Sunday, July 10, 2011

Strings Attached

 Business institutions so large and powerful that they distort the democratic process; frightened politicians in the pockets of large monopolistic companies; a corrupted and constricted public debate and an ever increasing separation between the actions of those large institutions and the generally agreed standards of public decency: The grim pathology of the global financial crisis comes to mind when watching the beginning of the end of Rupert Murdoch's malignant global media empire.

By common consent, Murdoch is the single most powerful media figure in the English-speaking world. From humble beginnings in Adelaide in 1952, he slowly has built a global vertically integrated media and entertainment conglomerate that ritually makes and breaks democratic governments and shapes our public space more than any other single entity.

Whether in America, donating $1 million to the Republicans, in the UK summoning would-be prime ministers across the world to his private court or in Australia vowing to destroy the Greens as a political entity, News Corp long ago crossed the line that separates news companies as observers of the political process from the direct players.

So any claim - and there inevitably will be in the weeks ahead - that action to curb Murdoch's power equates to a curb on the freedom of the press needs to be taken with a large grain of salt.  Throughout the phone-tapping controversy in the UK, News Corp's management have sought to portray this behaviour as isolated and completely out of step with its professed ethics as a news organisation. But there is enough evidence from those who have worked inside the Murdoch empire that this sort of behaviour was a natural expression  of the "whatever it takes" ethos that drives its journalism - not just in the UK but around the world.

The fact is News Corporation - like Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers in investment banking - is just too big and its tentacles are entangled too closely with our democratic institutions to believe that the public good is served by it continuing to exist in its present form. This is a company that professes a love for free markets, but which acts ruthlessly to stamp out would-be competitors. This is a company that uses its power primarily to further the commercial and ideological interests of its proprietor.  And this is a company whose poisonous culture is a pox on journalism. It is the Failed Estate writ large.

The phone hacking case in the UK is the equivalent of the sub-prime mortgages blamed for the GFC - a symptom of the problem, not the underlying cause. In the case of the financial crisis, bankers gave up on their former humble yet honest roles as intermediaries to become players instead - using their balance sheets and an implied public guarantee to leverage up and take risks that would have made their soberly pinstriped ancestors spin in their graves.  So big were the subsequent obligations and so potentially ruinous to the financial system, that governments had no choice but to bail out the banks. And taxpayers are now footing the bill. In this media crisis, News Corp has given up any pretence that it is a mere news company that acts in the public interest and now acts purely in its own interest. Like the Wall St banks, it has become so big and so influential that it virtually lives outside the law. And like the banks, if the laws don't suit, it gets them changed.

In Australia, the fact that one company owns 70 per cent of our metropolitan print media goes a long way to explaining the dire nature of our public discourse. News Corp now routinely uses its papers to pursue a policy agenda that suits its commercial and ideological interests - whether it be campaigning against the National Broadband Network, promoting industry-funded climate change denialism as mainstream "science" or fighting its silly culture wars.

In the UK, it has taken the public outrage over the discovery that agents of the tabloids were hacking into the phones of the relatives of a murdered teenage girl (and perhaps also relatives of British soldiers and terrorism victims) to prompt a rare show of defiance by politicians against a nasty, malignant corporate bully whose time must surely be up and whose publications are a blight on our democracy. Who will have the guts in Australia to take Murdoch on?

A series of inquiries into the financial crisis concluded that we must stop banks becoming so big and so interconnected with the financial markets that they are deemed 'too big to fail'. In the immortal words of Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, Goldman Sachs had become a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money". Well, News Corp is the media equivalent.  The sheer ferocity of its own blood lust is there now for us all to see. We have a chance now to rip this parasite from the face of our democracy before it sucks us completely dry.

  • Live updates on the #NOTW phone hacking investigation on the Guardian's news blog here.
  • 'Murdoch's Watergate?' by Carl Bernstein in Newsweek here.
  • 'News would do well not to keep it in the family' by Michael Woolf in the Guardian here 
  • 'Scandal Reverberates Beyond Murdoch Empire' by David McKnight in The Conversation here.
  • 'What to do about the power of the corporate media?' by George Monbiot here.


  1. Perhaps the US FPCA might take an interest in #NOTW aka think?

  2. Watching the timid responses of the politicians in the U.K (bar a few brave souls) to the scandal because they are afraid they may anger the media mogul is simply amazing. How can anybody claim this is this good for democracy and governance in general?

  3. bravo.
    sadly, rupert has so successfully dumbed the political landscape in Australia that he will have likely bought himself the presidency of an Aussie Battler's Republic and executed all the dissenters and intellectuals before anyone thinks to question him. I seem to recall Rupert Jetting in Presidentially during the Kevin 07 show to give assent. And wasn't Rupert principal advisor to John Howard on the broadband mix back in '97? Don't want them internets taking money off my pay tv John (until 2004...

  4. Weren't the cross media ownership laws changed by the Howard government??

  5. @TatteredRemnantJuly 11, 2011 at 9:40 AM

    Great piece again Mr Denmore. I found it interesting (but not surprising) that Mr Milne made a point of saying on Insiders yesterday, that the hacking scandal was isolated to the UK and that of course Australian papers would never be involved in such a thing.

  6. Thanks Tattered Remnant. I guess the fake Pauline Hanson photos didn't count or the reliance on dubious sources in the OzCar affair or the stitching up of the Victorian Police Commissioner and the smearing of Andrew Wilkie?

  7. Well said, Mr. D! In the best spirit of John Milton! I'm sure he'd approve of your every word.

    Keep up the pressure!

  8. Thank you for writing this Mr D.

    70% is an amazing figure. wow - how did our govt allow that?

  9. Mr D – Thoroughly enjoyable article. However, if I were a betting man I would be putting my money on Rupert walking away with at worst a slap on the wrist. To use the same analogy that you used, re: Bankers in the GFC, there was a lot of huffing and puffing and rathe of god to be born but in the end none of them were ever held accountable and it will be the same for Rupert. IMHO, I bet he has gone over there with a suitcase of incriminating dirt (probably hacked) on politicians to ensure that the whole thing dies a slow quiet death. We read about the stories of how calculating and ruthless he is, but I suspect we only know half the story.

  10. Whatever he's come up with doesn't appear to be working. His bid for the whole of BSkyB is as dead as his Sunday newspaper.

  11. I think there is a lot of wishful thinking going on here. It may be the beginning of the end for Rupert's influence but he may also be able to crawl out of this yet. The public's concentration on any one issue can be very fickle and as soon as the British public get distracted from this the pollies will rush to get back in News Corp's good books. Also for the same reasons there is no evidence yet that Rupert's bid for BSkyB is finished. Watch while the pollies and News Corp play for time and then in a few months it will be back on. I'm not cynical. Ha

  12. Mr D, I agree with everything you say about the Murdoch empire. Yes, he controls 70% of Australian media and yes, I consume some his media on a daily basis. However, I don't take too much notice of the dross it contains. I am able to recognise the nonsense and set it aside. Is it too much to expect others to do the same? If they don't, is it fair to ask whether they hold opinions similar to Murdoch's anyway? Or perhaps we have a critical thinking problem in this country. I suspect I know the answer.

  13. In WA, WAN Holdings owns 95% of the print media throughout the state, has purchased Channel 7 and has branched into mining - who knows what else they own, the public certainly don't.

    News is a minority here, but it doesn't make either mob more palatable.

  14. Unfortunately, the vampire squid that is Goldman Sachs lives on.

    Open up the business pages of any newspaper and read "Goldman Sachs analysts think [this] or [that]" as business journalists conveniently forget how the likes of GC were largely responsible for the GFC.

    In fact, the vampire squid is at this moment advising buying BSkyB shares is a good bet...nom, nom, nom (funnels more blood)

  15. Mr. D.,

    Your last link under "Further Reading" does not work.

  16. Top stuff! but too late I'm afraid. Foxtel ( News Limited & Telstra) are a step closer to buying Austar.

  17. Hopefully Emperor Rupert will be deposed, but the beast should be removed root and branch-Rupert's spawn has to be vanquished, too.

    The best way to do it is to stop providing the cash for this monstrous regime to flourish. We no longer buy Rupert's dross and don't feel less informed for it; the reverse, in fact.

    Emperor Rupert desperately needs our financial input to survive. If enough of us refuse to provide it, his empire will collapse.

  18. Methinks I'll now have to eat my words. BSkyB deal gone. Family Murdock in deep doodah in UK. Yet I'm still not totally convinced that News Corp is finished in Britain. Dump Murdock as chairman, change company name and they could easily continue in the same fashion, frightening politicians into being vassals for their own purposes. Family Murdock is still all powerful here in Oz and highly influential in the States. There is a long way to go before this blight on the social discourse of the Anglo diaspora is excised

  19. "News Corp has given up any pretence that it is a mere news company..."

    I disagree. All I'm seeing throughout this (even after dropping BSkyB and the sackings of Brooks and Hinton) is News Corp REFUSING to give up the pretence that it a mere news company.

    That level of denial is going to bring them down in the US and UK but unfortunately here in Oz their tentacles include most of both main parties, the ABC and a sick sympathy from almost all other journalists.

    I'm not too optimistic about restoring democracy here.

  20. Large corporations - whether merchant banks or media conglomerates - behave more like snakes than squid. They operate like reptiles (only the lower brain works). Squid are smarter.