Mogul vs Mogul

Rupert Murdoch has come under fire for reneging on a contract to publish former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten’s manuscript East and West. Reports indicate that Murdoch considered the forthcoming work to be overly critical of the Chinese government, and thought its publication might threaten his investments in mainland China. The press has lambasted Murdoch for toadying to a totalitarian regime, thereby impairing a fledgling democracy movement, for his own economic gain. This is a pretty reasonable criticism: it is regrettable that Murdoch felt compelled to sacrifice HarperCollins’s editorial integrity to advance his business interests. But like most controversies that embroil Murdoch, the current fracas brings into focus the disproportionate media vitriol directed at Murdoch, while the discretionary gestures of his more moderate and leftist peers receive nothing short of approbation. Whether right or wrong, Murdoch’s decision has eclipsed some of the political benefits of his presence in China. Though East and West will never officially penetrate the bamboo curtain, Murdoch’s broadcasts do. They achieve political subterfuge on a different level; a discreet, gradual attack from the inside, which can be more fruitful than the frontal attack favored by human rights groups. Laced with Western ideology, Murdoch’s programs are as effective a solvent of the authoritarian political regime as acid attacks like Patten’s. Although seemingly innocuous, Fox’s programs, like Real TV (which is in fact a leveled-down version of a Situationist ethic of public participation), and the anti-authoritarianism of The Simpsons, can be more politically instructive than high-minded China bashing. Provided there is a modicum of editorial leverage, the broadcasting of government-regulated material can work to erode the dominant political forces. 

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to suggest that the government should interfere in the media. But I do recognize that the movement away from Communist Party domination is a gradual process, On a more abstract level, the mere creation of new markets — and Murdoch is largely responsible for prying open the Chinese media market — give rise to growth and wealth creation. These activities run counter to the goals of a powerful central bureaucracy. As P.J. O’Rourke has observed, “Nothing undermines communism like a Big Mac.” Crass consumerism, fueled by Murdoch’s visual hamburgers, can outstrip the grandiose political rhetoric of the elites when it comes to challenging power.

Curiously, while Murdoch is singled out for culling politically sensitive projects, Ted Turner, his more politically correct adversary, remains unblemished. Turner was even commended for refusing to broadcast the Global Climate Coalition’s advertisements protesting the Kyoto protocol. Corporate editorializing with a leftist accent is acceptable; only when espousing views contrary to political orthodoxy does a businessman become guilty of gross ideological misconduct.

Murdoch is so popular a whipping boy that he was transformed into Elliot Carver, media executive-cum-world-dominator-manqué in the recent James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. The strategic parallels between Elliot Carver and Rupert Murdoch are as manifold as the absence of direct allusions to Turner are curious. Turner’s readily identifiable idiosyncrasies (the rugged American moustachioed cowboy, Hollywood starlet for a wife, penchant for environmentalism) are prime fodder for burlesque. And yet, Elliot Carver is presented as the ubiquitous suited businessman, in perfect harmony with Murdoch’s trademark innocuousness. The association is reinforced by the film’s plot, which centers around the emerging Chinese media market (say no more), and the fact that Carver is British (Murdoch is Australian born) and owns a Fleet Street rag (Murdoch’s preeminence in the UK is legendary). Also of no small importance is that Jonathan Pryce, who plays Carver, endorsed the description of his character as “Rupert Murdoch on ad.” Elliot Carver is a celluloid rock lobbed at Murdoch’s window.

In spite of this, the arrows earmarked for Murdoch would find a better fit through the heart of his nemesis, Ted Turner. Being in command of a private army, Elliot Carver is not sufficiently profit-oriented to be a quintessential conservative villain. One only need look to Russia to recognize that military forces do not pay high dividends. This is perhaps unfair, as a feral army is integral to every Bond plot, but all the same, Ted’s widely publicized billion dollar U.N. pledge does compare as an investment blunder: high political gain, low financial return. This may be moving too fast — we could be underestimating Turner’s shrewd business sense. After all, his donation is going to the world’s highest executive body. Whether the investment bears fruit or folly, there are uncanny similarities between Turner and Carver wasting scarce capital on grandiose quasi-statist schemes.

Unlike Elliot Carver, Murdoch is mostly devoted to making money and will allow politics to take the back seat. This is evident in his short-lived East German newspaper devoted to venting anger towards occidental money-grubbers, and his benign period at the helm of the Village Voice. Turner, on the other hand, is enamored with high-profile politics. Witness his funding of the Goodwill Games, his U.N. pledge, and his immodest drive for a Nobel Prize. All of this betrays a personality with a very different ambition. The conclusion to be drawn is that, although the film appears to take a gibe at Murdoch, it inadvertently sideswipes Turner. It is Turner, not Murdoch, who has sacrificed his profit margin to feed his fantasy of world domination (albeit a diluted form). Murdoch is in comparison far less publicity-conscious, and less needing of the adulation that fuels Carver’s and by extension Turner’s megalomania.

This point is crystallized in this latest Murdoch controversy. Murdoch is attacked not for fashioning news to cohere with a certain political agenda, as Turner did with the Global Climate Coalition campaign, but for financial expediency. Whereas Murdoch is ruthlessly condemned for self-regulation (and probably should be), Turner receives unending accolades for making massive transfer payments into government coffers. The asymmetry betrays the disingenuousness of the media storm ensnaring Murdoch. Like the Bond film, the verbal rocks would have a higher chance of striking a target if they were thrown Ted’s way, but there is little indication that the mainstream media is going to give it a shot.