Friday, May 18, 2007

Rupert Murdoch, the Wall Street Journal and China

This is a must-read. See how the integrity of the WSJ will be compromised at the hands of Rubert Murdoch to become another propaganda tool or feel good paper ahead of the Olympics.

Stabroek News: Friday, May 18th 2007 - Earlier this month, the Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch announced plans to make a US$5 billion bid for Dow Jones, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal. Predictably, the news caused a rush on the stock and sent the share price higher than it had been for many years (Murdoch's bid was 65 percent above previous estimates of the company's value), but there was also fairly widespread concern among journalists and media analysts that the notoriously unscrupulous Murdoch style would destroy the culture of one of America's last quality newspapers.

The Journal is arguably the most influential business publication in the world. In addition to being a primary source of market-moving information, its expert analyses and its famously pointed editorial opinions have made it one of very few authoritative voices on current events and their relation to the American and global economies. Its reputation for distinguished investigative journalism is second to none. Last year, for example, The Journal won a Pulitzer prize for its coverage of China. This included a series of critical accounts of how government policies have turned China into a major polluter, exposés of Beijing's indifference to the appalling working conditions of millions of its citizens, and detailed analysis of the large and growing inequality that has accompanied the country's over-rapid industrialisation. Five years earlier, The Journal had won another Pulitzer for its reporting on Beijing's brutal crackdown on the Falun Gong movement.

Murdoch has, to put it kindly, a very different approach to these matters. In 1993, when Beijing complained about criticism of its human rights record, Murdoch removed the BBC World Service from Star TV's satellite feed, even though he had recently declared satellite television to be "an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere". He later told the New Yorker magazine that "The BBC was driving [the Chinese government] nuts. It wasn't worth it." Not to the News Corporation, certainly, but China's emerging democracy movements must have felt otherwise. Eight years later, in a much-publicised speech at the Milken institute in Beverly Hills, his son James Murdoch, CEO of the Star TV company, attacked Western media and the Hong Kong press for their negative China coverage, urged them not to overplay the government's security measures against an "apocalyptic cult" (Falun Gong), and ominously warned that "these destabilizing forces are very, very dangerous for the Chinese government."

Tunku Varadarajan, an editor at The Wall Street Journal, called the speech "an impressive, almost balletic, performance of the genuflectory arts." Then, after recounting Rupert Murdoch's unseemly haste to cancel the publication of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten's memoir of his political dealings with China, Varadarajan characterised Murdoch's relationship with China as "a form of corporate prostitution, something quite different from ideological blindness or agnosticism." He added that a "close Murdoch-watcher" had recently advised him that "What the Murdochs have specialized in is trading newspaper support to governments, in return for regulatory favours in nonprint media and business generally. While others may do this from time to time, they do it all the time, and without intermission." Few have captured the Murdoch worldview so tersely.

The Wall Street Journal is unapologetically conservative but this has never muted its criticism of administrations that, on paper, it might be expected to favour. Over the years The Journal has often published unwelcome opinions, many in the plainest language. After the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group published its recommendations late last year, for example, The Journal dismissed the whole undertaking as follows: "There is something of farce in all this, an invocation of wisdom from a cohesive Washington elite that does not exist, a desperate wish to believe in the gravitas and the statecraft of grave men (and women) who can sort out the mess in which the country finds itself. [But] A fatuous process yields, necessarily, fatuous results." At the time this harsh appraisal must have stung many of the great and good of Washington but, as is often the way with criticism in an open society, most of mainstream opinion reached similar conclusions a few weeks later.

The Wall Street Journal is one of the most readable newspapers in America precisely because it thinks for itself, and does so without worrying whether it will upset Washington, Beijing, or anyone else in the process.

Rupert Murdoch is the antidote to this freethinking, a censor dressed in a business suit. What remains to be seen is whether the market forces that soon will decide who controls The Journal will prefer the problematic integrity of a genuinely independent newspaper to the easier accommodations of the News Corporation. That, in the language of advertising, is a five billion dollar question with a priceless answer.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

No comments: