Book review: Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires; David Folkenflik; Public Affairs Books
Review by R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
Though it had been a part of British life for 168 years, the final days of the tabloid newspaper News of the World were more of a farce than anything fiction writers could have concocted for a badly scripted political thriller. Its demise was both surreal and lowball comic: on July 10, 2011, the paper’s computer wonks—technicians and network operations staff—shut down computers, cordoned-off internal file servers and severed internet access for the newspaper’s employees, and, while security guards stood at doorways and in other critical locations, Rebekah Brooks told reporters and staff were told that their jobs were gone, and along with them the venerable, and now infamous, tabloid. The News of the World ended with a whimper, not a bang.
In Britain, in the U.S. and in various cities around the world, some cheered, some jeered. In the rarified airspace surrounding media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose giant News Corp owned the tabloid, there was the genuine hope that the shutdown of the paper would begin the process of closure to what had become the worst newspaper scandal in history—an imbroglio which posed a grave threat to several major multi-billion dollar deals between Murdoch and major partners on multiple continents.
But the symbolic amputation of the News of the World from News Corp’s portfolio carried with it instant political and legal fallout: despite the layoffs and firings of hundreds, top executives and managers got to keep their jobs. Worse for Murdoch and his family, the scandal only grew larger.
Beginning perhaps as early as the start of the aught years, the competitive culture within the News of the World had driven reporters and staff operatives into the netherworld of illegal actions—hacking email accounts, hiring prostitutes for sting operations, stealing documents, hacking cell phones and voice message accounts—anything that was deemed useful to gain access to headline stories and salacious gossip. This cultural pressure first appeared in some mainstream news after a Britain’s Prince William had sustained a minor knee injury during a stunt soccer match with children, and, in the immediate hours and days following, reporters for News of the World had penned trite, gossipy stories which contained verbatim recounts of voice messages left on the cell phones of the royals and their top aides. Over time, a pattern began to emerge, and, like many celebrities and political figures in the U.K. and the U.S., royal family members began to suspect that someone was systematically hacking into their mobile phones.
As news-watchers worldwide would learn over the next few years, the phone and email hacking was part of a much larger practice which affected politicians in the U.K., the U.S. and other countries, as well as movie stars, musicians and other celebrities on several continents.
But for Murdoch and his media empire, the worst was yet to come—revelations which took nine years to incubate, then, spring into outrage for British citizens. On March 21, 2002 a 13-year-old named Amanda Jane Dowler disappeared after leaving an aggrieved note saying that she felt her parents cared more for her sister than they did for her. She had been seen leaving her home with her backpack and her cell phone. For the first hours and days it looked like a runaway, but, as time went on Amanda—who was known to family and friends as “Milly”—never reappeared. British police began a widespread search of the area near her home in the leafy, golf-course-rich area around Walton-on-Thames, a large suburb southwest of London. In September that year her badly decomposed body—mostly bones—was discovered by mushroom harvesters in an area called Yateley Heath Woods, near Farnborough.
Milly’s father was a suspect, high on the list of those whom the investigators were looking at closely. But in the immediate aftermath of Milly’s disappearance, someone was hacking into Milly’s cell phone, listening to voice messages, and perhaps even deleting them to make room in the memory for more messages to arrive.* Surrey police were aware that the hacking was taking place, but seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the phone message tampering was anything more than a small distraction from their investigation, perhaps assuming that Milly’s own father might be the hacker. Many years later, when DNA evidence identified Milly’s killer as Levi Bellfield, police were forced to apologize for the long period of distraction during which time they had concentrated their efforts on family members as suspects.
In the ensuing legal mess and emotionally charged trial, it was revealed that Milly’s cell phone had been repeatedly hacked during the early weeks and months of investigation. The hacking—and especially the deliberate deletion of messages and phone numbers—had amounted to interference with police work, and may have misdirected the search for Milly. As Scotland Yard would learn, that hacker turned out to be in the employ of the News of the World—a private investigator named Glenn Mulcaire.
Public outrage around the world—but especially in the U.K.—begat political and legal action, and would reveal the widespread illegal practices then a part of the journalistic routine inside the walls of News of the World.
In his new book Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires, (Public Affairs Books; 2013) author, newspaperman and NPR correspondent David Folkenflik traces the Rupert Murdoch subculture from Rupert’s early days as an Australian editor and publisher, to his eventual preeminence as one of the world’s most powerful media figures, a man so powerful that his reach extends to almost every corner of the globe and into every genre of media.
Murdoch’s media empire has few rivals. His closest approximate U.S. competitors include cable and media giants Comcast (which owns NBC, Universal Pictures, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network, SyFy, Bravo, ClearWire, iN Demand and HITS) and Time-Warner (which owns CNN, Headline News, HBO, Cinemax, Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema and at least 22 magazines, including Time), and Walt Disney (which owns ABC, ESPN, A&E, Lifetime, Touchstone Pictures, Miramax, Pixar and over 250 radio stations in North America).
Murdoch’s News Corp may be even larger, depending on how these things are measured. With a reach that is truly international, even by the far-reaching standards of today’s global media holdings, News Corp’s penetration is staggering. According to a variety of online sources, media watchdog groups, and News Corp’s own web-based accounting, News Corp owns all of—or a large stake in—the following: 20th Century Fox, Fox Television Network, Fox News, Fox Television Studios, National Geographic TV (all related channels), Speed TV, Fuel TV, TV Guide and TV Guide Channel, FSN, Film Zone, Fox Sports, Big Ten Network, Fox Searchlight Pictures, and at least 27 television stations in the U.S. alone. It gets bigger. In the United States, News Corp owns the print publications Barrons, The New York Post, SmartMoney, and the venerable Wall Street Journal, once the flagship of the Bancroft family, but now Murdoch’s jewel in the crown. News Corp also owns HarperCollins Publishers, MarketWatch.com, Dow Jones Newswire, and, in fact, the Dow Jones Company itself. In the United Kingdom, Murdoch owns The Sun, The Times, and The Sunday Times, three of Britain’s largest newspapers. Added to that hundreds of radio stations across North America and Europe, numerous satellite and cable TV holdings in two dozen countries, television outreach across fifty language groups and every continent, and ownership of over 170 newspapers worldwide (many of those in his native Australia where 77% of daily newspaper readers see only Murdoch’s ink), The News Corp and Murdoch empire dwarfs nearly every comparable media conglomerate.
This makes Rupert Murdoch the most powerful media tycoon the world has ever known, eclipsing the historical legacies of CBS’s William S. Paley, NBC’s David Sarnoff, the Reid family of the late The New York Herald-Tribune, the Sulzburgers of The New York Times and the Grahams of The Washington Post, and the careers of electronic media giants like Ted Turner and Sumner Redstone.
Folkenfink, a media correspondent for National Public Radio for nearly a decade, traces Murdoch’s often contentious and embattled path to this unprecedented level of preeminence. Like American media tycoon Ted Turner, Murdoch proved early in his business career to be an enemy of petty regulators and a cagey adversary to sometimes hypocritical, grand-standing politicians. Murdoch chose not to be fenced in, and it was his out-of-the-box thinking and action which many times brought him success despite the very best (and sometimes noble) efforts of his detractors and his enemies. 1968, for example, Murdoch outmaneuvered rival publisher Robert Maxwell (himself a scrappy outsider to the British establishment) to take control of the News of the World from its seller Sir William Carr.
Later, in a complex bid to operate in a semi-competitive arrangement with the BBC, Murdoch’s disdain for television rules and regulations in the U.K. drove him toward an elegantly simple solution: he would move his fledgling TV broadcast and satellite operations to tiny Luxembourg, point the transmission signals at England, and thumb his nose at British regulators—all while still reaching his intended audience. He set up television studios in London, ignoring British regulators and bypassing the limitations.
His American challenge was probably greater and more visionary: offer a genuine alternative to what was—for many decades—a sacred cabal of three big television networks and one publicly funded alternative, PBS. Prior to Murdoch, no attempt at breaking the three-way lock by CBS, NBS and ABC had succeeded, even remotely. Ted Turner’s slow rollout of television entities in the 1970s and very early 80s offered no real challenge to the three networks, and Turner wisely used his capital to invest in the ever-expanding appetite for cable TV content. But Murdoch wanted to go after the Big Three, choosing to ignore the growing perception of television fragmentation by embracing—instead—the notion of a fourth major network. Turner and Murdoch would each successfully blaze their own paths, but Murdoch’s early debut of Fox TV seemed especially vulnerable to failure. The network at first only broadcast on certain nights, and then, only for limited hours. Without a full schedule of original programming, advertisers were wary. Without advertisers, it seemed unwise to spend millions on content, stars and packaging. Still, Fox TV persisted, making headway in a few key markets. By the mid-to-late 80s, Fox TV programming seemed to embrace a piratical mentality, thumbing its nose at American TV conventions and flirting with the rawest edges of what was acceptable. Shows like “The Simpsons,” “Married With Children” and others of the new genre were widely disparaged by media watchers, parents’ groups and TV critics as base, juvenile, even puerile entertainment. Some shows went beyond mere irreverence: Fox seemed within those first couple of years to have made it a goal to lower the bar of expectation. Murdoch, and his top Fox producers, creators and developers weren’t concerned, some even embracing the controversies as evidence that their challenge to the Big Three was sparking results. Fox eventually battled along to the point that it was able to fill its prime time slots with original programming, much if it highly innovative, if not edgy to the point of discomfort for some older, traditional viewers.
But Murdoch craved respectability and higher ratings for the Fox TV brand. In a coup which may have been the most significant for the fourth-place network, Murdoch outmaneuvered CBS in an audacious and expensive bid for a large slice of NFL programming. Murdoch had felt all along that sports were an open-ended cash machine, as well as a vehicle for respectability and ratings, and in his view nothing captured the American viewer more completely and symbolically than pro football. The gambit paid off, and soon after its venture into NFL programming, Fox achieved the respectability Murdoch sought.
Folkenfink also examines the enormous influence of Fox News, News Corp’s brash challenge to the news gathering operations of CBS, NBC, ABC and—by the early 1990s—first-place news network CNN. Turner’s Atlanta-based CNN had achieved the miraculous by rising from almost complete obscurity to world-wide dominance through persistence, savvy placement and sheer luck. The network had famously been on the scene at major events when other networks had been asleep or absent, and the growth and eventual deep penetration of cable television throughout the 1980s meant that CNN’s reputation grew steadily along with all that U.S. broadband build-out. The Challenger explosion, revolutions and turmoil in the communist world, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait created opportunities for CNN to be in the right place at the right time. By the start of the Gulf War, CNN had virtually no true rivals in the around-the-clock business of news.
Murdoch’s audacious challenge in the 1990s was to assert that CNN was vulnerable, and he employed the emerging red-state-blue-state contentiousness as his blunt tool, bringing in former Reagan media man Roger Ailes to manage the development of a news organization to compete with CNN. Fox News adopted the moniker “fair and balanced,” an ironic—some would say facetious—pair of fingers poked into the eyes of their competitors. Top political news stories were crafted to put maximum spin toward the right, at least wherever possible. Other stories were developed carefully to elevate any combination of factors, including glitziness, controversy, sensationalism and fear. Ailes shrugged off the complaints from the left and from mainstream thinkers: TV news had always been a slick, sometimes grubby business—what Fox was doing was merely shedding the hypocritical veneer of impartiality and neutrality.
Ailes guided Fox directly into a muscular wind once at the back of most television journalism, challenging the notion that the Big Three had ever been truly impartial. The argument, of course, was an old one. Many conservatives had for decades argued the case that the news divisions of the TV networks were run by crypto-liberals, or at least producers and reporters with a leftward tilt. Ailes himself saw this firsthand as a young media consultant in the Nixon White House, in his employ during Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1979-80, and later in George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign for the White House. Media watchers were always skeptical of the template of genuine neutrality: were the faces and deliveries of Dan Rather, Sam Donaldson, Tom Brokaw or John Chancellor ever truly impartial? Murdoch, himself a creature of a rightward tilt despite his obvious disinterest in social conservatism (as evidenced by the programs found on the Fox network), empowered Ailes to use the tools of distrust and disenfranchisement as a way to channel red state angst into the Fox News column. The process worked with remarkable ease and speed, and millions of television viewers shifted their allegiances from CNN (and cable rival MSNBC) to Fox News.
By the aught years progressive and liberal candidates were openly distressed by Fox’s preeminence in cable news, as well as the ability of Fox to shape (at least half) of the tenor and tone of the national conversation, and many Democrats shunned participation in debates or other big events staged or sponsored by Fox News. But Fox News was succeeding nonetheless, and its stable of anchors and reporters grew in stature and star power along with higher ratings: Megan Kelly, Brit Hume, Chris Wallace, Shepard Smith, Bret Baier. Ailes also brought on board conservative commentators and opinion-makers, notably Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly, a gifted author and writer, became a star, and more than anyone at Fox News, the signature voice and tone of the network.
Fox News also changed the look of cable television news, and, eventually, nearly all TV news. With Murdoch’s approval, Ailes employed the gimmicks once limited only to tabloid TV. Viewers in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. can thank Ailes and Fox News for the visual busyness, the clutter and the eye-candy glitz of news—graphic summations, meta blurbs, spinning and twisting logos, “breaking news” and “developing news,” character-generator alerts against red backgrounds, laser-like sound effects, teasing transitions, multiple text boxes, and the ubiquitous, continuous crawl. These visual tools became such a game-changer that they can now be found virtually everywhere, from sports programs to home improvement shows.
Folkenflik shares some of his closest scrutiny and harshest light for Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s star player and high-ranking executive, and the person perhaps largely responsible for the direction of Murdoch’s tabloid culture and the illegal—or at least immoral—actions of investigative journalists. The Dowler disappearance and murder was only one of dozens of such cases. Ultimately, her actions and the behaviors of those working for her lead to the greatest crisis Murdoch ever faced. Under great political and social pressure, and after much evidence had been amassed, Brooks was arrested in mid-July of 2011, charged with a variety of serious crimes, including bribery of public officials, tampering with private communications, interference with police investigations, and even attempted bribery of law enforcement. Days later Murdoch himself—along with his son James and his wife Wendy Deng—appeared before a special hearing commenced by Parliament and held in Portcullis House. There, in front of a panel of Britain’s most powerful politicians, Murdoch was grilled about the laundry list of misdeeds apparently commonplace among News of the World staffers, including routine bribery of police, investigators and public officials. The phone and email hacking, the public would learn, had been going on for years.
Finally, Folkenflik takes us inside Murdoch’s complex deal to purchase the Dow Jones Company and its prized publication, the Wall Street Journal. More than any acquisition in Murdoch’s long career of buying, merging and selling, WSJ was his prized achievement, taking his reach into what may have been the most respected business journal of the 20th Century. His purchase of the Dow Jones Company and WSJ from the Bancroft family required cultural adaptations and compromises—on both sides of the deal. The Bancroft’s and their immediate circle wanted the Wall Street Journal to retain its unique footprint and its independence, but, as Folkenflik illustrates, Murdoch would eventually begin to reshape the newspaper to his liking.
Murdoch’s World also illuminates the complicated relationship between Rupert and his children, especially the distribution of corporate power to his sons Lachlan and James, with James, the younger of the two, moving into the role of heir apparent.
Folkenflik’s book is thorough and well-written, though it has a slight tendency at times toward what feels like a disorganized drift—the result, surely, of a topic perhaps too large to tackle in the breezy, fast-read-style of this book. But this is a minor complaint. Author Folkenflik captures quite successfully the family and corporate culture—one of audacity, challenge, contentiousness—which empowered, for better or worse, Murdoch’s media world to grow and evolve into the communications empire it has become. This is a great read.
* Police and investigators for Scotland Yard would later conclude that some of Milly’s missing voice messages had not been deleted by the hackers, but instead had auto-deleted after a certain number of weeks or months had passed, a common feature with some cell phones.
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