November 19, 2008
Rupert Murdoch - man of ideas
Rupert Murdoch's critics often make the mistake of caricaturing him as just another businessman, interested more in money than ideology. His support for Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, it is argued, secured him a lucrative TV network and protected him from regulatory measures. These claims underestimate Murdoch's powerful contribution to the shaping of political ideas in Britain, the US and Australia in the past 25 years.
Most businessmen avoid discussing politics publicly and media owners all the more so, since their businesses are the vehicles for the national conversation about politics. Not so Rupert. Murdoch and his media outlets have been at the forefront of the philosophical and political revolution constituted by free-market thinking.
Murdoch obliquely referred to this in his first Boyer lecture as "the great transformation we've seen in the past few decades", but otherwise his praise for free-market thinking was muted, perhaps because people blame finance deregulation for the economic crisis. But last year, to support its bid for The Wall Street Journal, News Corporation began advertising itself on the theme "Free people. Free markets. Free thinking."
In support of such a position, Murdoch maintains loss-making newspapers such as the New York Post and the London Times. The Australian lost millions for 20 years until the mid-1980s. Murdoch's preparedness to take losses year after year testifies to the fact that he often puts ideas and influence before profit.
In a 1994 address to the Centre for Independent Studies, a Sydney free-market think tank, Murdoch argued ideas in society were more important than short-term profit. He quoted John Maynard Keynes's argument that political and philosophical ideas are often very significant to men who regard themselves as supremely practical. In the media business, "we are all ruled by ideas", Murdoch added.
An important example of this is his support for the Washington publication The Weekly Standard, an influential and elite magazine regarded as the journal of American neo-conservatives. Murdoch began it with $3 million in 1995 and, for a number of years, it was a determined opponent of the Clinton presidency. In 2003 The New York Times described it as the "prime voice" of Republican neo-conservatives and one of Washington's more influential publications.
Like Murdoch, the magazine strongly supported the invasion of Iraq and most Bush Administration positions. The annual subsidy to The Weekly Standard is thought to be at least $1 million, though this is small change amid corporation revenue of $US32 billion. Murdoch's speechwriter, Bill McGurn, was Bush's chief speechwriter.
That corporate culture at News is deeply political is evidenced by the regular global retreats of editors and other senior staff - not because corporate retreats are unusual (they are not) but because News's so closely identify with politics. The early retreats expressed a clear preference for the Republican Party and its neo-conservative wing.
The first of these was in 1988 at the ski resort of Aspen, Colorado. According to the the Murdoch biographer William Shawcross, the star attraction was Richard Nixon. The other speakers representing "different aspects of Murdoch's view of the world" included Norman Podhoretz, an early neo-con and father of a founding editor of The Weekly Standard.
In 1992, at the second of these powwows, one discussion panel included Stephen Chao, the president of Fox television; Lynne Cheney, the morals campaigner and wife of Dick; John O'Sullivan, the editor of a major conservative journal; and another neo-con intellectual, Irving Kristol, whose son, William, now edits The Weekly Standard.
A male stripper disrobed as Chao spoke and Chao, who was trying to make a point about sex in the media, was sacked by Murdoch. The seminar's title? "The Threat To Democratic Capitalism Posed By Modern Culture" - a regular theme of neo-cons, who argued profit imperative destroyed moral barriers. Another high-flown concept pioneered by News in Australian political life is that of "culture wars", a notion derived from American think tanks to describe the conflict over such things as the interpretation of history, values and skills in public education and the welfare state. Some of these themes will feature in the Boyer lectures and have been the subject of campaigns by The Australian for some years.
The Australian's existence is an example of Murdoch's commitment to quality journalism. But the newspaper's stance draws deeply from intellectuals in American think tanks and it finds itself at odds with many Australian thinkers unconvinced by neo-conservatism.
For example, just before the defeat of the Howard government, The Australian Literary Review ran a cover story on Australia's "second-rate" intellectuals who refused to recognise Australia's great political leadership. An editorial noted: "Australia continues to be a lucky country thanks to a generation of first-rate national leaders but has been let down by second-rate public intellectuals." It named several, and continued: "Their contempt for our political leadership is matched only by their disparagement of ordinary people." Accusing left-liberal opponents of being powerful elites who hold ordinary people in contempt, News replicates another tradition of American neo-conservatism.
One key target over the years has been La Trobe University's Robert Manne, who was attacked by The Australian in a 2001 article of an unprecedented 7000 words, mainly for Manne's defence of the Bringing Them Home report on the stolen generations of indigenous children. Manne had said there was an organised campaign of historical denial in which writers and columnists at News Corporation newspapers had taken a prominent part.
Rupert Murdoch's ideas are said to have mellowed.
In 2006 in California, he was persuaded by Tony Blair, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Gore to abandon climate scepticism and to accept the scientific evidence of climate change. Shortly afterwards Murdoch warned of climate change's "catastrophic" threat.
While a change of heart, the statement confirmed the Murdoch commitment to ideas was unchanged. It reaffirmed his media's unified corporate position on major political issues. Previously and predictably, his media promoted climate scepticism; now that the orthodoxy changed, they turned in a new direction, like an army on the march.
Profit remains important to Murdoch; of course it does. But it is also balanced, in part at least, by a commitment to ideas.
Posted by David at 9:48 PM