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Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Murdoch's moral rise and fall
Recent U.K. phone-hacking revelations have made the Australian-born media tycoon Rupert Murdoch a symbol of all that is wrong with U.K. tabloid media — scoop mania, rampant political bias, sex, sensationalism and trivia. But it was not always like that. The Rupert Murdoch whom I knew many years ago was a man willing to sacrifice much for the sake of media integrity and principles. His climb down into the media gutters came later.
I first came across Murdoch in Canberra in the mid-'60s. He had a visionary zeal to create a progressive daily newspaper for nation the size of the United States and a population then of only 7 million. And this was in the pre-electronic era when even fax machines did not exist.
He should have been doomed from the start. To maintain the national image, editorial pages had to be prepared in the national capital Canberra, then flown to Sydney daily for printing, with a mad four-hour car dash needed whenever Canberra airport was fogbound, which was often.
As in the U.S., which only now can begin to sustain a national newspaper, his baby would have to compete with dominating regional newspapers. Circulation never got much above 150,000. Red ink flowed with every issue.
But Murdoch persisted. Costs were cut to the bone. Funds were squeezed from the gaggle of local publications he had bought or inherited. Throughout, he stuck to his ideal of producing an outlet for progressive views, especially in foreign affairs. His editors were happy to publish my and other criticisms of government policies at a time when Canberra was successfully persuading public opinion that the war in Vietnam was Chinese aggression.
But gradually the progressive gloss began to wear off. Partly it was due to exhaustion in trying to battle Australia's overwhelming conservatism.
Roger Pulvers has in this newspaper written recently about Canberra's hysterical denial of a visa to the Japanese academic, Rokuro Hidaka, falsely accused of harboring Red Army radicals. Worse was the denial of a passport to Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett because his brave and accurate coverage of the wars in Korea and Vietnam contradicted government propaganda at the time. A newspaper trying to counter these and other excesses found little favor in Canberra, or elsewhere.
But I also blame another factor and I think I can date it precisely to the two months I spent in Murdoch's Sydney headquarters in mid-1969 before becoming his Tokyo correspondent.
At the time Murdoch's national ambitions depended crucially on his being able to print the paper just in time to catch the last flights out of Sydney in time to compete with regional dailies the next day. The leftwing Sydney printing unions knew this of course. So whenever they had yet another frivolous demand to make, they would stage a wildcat strike precisely at evening production time. All nonunion staff including journalists and even Rupert himself at times would have to be dragged down to the basements to try to get the paper out in time.
Standing almost elbow to elbow pushing lead into the printing plates, I had a good idea of how Rupert was thinking: If this is how the leftwing unions treat the one person trying to produce a serious and progressive newspaper, then to hell with the leftwing and to hell with being serious and progressive. Soon after he began his move into U.K. sensationalist journalism and his very successful battle to destroy the U.K. printing unions.
The progressive editors in Sydney were soon replaced by go-go operators more interested in stories about mistreatment of Australian racehorses in Japan than about the Japanese economy. I realized it was time to go.
Subsequent dealings with some of his minions did little to convince me that their growing reputation as totally unscrupulous in the pursuit of both power and money was misplaced. When they turned to me for Japanese introductions during Murdoch's near bankruptcy in 1990, I was happy to tell them that they had been dismissed as "yellow press" by the better publishing outfits here.
What Murdoch did to media standards has been bad enough. But his insidious abuse of media power to force politicians to bow to his will has corrupted politics far more than the worst big business lobbying excesses. In Australia we have seen it clearly in the way a succession of governments, both on the left and the right, have been forced to toady up to the increasingly reactionary demands of his now well established national newspaper. Similarly in the U.K.
In the U.S., his aggressively conservative Fox News outlet has all but killed sensible political debate.
True, Murdoch deserves respect for some of his braver media ventures — satellite TV especially. His media instincts are often correct; even Fox News deserves credit for shaking up TV presentation techniques. And I am not the only one to have found him consistently polite, unpretentious and considerate in personal dealings. But none of that excuses the damage he has done to our media and political institutions.
Gregory Clark is a longtime Japan resident. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on his website: www.gregoryclark.net