Patten and Murdoch Quarrel – David and Goliath Again?

 © Terry Boardman  March 1998       This article first appeared in the German magazine Info3 in April 1998



Last year on May 29th at a sumptuous dinner in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, global media mogul Rupert Murdoch must have been feeling smug as he received from the hands of  friend Henry Kissinger  the Humanitarian of the Year award from  the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York, a group that calls itself “the largest philanthropic organisation in the world”. But then Murdoch, as he said on that occasion, has always maintained his “faith and News Corporation’s faith in the integrity and worthiness of the Zionist undertaking”. (1) Seen by both corporate rivals such as Ted Turner of CNN and by leftwingers worldwide as only slightly cooler than the devil incarnate, Murdoch the anti-Establishment crusader must have been feeling even more amused on January 11th this year when Cardinal Roger Mahoney invested him and his Catholic wife Anna with  papal knighthoods – Knight Commander and Dame of the 167 year-old Order of St Gregory – the highest lay order the Pope bestows – on those “of unblemished character”. Cardinal Mahony told the honorees: “You are examples of good peer pressure, positive influences on society and culture.” (2)One can wonder whether the Pope had ever seen episodes of  such salacious and seamy Murdoch media productions  as the American TV shows “The Simpsons” or “Married With Children”. Perhaps he was taking heart from the fact that Murdoch has recently formed a business alliance  with rightwing Christian evangelist and media boss Pat Robertson, that bulwark of traditional Christian family values, although, as a Protestant fundamentalist, Robertson is not exactly well-disposed towards the Vatican.

 But  the Pope may have had cause to wonder about honouring the man whom Murdoch’s former editor at the Times, Harold Evans called “…a good businessman and a lousy journalist…in the sense that he doesn’t believe in public interest journalism, … doesn’t keep his promises, he’s a liar, he’s incontinent in breach of promises, and (is) also…a very treacherous person, it has to be said”.(3) For the story broke in late February that Chris Patten, last British governor of Hong Kong, was going to sue Murdoch’s prestigious publishing company HarperCollins (publishers of, amongst others, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Newt Gingrich) for  breach of contract. Worried that Patten’s criticisms of China in his forthcoming book “East and West – The last Governor of Hong Kong” would upset Beijing and thus spoil the strenuous efforts he had been making to reingratiate himself with the Chinese whom he had annoyed in 1993 by his comments about satellite TV posing “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere”,  Murdoch, with his current audience of 36 million Chinese viewers and a potential further 240 million in mind, promptly ordered HarperCollins to drop the book. Patten said his book “raises questions about China and its future relationship with the rest of the world”. Murdoch’s NewsCorp issued a statement: ‘Rupert Murdoch did not agree with many of Patten’s positions in Hong Kong which he thought abrogated promises made by the previous government.’ The editor at HarperCollins, Stuart Proffitt, resigned in protest, and the British liberal media Establishment was duly outraged. Peter Hennessey, a professor of contemporary history at London University, called for authors to quit the publishing firm en masse and told BBC radio: “I am appalled by this …. HarperCollins has quite simply ceased to be a member of our open society and no one in their right minds of any worth will ever give them a book again. “Murdoch” he said, “is the greatest contaminator of modern times”. Leading novelist Doris Lessing said Murdoch was unprofessional:  “It is so shocking I can’t find words for it.”  Chris Patten said the publisher’s decision revealed Murdoch’s attitude towards free speech: “I don’t see how you can be in favour of free speech in one part of the world and less keen on it in another.” Patten has quietly signed a new deal with another leading publisher, Macmillan, but his friend and political ally, former Prime Minister John Major, has stayed with HarperCollins who are soon to publish his own memoirs.(4) Murdoch, for his part seems untroubled by the adverse publicity for HarperCollins; he has always shown himself prepared to take a substantial loss for years if he judges it to be in his interest; he subsidised  The Australian newspaper for twenty years, and his Asian operation  Star TV lost two billion the first year. China, he clearly sees as the long haul, and of more importance than either Chris Patten or HarperCollins.

Murdoch had already had some very public disagreements  with Ted Turner, boss of CNN and with computer chip giant Intel Corporation’s CEO Andrew Grove. What are we to make of this latest spat between Murdoch and another leading figure within the English-speaking Establishment? Interestingly, on an ABC TV news programme (12.6.1997) Murdoch’s former editor at The Sunday Times, Andrew Neil (now editor of The European) remarked: “Rupert Murdoch is a media baron on whose empire the sun never sets…I think what sets Rupert Murdoch apart is that he does run his operation like a sun king” On the same programme, anchorman Ted Koppel made the observation that “Rupert Murdoch is, to the world of communications, what John D. Rockefeller used to be to the world of oil and gas”. What he meant was that, like Rockefeller, Murdoch not only produces the goods but also owns the means to deliver them. In media terms, Murdoch’s empire controls both hardware and software, what the trade calls ‘the distribution platforms’ and the ‘content’. And not only that – it also interlinks all aspects of  its operations so that products from one branch can be remarketed in others. “We are a vertically integrated global media company …maybe the only real one.” said Murdoch modestly to the SchroderWertheim/Variety Big Picture Entertainment Conference in New York City on April 2, 1996. He was right. His business is way ahead of the field. He pioneered the ‘vertically integrated global media company’, and his rivals, TimeWarner and Disney have been forced to scramble to try to keep up with him. Murdoch’s reach is staggering. He can exercise control over the editorial content and direction of newspapers ranging from mass tabloids such as The Sun (readership 4 million) and The News of the World to elite opinion formers like  The Times, The Sunday Times, The Washington Post; he holds interests in many others including The Financial Times, the Economist, and Reuters,  the European Wire service. He owns 5 magazines in Britain, approximately 20 magazines in the U.S., and more than 100 newspapers in Australia.

He has the Metromedia TV station network and Fox TV (makers of the world-spanning X-Files, and including its own news service) in the US, and he has a 4 channel satellite television network Sky Television in Britain (6 million subscribers). Some of his other media interests include the 20th Century Fox Film Studio (past directors include Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford), the Harper & Row publishing house, the Star, New York magazine, Elle, In Fashion, Automobile, European travel & Life, Premiere, TV Guide, Good Food, the Daily Racing Form, Seventeen and many more. Throughout Asia, his STAR TV satellite channels are now reaching 260 million people, in more than 61 million homes (53 countries, 98 channels in seven languages); in China 36.2 million homes tune in to his Phoenix entertainment channel.

The Colossus of  Rupert

Koppel’s and Neil’s remarks above take our minds back to the expansionist 1890s, a time dominated in the US by John D.Rockefeller  and in Britain by that other world-spanning colossus, Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was also a man who seemed to have the Midas touch; he too amazed his contemporaries. Out of his determination to spread Anglo-American values round the globe ultimately arose in the years 1919-21 the sister organisations The Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK and the Council On Foreign Relations in the US. These two broadly ‘liberal internationalist’ thinktanks have dominated and coordinated British and American foreign policy since the 1930s, whichever political party has been in power. The men of the media have been one of their prime instruments of influencing politicians, voters and consumers. Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922) was one of Cecil Rhodes’ keenest supporters and his Daily Mail (founded 1896), the first truly mass newspaper, was stridently jingoist, imperialist  and anti-German. From 1908 on, Northcliffe, who was later to gain something of the global notoriety of Cecil Rhodes, also owned the other end of the market The Times, ‘the unofficial voice of the Foreign Office’. Rupert Murdoch is in this position today in Britain. Perhaps the greatest influence in his life has been his father, Keith Murdoch, Australian newspaper  boss, who met Lord Northcliffe in London during World War I, after writing fierce denunciations of the ill-fated and ill-prepared Anzac Gallipoli campaign of 1915  against the Turks, a campaign Northcliffe also opposed. The two men became firm friends; Murdoch regarded Northcliffe as his mentor: “You have been the biggest influence and the biggest force over me…largely from the example I have steadily seen in you and the standard you have set me.” Northcliffe continued to advise and assist Murdoch even after the latter’s return to Australia where his pupil soon came to be known as ‘Lord Southcliffe’. (5)

 Cecil Rhodes, Lord Northcliffe, Keith Murdoch -  Rupert Murdoch  may never have a country named after him as Rhodes did, but his global reach is undoubtedly greater than Rhodes’. And what is Murdoch really interested in? “For better or for worse, our company is a reflection of my thinking and my character and my values” (6)”It would be very easy to hide and say I’m only interested in profit and loss. But I’m interested in the world of ideas and what is going on, and what can be done to change things”. (7)It is not difficult to see what kind of ideas and values Murdoch is interested in. He shares with many Americans a disdain for the Old Establishment values of Europe, for monarchy, aristocracy, tradition, and privilege. A read through his Sunday Times, for instance, reveals its values to be those of the American Dream  – winning wealth and freedom from material wants for the common man. It is these values – largely materialistic ones – that his media outlets are spreading through the world with such efficacy to the point where one is hardly any more free from them; they pervade everything.

Patten – Chris, or David?

And is Chris Patten then some kind of David against this Goliath of the media? Far from it. Patten is a man close to the centres of  Establishment power in Britain, to those like Sir Geoffrey Howe, Norman Lamont, Michael Heseltine and the Economist. He is one of the so-called Tory ‘wets’, i.e. leftwingers, who together with Kenneth Clark (John Major’s Chancellor) and Malcolm Rifkind (his last Foreign Secretary)  helped to bring down Thatcher in 1990 by politely telling her he would no longer support her. After helping his friend John Major to win the 1992 election and losing his own seat in the process, he got himself appointed Governor of Hong Kong and thus conveniently avoided the debacle of  the 92-97 John Major government. He is now regarded by many as future Conservative leader-in-waiting. How did he see his job in Hong Kong? What are his values?

At the handover ceremony on 30th June 1997 Patten said: “…we are, I believe, entitled to say that our own nation’s contribution here was to provide the scaffolding that enabled the people of Hong Kong to ascend. The rule of law. Clean and light-handed government. The values of a free society. The beginnings of representative government and democratic accountability…Hong Kong’s values are decent values. They are universal values. They are the values of the future in Asia as elsewhere, a future in which the happiest and the richest communities, and the most confident and the most stable too, will be those that best combine political liberty and economic freedom as we do here today .”(8)

It would be difficult for Rupert Murdoch to disagree with any of these empty phrases. He too seems to believe that the values of  the English-speaking rich and powerful amongst whom he has moved all his life are “decent” and “universal”, “the values of the (westernised) future in Asia as elsewhere”, a future in which to be rich is to be happy, confident, and stable.  One wonders what Patten can mean by ‘a free society’ when it is becoming difficult to avoid  having trivia such as the Spice Girls, Power Rangers, or X-Files stuffed into one’s senses by Mr Murdoch’s vertical integration, and when ordinary English towns hurry to install street cameras to spy on their citizens seven years after the end of the USSR, because the good citizens are so afraid of one another. The British did not see fit to extend any ‘freedoms’ to the people of Hong Kong for 150 years. They did so in their last five years, under Patten, in order to have a stick to beat Beijing with during the 50 years of the ‘transition period’.  The people of Hong Kong had no real political power when the British left; that was still in the hands of the elite that dominated the Legislative Council. Patten’s speech showed him merely to be a master of the most refined British art of rhetorical hypocrisy.

‘Disputes’ between the Pattens and Murdochs, the rich and the powerful of this world will be taken by the Pattens and Murdochs as evidence of a vibrant, free and open society. On the contrary,  they ought to be seen as  squabbles between  captains and  colonels in different regiments of the same army who, despite all their hi-tech know-how, have happened to blunder  into one another’s territory, but who share the same ultimate allegiance.  That army is the army of the New Roman Empire and that ultimate allegiance is to Ahriman and rank materialism.

(1)  Norman Solomon, www.Institute for Alternative Journalism, 1.5.97
(2)  Los Angeles Times 12.1.1998
(3) Wendy Goldman Rohm UPSIDE, February 1995, pp. 39+
(4)  BBC News Online  28.2.1998 and Jill Serjeant REUTERS@ Reut15:21 03-01-98
(5)  W.Shawcross, “Rupert Murdoch – Ringmaster of the Information Circus”, Chatto & Windus, London, 1992, p.40
(6)  ABC News 12.6.97
(7)  www.The American Enterprise “Live with TAE”
(8)  From Patten’s farewell speech at the handover ceremony 30.6.97, from  Britain in the USA, UK embassy information website.

©Terry Boardman

This page was first uploaded  Dec 1999.  Last updated 1.7.2012