the outpost BSkyB in the UK, and was brought in to help reassure the Bancrofts that the Murdoch family can be good stewards of the Journal, but he is not deemed experienced enough yet to take the torch from his father.

Not that he ever will. "Rupert will never have completed his task by the time he leaves this earth. He's a huge restless spirit," Kelvin Mackenzie, his editor at The Sun once memorably said. Murdoch himself jokes that he had planned to retire at 100, but has had to postpone it. Instead, through his ownership of the MySpace social networking site, he is having to do a whole lot of getting down with the kids, learning about the internet and new ways to distribute the media content being churned out by the Fox television studio, maker of The Simpsons and American Idol, and movie lots, which have just spawned another Die Hard. One of his most recent parties, covered in the West Coast gossip rags, saw MySpace founder Tom Anderson rubbing shoulders with Tom Cruise and American Idol judge Simon Cowell on the roof of Murdoch's Beverly Hills condo.

His East Coast pad plays host to more heavyweight guests from politics and business – Murdoch never fails to mix the two. He is a dramatic convert to the cause of Hillary Clinton's campaign for the White House, hosting a fund-raiser for the former First Lady and burying the hatchet after years when his papers castigated her and her husband. Since she was elected Senator for New York, he has been burying more than just the hatchet – stories on her marriage, too, if insiders at the New York Post are right.

It was ever thus, in Murdoch's giant empire, where the news is tweaked in ways that suit his interests and keep his friends sweet.

He does it in little ways. A Saudi businessman friend of Murdoch, the billionaire Prince al-Walid bin Talal, who owns shares in News Corp, took umbridge at Fox News' coverage of the riots in the Paris suburbs in 2005. He phoned Murdoch to complain specifically about a caption describing them as "Muslim riots", and within half an hour the mogul had stepped in to get the caption changed to "Civil unrest".

And he does it in big ways. The BBC was thrown off Star TV in Asia, broadcasting into China, after the Communist regime complained about its critical coverage. Murdoch was unapologetic: "Primarily a financial consideration. But it might have occurred to me – this might have not hurt relations with Beijing," he told The Wall Street Journal, even as he was promising he would not interfere in the paper's editorial line if he took it over. "At that stage, I had not been received by a single [Chinese] minister or anyone. They had a report from Xinhua that when I had the South China Morning Post I was a member of MI6 or MI5. So no one was allowed to see me. We just had a total blackout for five years."

Power and influence are melded together through Murdoch's long career in the news business. Last month – thanks to a Freedom of Information request by The Independent – we discovered that Murdoch had a hotline to Tony Blair at crucial moments during his premiership, and that the pair spoke three times in nine days in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. The war was strongly supported by Murdoch-owned newspapers around the world. On two occasions, the day after a call with Blair, The Sun launched vitriolic attacks on the anti-war French President Jacques Chirac.

But Michael Wolff says Murdoch's motivation is not power so much as just an interest in the news. That is why buying the Journal is quite a quaint move. "In this day and age, no rational media person likes newspapers except old people. Young people are not interested in newspapers, advertisers are not interested in the news. But Murdoch still loves getting his hands dirty at a newspaper. He is buying a present for himself."

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