Murdoch's Star has trouble rising in the East: Asians rebuff West's electronic advances
Sunday 06 March 1994
Yet there he was with his novelist wife Anna, alighting from a motorcade of Mercedes and Land Cruisers at the door of Major J S Kohli. One thing distinguishes Major Kohli's home from the others around it: the satellite dish gleaming on the roof. That is what brought Mr Murdoch. The major and his wife, Jasmeet, are cable television operators. From their single dish cables run to 1,000 homes in the neighbourhood, feeding in Mr Murdoch's Star television, CNN and four other channels.
Votive lamps were lit for the Murdochs, and tikas of rice paste and turmeric were smeared on their foreheads. But Mr Murdoch's attention was riveted on the cable equipment filling the cramped living room.
'Mr Murdoch wanted to know how everything was happening so fast in India. We have 12 channels. But if he can give us more, we'll take it, we're hungry,' Mrs Kohli said. 'Even in the jhuggis (Delhi's sprawling slum-dwellings) they want cable TV. It means they'll get nice programmes from abroad.'
Out in the countryside, most towns with electricity have at least one dish now, and satellite operators are busy wiring up thousands of households.
For Mr Murdoch, this little house call last month was a welcome relief. It was six months since he had taken over Asia's satellite television firm, Star, and declared excitedly: 'It's a global dream that you never quite dared have, and suddenly it's there.' Since then, it has been tough going as country after country has rebuffed his electronic advances. The Kohlis may not be much like the Murdochs in any other way, but at least they believe in the Satellite Dream.
It was in September last year that Mr Murdoch's News Corporation paid dollars 525m ( pounds 350m) for 63.6 per cent of Star, a loss-making outfit based in Hong Kong. What thrilled Mr Murdoch was its potential, for its satellite 'footprint' covers two-thirds of the world's population from Turkey to Japan. Twinned with his other operations in Europe and America, it offers him the chance to go global.
Petty national obstacles would not stand in his way, he said. 'In the end, technology can get past the politicians and past the regulators. We've seen that in Washington, in Britain. We've seen it everywhere.'
This was ill-judged. Asian politicians do not like anything to get past them, least of all something that can reach millions of homes. Whether they have the power to prevent it remains to be seen, but some are determined to try. And they have Mr Murdoch worried.
First to react was Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahatir Mohamad. Why, he asked, was Mr Murdoch paying such a 'fantastic price' for a network that lost money? He suspected that Western media were intent on creating 'friction and instability, so that if we are unstable, they can compete with us'. Dr Mahatir exercises tight control over the Malaysian media, and he does not want to see Star spoiling things; the station is banned and its dishes may not be bought in Malaysia.
News Corporation promised Star would provide 'a service which governments in the region will find both friendly and useful', but Dr Mahatir was not impressed. And he felt vindicated when another arm of News Corp implicated him in corruption. 'Wimpey offered contract bribes to Malaysian prime minister', said the headline in the Sunday Times two weeks ago.
A subsequent assurance by the paper that 'at no stage did the Sunday Times claim that Dr Mahatir had sought such a bribe or been paid one' made no difference. The Malaysian deputy prime minister said Mr Murdoch 'seems to be using Sky TV and the Times to run down Mr Mahathir'.
Prosperous as it is, Malaysia is small change for Star. The crock of gold is China, biggest of the expanding television markets. Star says that 1993 alone saw a five-fold increase in the number of Chinese homes receiving its signal.
But the Chinese government does not want its people to watch uncensored Star TV, and certainly not the BBC World Service Television News which it carries, with all its reporting of human rights issues, Tiananmen anniversaries and other 'negative' matters. A recent People's Daily commentary said: 'It is essential to control foreign satellite television programmes, which propagate foreign culture and moral values and exert and especially strong influence on young people.'
Last week the Chinese government published new regulations restricting the ownership of satellite dishes: individuals are banned from installing or using satellites, and those who have them must dismantle them immediately. Manufacturers of dishes or shops that sell satellite equipment must be registered.
Can this be enforced? A crackdown would be resented, but dishes have certainly disappeared from Peking shops, and although most things can be bought in the backstreets, an illegal dish would be hard to hide.
If China is the biggest potential market for Star, India is not far behind - and hardly less touchy about satellite television. Mr Murdoch has been branded a 'cultural invader', out to subvert Indian morals. 'What we have preserved over the past 5,000 years could be eliminated by foreign media,' one former prime minister said.
When he met the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, and the Indian media, Mr Murdoch performed yogic feats of verbal gymnastics. The Sun's Page Three Girls notwithstanding, he described himself as an old- fashioned Calvinist who frowns on his daughter watching too much MTV. Like China, India dislikes the BBC, and Mr Murdoch pleased his hosts by raising the possibility that he may drop BBC news (which he too dislikes, for commercial reasons) from Star. The split is widely expected in December.
And Mr Murdoch showed his Indian hosts his ingratiating side. 'I believe that the world has a very inadequate understanding of what is happening in this country. We should be publishing and broadcasting a lot more about India,' he said. 'We don't plan to beam only signals to India. We will make films, TV shows, dramas and entertainment programmes, for which we expect to be a major employer of Indian talent - writers, actors and so on.'
Events in India are running in his direction. It has a huge middle class hungry for information and entertainment, and it is going through rapid economic liberalisation. The government may be nationalistic, but it is hard to see how Mr Murdoch can be kept at bay.
From India, Mr Murdoch went to Indonesia ('Great interest. I will be back in three or four months'), which shares Malaysia's approach, if not its confrontational style. Then it was back to Hong Kong.
Mr Murdoch has effectively moved to the colony, buying a home on the peak and setting up office on the 12th floor of Star headquarters. But even here he is not entirely welcome.
He ruffled local feathers by selling the leading English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, to a close 'friend of China', raising fears about the paper's future freedom. Locals were not impressed either when he spoke of moving Star to Australia if there were problems after the handover to China in 1997.
This weekend, according to sources in the colony, Mr Murdoch is visiting China to mend fences. He will need all his famous charm to persuade the Peking regime to soften its stance.
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