Murdoch’s obsession

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It hardly seems worth what he went through to get it. After eight years of crawling over broken glass in penance for one careless remark, News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch is finally about to get permission to broadcast TV by satellite to parts of southern Guangdong province, the corner of China that is already most exposed to the relatively uncensored media of Hong Kong. It contains perhaps 3 per cent of the Chinese population.

That’s still a significant number of people: about as many as a fair-sized country like Spain. But the Chinese target audience are far less affluent than Spaniards, so why has Rupert Murdoch been eating dog waste with a smile for almost a decade to achieve this breakthrough? Partly because he and his partner in the venture, AOL Time Warner chief Jerry Levin, believe that this is an entering wedge that will in time give them access to the entire Chinese market. But partly also because he is an obsessive with a tincture of megalomania.

This is traditional among media barons, from monsters of the founding generation like William Randolph Hearst and Lord Northcliffe down to more house-broken contemporary figures like Murdoch and his Canadian-born colleague Conrad Black (Lord Almost’), whose obsession with getting a British peerage has turned him into a laughing stock. At least Murdoch’s obsession is vaguely connected with his business – but it is, nevertheless, a strange fixation.

Breaking into the Chinese media market has become the Australian-born entrepreneur’s obsession. He is as fascinated by the sheer size of the Chinese population (now 1.3 billion) as those 19th-century Western merchants who dreamed of controlling the market in “oil for the lamps of China”.

If only he could get direct broadcast rights to China, Murdoch dreamed, the advertising revenues would flow in endlessly, he’d be the richest media magnate who ever lived, and he’d be able… well, he’d be able to afford three or even four lunches a day, if he wanted. A less than magnificent obsession, perhaps, but at least a big enough goal to keep the boredom at bay for a few years – and back in 1993 it did look like it would only be a few years.

Eight years ago Murdoch bought a majority shareholding in Hong Kong-based Star TV and began broadcasting directly to China by satellite. It seemed only a matter of time until enough Chinese had satellite dishes to turn it into a paying concern – but then he put his foot in it. Speaking to a Western audience in September, 1993 (and forgetting that local events do actually get reported elsewhere), he made the fatal remark that direct TV broadcasts from satellites were “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.”

Not only did it strike the right note for a Western business audience – here is a dedicated capitalist busily spreading freedom as he makes money – but it even contained some truth. It was not, however, what a man trying to do a deal with a totalitarian regime for direct broadcast by satellite should be saying in public.

The Chinese government was very cross, and it punished Murdoch severely. One month later it banned private satellite dishes throughout China. At this point Murdoch should have walked away from the project, but his obsession wouldn’t let him. Instead, he embarked on one of the most impressive feats of protracted grovelling that has been seen since Iago.

Trying to win back China’s favor, he dropped the BBC World news feed from his Star TV in 1994, replacing it with something much blander. The following year he sponsored Deng Ron, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s daughter, on a US book tour to promote her biography of her father. In 1998 his HarperCollins publishing subsidiary dropped plans to publish the memoirs of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, who had greatly annoyed Beijing with his attempts to inject some democracy into the political system there before leaving.

Then, two years ago, he made his most important move, dumping his wife of 30 years for Wendi Deng, a young Chinese woman less than half his age with excellent connections in China. By now the Beijing regime was softening, and he helped the process along with ingratiating remarks like his dismissal of the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, as “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes”. China, the new Murdoch line goes, is run by very sweet people who are just misunderstood.

So now Murdoch has his deal, after a fashion. He gets to broadcast `The Simpsons’ and `Friends’ to a tiny corner of China. “We have agreed that they can broadcast in parts of Guangdong, but not all the province. There are limits,” said Beijing’s spokeswoman – and in return AOL Time Warner will carry China’s English-language CCTV-9 on its North American cable network. You wonder who is more deluded.

CCTV-9 is slick enough, in its way, but it’s not going to change many Americans’ view of the Chinese regime. Star-TV is not going to start a revolution in Guangdong, or even change viewing habits much. The reason these people are doing deals is because deals are all they know how to do.

Yet Murdoch was right, basically, in the remark that caused all the trouble. The media in general (not just satellite TV broadcasts) are a mortal threat to totalitarian regimes. We used to believe otherwise, but surely that has been the underlying lesson of the past 15 years of upheaval in the world. Mass media, however brutally censored or cynically commercialized, are a democratizing phenomenon.

Mr. Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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