Rupert Murdoch doesn’t even have to ask to get what he wants.
If you want to know how powerful Rupert Murdoch is, read the reviews of Bruce Dover’s book, Rupert’s Adventures in China. Well, go on, read them. You can’t find any? I rest my case.
Dover was Murdoch’s vice-president in China. He took his orders directly from the boss. His book, which was published in February, is a fascinating study of power, and of a man who could not bring himself to believe that anyone would stand in his way(1). So why aren’t we reading about it?
Murdoch, Dover shows, began his assault on China with two strategic mistakes. The first was to pay a staggering price – US$525m – for a majority stake in Star TV, a failing satellite broadcaster based in Hong Kong. The second was to make a speech in September 1993, a few months after he had bought the business, which he had neither written nor read very carefully. New telecommunications, he said, "have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere. … satellite broadcasting makes it possible for information-hungry residents of many closed societies to bypass state-controlled television channels."
The Chinese leaders were furious. The prime minister, Li Peng, issued a decree banning satellite dishes from China. Murdoch spent the next ten years grovelling. In the interests of business the great capitalist became the communist government’s most powerful supporter.
Within six months of Li Peng’s ban, Murdoch dropped the BBC from Star’s China signal. His publishing company, HarperCollins, paid a fortune for a tedious biography of the paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, written by Deng’s daughter. He built a website for the regime’s propaganda sheet, the People’s Daily. In 1997 he made another speech in which he tried to undo the damage he had caused four years before. "China", he said, "is a distinctive market with distinctive social and moral values that Western companies must learn to abide by." His minions ensured, Dover reveals, that "every relevant Chinese government official received a copy".
But the satellite dishes remained banned, so he grovelled even more. He described the Dalai Lama as "a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes". His son James claimed that the Western media was "painting a falsely negative portrayal of China through their focus on controversial issues such as human rights". Rupert employed his unsalaried gopher Tony Blair to give him special access: in 1999 Blair placed him next to the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, at a Downing Street lunch. To secure some limited cable rights in southern China, News Corporation agreed to carry a Chinese government channel – CCTV 9 – on Fox and Sky. Murdoch promised to "further strengthen cooperative ties with the Chinese media, and explore new areas with an even more positive attitude".
Most notoriously, he instructed HarperCollins not to publish the book it had bought from the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. Dover reveals that Murdoch was forced to intervene directly (he instructed the publishers to "kill the fucking book") because his usual system of control had broken down. "Murdoch very rarely issued directives or instructions to his senior executives or editors." Instead he expected "a sort of ‘anticipatory compliance’. One didn’t need to be instructed about what to do, one simply knew what was in one’s long-term interests." In this case executives at HarperCollins had failed to understand that when the boss objected to Patten’s views on China it meant that the book was dead.
Anticipatory compliance also describes Murdoch’s approach to Beijing. Dover shows that the Chinese leadership never asked for Chris Patten’s book to be banned: they didn’t even know it existed. But when Murdoch killed it, "our Beijing minders were impressed and the Patten incident marked a distinct warming in the relationship".
The strategy failed. Murdoch was astonished that he couldn’t replicate "the cosy relationship he enjoyed with Britain’s political Establishment". For the first time in his later career, he had encountered an organisation more powerful and more determined than he was. He has now retreated from China, after losing at least $1bn.
This is a riveting story about two of the world’s most powerful forces. Dover’s British publisher told me "I thought this was a natural for serialisation. We had the author primed and prepared to come over here. But we had to cancel as we could not raise enough interest. We’ve hit brick walls and we don’t understand why."(2) The book has been reviewed in the Economist and the Financial Times, but neither the other British newspapers nor the broadcasters have touched it.
As far as I can discover, the book has been reviewed by only one Murdoch publication anywhere on earth – the Australian Literary Review – and that was an article of such snivelling sycophancy that you wonder why they bothered(3). The editor of another of News Corporation’s titles, the Far Eastern Economic Review, commissioned a review of Dover’s book, then admitted to contracting "cold feet" and spiked it(4).
But what of the other papers? Why should they appease Murdoch? "When you see the reaction of the British media to the book," Bruce Dover tells me, "one can better understand why in some respects the Chinese so admired Murdoch – an Emperor who inspires fear in his followers need not raise a hand against them."(5) He might be right, but I think there is also a general bias against relevance in the review sections. When I worked in faraway countries my books about the tribulations of obscure peoples were comprehensively reviewed. When I came home and wrote Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain, it was ignored. There appears to be an inverse relationship between how hard a book hits and how well it is covered.
Paradoxically for a publication which inspires such fear, Bruce Dover’s story sometimes steps back from the brink. He observes that News Corporation never promised the Chinese government favourable coverage; Murdoch undertook only to be "fair", "balanced" and "objective". Dover takes these terms at face value, though it is obvious from his account that they were being used as code for sympathetic treatment. His book does not contain News Corporation’s most direct admission: the statement by Murdoch’s spokesman Wang Yukui that "we won’t do programmes that are offensive in China. … If you call this self-censorship then of course we’re doing a kind of self-censorship."(6) He is wrong to suggest that "Murdoch very rarely issued directives or instructions". As the testimony by Andrew Neil (formerly the editor of the Sunday Times) before the Lords Communications Committee shows(7), the paramount leader micromanages the editorial content of the newspapers he owns which swing the greatest political weight.
But I am sure it is true that anticipatory compliance is Murdoch’s most powerful weapon. I doubt he needed to tell all 247 of his editors to support the invasion of Iraq, but they did(8). He might not even have had to lean on Tony Blair to ensure – as Blair’s former spin doctor Lance Price reveals – that no British minister said "anything positive about the euro."(9) Power is sustained not by force but by fear, as everyone seeks to interpret the wishes of his master and to meet them even before he asks.
1. Bruce Dover, 2008. Rupert’s Adventures in China: how Murdoch lost a fortune and found a wife. Mainstream Publishing.
2. Email from Bill Campbell, 17th April 2008.
3. Mark Day, 2nd April 2008. More than a mogul can bear. Australian Literary Review.
4. Donald Greenlees, 3rd March 2008. Review of Book on Murdoch Is Killed. The New York Times
5. Email from Bruce Dover, 17th April 2008.
6. Agence France Presse, 20th December 2001. Murdoch’s News Corp looks for further China access after TV.
7. Andrew Neil, 23 January 2008. Minutes of evidence taken before the Select Committee on Communications: Media Ownership and the News. House of Lords.http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/lduncorr/comms230108ev15.pdf
8. David Harvey, 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p35. Oxford University Press.
9. Lance Price, 1st July 2006. Rupert Murdoch is effectively a member of Blair’s cabinet. The Guardian.
Published in the Guardian 22nd April 2008