Murdoch’s Culture Wars

Advice to the US President on Competitiveness: Rupert Murdoch

A different version of this piece originally appeared in The Age

Rupert Murdoch is a contradictory man. About the newspaper business, anyway, and it’s possible his lusty ego can reconcile the incongruities, but I cannot.

During his testimony last year at the British Leveson inquiry into media ethics, Murdoch expressed concern about the misuse of personal information by internet giants—despite the inquiry being largely inspired by the rampant criminal invasions of privacy by some of his newspapers.

In the same testimony, Murdoch lamented the slim revenues for tablet editions, and pointed his finger at Apple’s greedy 30% cut from profits—despite his desire to dominate media ownership in the same manner Apple attempts to dominate intellectual property and subscription streams.

In his testimony, Murdoch also prophesied—rather redundantly—that the future of newspapers was digital, but also said that “dead tree” ‘papers have another 20 years in them (admittedly with lower circulations).

Murdoch’s testimony gave the effect of an elder statesman haltingly holding court—issuing dusty but innocent jeremiads, and earnest forecasts on the industry he loves. But the whole testimony was splintered by contradictions.

Despite his age, Rupert Murdoch is conducting a brave new experiment with newspapers. It runs contrary to conventional wisdom, and is riven by the same contradictions as his Leveson testimony. The contradictions in his experiment are deep and fascinating and speak to the future of newspapers—and it has more in common with John Howard than Marshall McLuhan. The vanguard of this experiment? The Wall Street Journal.

Question: is the Wall Street Journal—acquired by Murdoch in 2007, and since meticulously scrubbed of its prestige and preferences—the best newspaper in the world? Murdoch thinks it might be, and for reasons that bear consideration, if not acceptance, because it might just be the boldest frontline in the culture wars.

First, here’s what he’s done to the WSJ. As its masthead makes obvious, the WSJ was principally a journal of business. While carrying other news—the journalist Daniel Pearl, kidnapped and beheaded by his captors in Pakistan, was its South Asia bureau chief—the Journal’s editorial mission was a sophisticated focus on corporate America. It was distinctively branded—in its design and content—and developed a heady prestige, not solely owing to its being read by millionaires.

Murdoch changed that. In a study of the WSJ’s front pages between 2007 and 2011, business stories were down roughly a third. That figure would have dropped some more in the past year.

Why? Because—and here’s the rub—Murdoch believes that there’s nothing moribund about the business model of newspapers, rather there’s something rotten with newspapers themselves.

Murdoch accepts that “disruptive technologies” have cruelled newspapers’ golden rivers of advertising, but with enough ingenuity and investment in digitalising, past glories can be restored. (Part of this optimism is twinned to Murdoch’s estimates of “billions” of tablet users, and “many more” smart phone consumers, in the near future. Who’s to say he’s wrong?)

No, says Murdoch, the problem lies with news content—and how ‘papers have conceived themselves. Newspapers have become unmoored from regular readers’ lives—hopelessly adrift in smugness, pretension and elitism. Newspapers have become too niche and too clever.

This is why the Wall Street Journal reads the way it does, and this is the cultural battleline Murdoch is so expensively—and expansively—manning. Our media tycoon has a dream of newspapers knowing—and providing—precisely what its readers demand. But when Murdoch waxes philosophical, his “reader” becomes purely notional, and it would be a brave, stupid or ego-sodden man that might determine what we all want from this public good.

Ignoring readers is folly, but follow the logic of an imagined consumer as the sole driver of news and you become entangled in speciousness. The Journal provides less and less investigative journalism these days, precisely the same kind that exposed the industrialised criminality of Britain’s tabloids.

There is another fracture-line, inevitable when private goals embrace a public good. Murdoch has a dream of cleansing newspapers of their pretensions—and in so doing re-establishing financial solvency—but the brutal calculus remains: he that owns newspapers will determine what pretension is. And as to the matter of pretension and aloofness, I see more evidence of its opposite—a dreary and desperate slide into gossip and link bait.

Another fracture appears when Murdoch argues, as he did last year, that there is no diversity on the Web. There is. Of varying quality, but it’s there, and growing by the day. Another fracture? That Murdoch is swimming against a tide of thought that suggests that news providers put out specific, but indispensable, content to select markets. In this, Murdoch is almost alone, and it might be his chance, in his twilight, to prove he is still a shrewd re-maker of worlds.

All of which takes me to Murdoch’s deepest contradiction. In his Leveson testimony, Murdoch gave us this motherhood statement: “A varied press guarantees democracy, and we want democracy rather than autocracy.”

If Murdoch’s dream, as I suspect it to be, is an anodyne re-imagining of newspapers—a braiding of profit and cultural protest—then I struggle to reconcile it with that quote. It may be that Murdoch’s critics too glibly argue for media diversity as integral to democracy—failing to see how often tribalism replaces broad conversation—but Murdoch’s vision strikes me as poorer still.

One Response to Murdoch’s Culture Wars

  1. Desh says:

    Murdoch may have a point on the content of newspapers.

    Recently, I was made aware of a local community newspaper on the Tweed that had changed its content from the opinion based, “I’ll tell you what I think” style of news reporting to, “Here is what’s going on” information bulletin board. Apparently, the academic who was making the point, noted that it was the only newspaper he knew of that showed an increase in circulation numbers. I wish I kept better notes.

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