Why does Rupert Murdoch's PR want to feed me with social tittle- tattle over bacon butties in Wapping but provide no opportunity to question the man about his global empire?
Monday 23 June 1997
It was from Jane Reed, the company's director of corporate affairs, who felt moved to respond to my column last week with these words: "You have been writing about Rupert Murdoch with, as far as I know, little first- hand knowledge of the man and his business for some time now."
First-hand knowledge of the man and his business? That surely could mean only one thing. Ms Reed was going to line up an exclusive, extensive interview with her boss the next time he's in town. Or maybe she was even going to fly me over to the 20th Century-Fox lot in Beverly Hills to meet the Australian-American magnate in the hub of his global media empire ...
Er, no, not quite. All Ms Reed was proposing was that we - she and I, not Rupert - should meet up at Wapping in the near future, say for breakfast, "so that I can give you some background that might assist you".
Now, I never like to appear rude or anti-social, but I fail to see how sharing tea and bacon butties with NI's top PR in a converted tobacco warehouse in east London is going to give me "first-hand knowledge" of Rupert Murdoch.
Mind you, Ms Reed obviously does pull a few strokes for her master. Rather interestingly, in a follow-up phone call about the aforementioned fax, she revealed that it was she who tipped off the Londoner's Diary in the Evening Standard about Murdoch's recent supper with William Hague. So it was not a "secret" dinner, as the Standard and yours truly had reported.
Obviously not. But this little revelation does prompt a few interesting questions. Why does NI's director of corporate affairs feel that the public should be fed tittle-tattle about Rupert Murdoch's London social engagements but should have no opportunity to question the man whose company accounts for 40 per cent of national newspaper sales in the UK and whose satellite network BSkyB is threatening to dominate the digital revolution in this country?
Of course, Rupert Murdoch is not alone in dodging the sort of critical scrutiny to which journalists on his payroll merrily subject thousands of other people every day of their working lives. Compared to the reclusive, ultra-secretive Barclay brothers (proprietors of The European and The Scotsman), Murdoch is high-profile and fairly accessible.
The Dirty Digger did grant a telephone interview last month to the New Yorker magazine, during which he dismissed talks of deals with Tony Blair as "paranoid rubbish". "We just thought it would be a good thing, at this time, for Britain to have a change," he told John Cassidy. "I may have misjudged him, but I take Tony Blair at his word. I think he is a well- intentioned, decent man ... a very impressive human being."
Gee, shucks. But such schmaltzy talk makes little impact on Murdoch's great rival among American media moguls, Ted Turner, who last week publicly challenged him to a boxing match. "It's a great idea," declared the founder of CNN. "One 58-year-old against one 66-year-old. We'll put it on pay- per-view and charge $4.95 ... the lowest-priced fight anyone has ever put on."
Turner went on: "Maybe we'll make it that the loser will leave the country. Murdoch is chicken. He won't do this, even if he can wear headgear and I don't."
Yes, Murdoch is as unlikely to take up Turner's challenge to step into the ring as he is to face a public cross-examination in this country about his dominance of the media and his dabblings in the British political process. For, as the professor of the science of government at Harvard University has explained in a standard work, "The architects of power must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight, it begins to evaporate."
That passage is quoted by Noam Chomsky in his contribution to the excellent 25th anniversary edition of Index on Censorship, a journal which has broadened its focus in recent years from persecution of journalists, writers and publishers to comment critically upon questions of media ownership and access to the press and broadcasting.
Defenders of pluralism and diversity in the media often feel that they are fighting a losing battle, but - in a rare display of optimism of the intellect - Chomsky implores us to stay positive: "There are no mysterious `laws' or `uncontrollable market forces' that we must silently obey, only decisions within human institutions that are subject to will and choice, as they have always been."
The rise of Rupert Murdoch's media empire is plainly not unstoppable, as we were reminded last week when commercial television's watchdog, the ITC, bared its teeth and expressed concern about BSkyB's involvement in BDB, one of the consortia bidding for digital terrestrial TV licences in this country. The report in the FT instantly wiped pounds 800m off the satellite giant's share value.
So, those of us who write critically about Rupert Murdoch on a regular basis and raise questions about his increasing domination of both the press and broadcasting in Britain are clearly having some effect. Which is perhaps why his PR flunkies at Wapping are now setting out the breakfast table
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