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Hello There! China – Scottish Review of Books
by Ian Bell

Hello There! China

October 20, 2009 | by Ian Bell

ACCORDING TO THE CHATTER, Rupert Murdoch is bored with Britain. These days, the lately-acquired Wall Street Journal consumes his attention. The editor of London’s Times is shipped out to Manhattan to tend the new toy – a pointed reminder of relative values – and one of the progeny is gifted the British bit of the empire. Meanwhile, the old man and the WSJ get on with doing what each do best: being unpleasant and exerting testicular pressure over men of influence.

Today, Britain barely counts, after all. For Murdoch, that job was done and dusted long since, first when Margaret Thatcher yielded to his embrace, secondly when Tony Blair had his tummy tickled. The former tore up every cross-ownership rule in the book and decreed (no other word will do) that owning a third of the press and a broadcaster did not conflict with her interests, or pose any questions affecting morality and economic justice. The latter merely grovelled.

Gossip has it that Gordon Brown was frankly hilarious during that particular tryst. It is said, reliably, that when Murdoch came to call on Blair our present prime minister would insist, desperately, on an audience of his very own. A calumny? So when will Britain be adopting the euro, do we think?

Avoidance of that fate, along with legislative oversight and what common folk know as taxes, was the sum of Murdoch’s strategic interest in Britain. In the good old days, the Sun paid for Sky and procured the regulatory regime the former Australian desired. More recently, the excitingly-adventurous broadcaster has begun to, as they say, coin it. English football and Fox movies maintain the subscription base that maintains an ambition avid, still, for trophies such as the WSJ. And no one turns a hair.

Hillary Clinton, for one, may already have made her peace with old Rupe. In these parts, Mr Brown would not dare to conceive of his existence in any other terms. As Murdoch’s sacked and former employees wistfully recall, he likes to back a winner. More precisely, he likes to pick ’em. Personally. Whether the WSJ will ever again have anything useful or dispassionate to say about the affairs of his News Corp is not, apparently, an issue for American democrats. The British politicians who would once “boycott Murdoch” now take his tanners with no obvious loss of intestinal control.

The Sun sinks, of course, but so do all our loveable red-tops. When lying rubbish is free at the point of a modem, paying for pictures of girls who have lost their lingerie is old-hat. Meanwhile, the old Murdoch gang, surplus to requirements, are scattered. Kelvin Mackenzie blusters for England, possibly as an agent of influence for the SNP. David Yel-land does what is known, technically, as PR b*llocks. And Andrew Neil, the wag, gets away with running a right-wing glossy, the Spectator, while presenting himself to the licence-payer as a BBC host bound by all those antique rules on personal opinion.

Murdoch no longer needs them. The fact may have been mentioned in the small print on the redundancy cheques. All he appears to require from Britain, in this climate, is revenue, lots of it, and a quiet life. Flamboyant editors who get above themselves, like gorgeous pouting page three stunnas, belong to a different age. No one really knows or cares who runs the Sunday Times, the paper Neil turned into Britain’s biggest tabloid. No one apart from dim-witted politicians is “influenced” by the Sun. That, it seems, is what the old man wants.

What else does he want? A simple question, yet endlessly fascinating. Though he has had his brushes with financial catastrophe, and though he has made several fortunes, Murdoch does not, in fact, appear to be much interested in wealth for its own sake. His political interventions are ruthless, inevitably, yet strangely unimaginative. In Australia, Britain and the United States he has sought and exercised influence, but mostly for the sake of “the business”, or because of those mundane right-wing delusions involving “government”. Recent outbreaks of God-bothering moralising add no colour. No big ideas are at work.

This has not prevented the emergence of an extensive literature devoted to Murdochiana, of which Bruce Dover’s amiable, generously-spaced memoir is the latest, possibly slightest, example. Harold Evans offered an early specimen of the valued-employee-betrayed genre with Good Times, Bad Times. It was well written. It also allowed one interviewer to come up with the notion of “Citizen Rupe”. Yet I can still remember an author-lunch on which the word “plaintive” settled like a small, moist cloud.

William Shawcross later compiled a Murdoch hagiography as utterly shameless as anything he ever wrote about Iraq. Mr Neil’s Full Disclosure – it all depends on your spelling of the first word – was a hymn to the first-person singular, but not otherwise revealing. The best precis might be, in fact, that Murdoch is driven by the idea of being driven. Is this interesting? Citizen Kane, if it counts as a paradigm, depends on the idea that the person of William Randolph Hearst contained exotic ideas and emotions of complexity. Accounts of Murdoch rarely stray into that territory.

Rupert’s Adventures in China is a collection of after-dinner tales, as the author more or less confesses, bound together by four narrative threads. One: Jeez, lots of folk in China, said kindly uncle Rupe. Two: let’s get those teeming millions to watch Star, our splendid pan-Asian piece of bottom-end satellite fun. Three: let’s dump the BBC from our service if the enigmatic blokes in Beijing give us grief. Four: let’s never mention free speech and democracy again while we’re trying to sell harmless fun to enigmatic blokes and the teeming millions they subjugate.

The sub-plot is, simply, that during a Sky launch bash in London, a careless Murdoch (“ill-advised”, says our author) ventured the thought that barriers and dictatorships can be dismantled by the free play of ideas. (Or dismantled, rather, by whatever it is the inter-net and satellite broadcasters are using, these days, for ideas).

The enigmatic ones then took affront and offence. Murdoch, with the deep, passionate commitment to democracy you will find blazoned across every WSJ editorial, then spent a lot of time, money and self-respect trying to make amends for his thought crime. And it didn’t work.

Dover is, as I say, amiable. Once a writing journalist on The Australian, he was Murdoch’s “vice-president (China)” for seven years during the 1990s while attempting to explain the spooky Commies to his spooky old boss, and vice versa. Dover has a tale to tell, amid some gossip of a tycoon’s late-flowering romances, about the ability of the Beijing oligarchy to endure, and to face down “inevitable” technological change. But like all of Murdoch’s discards his admiration for the former gaffer is fulsome, in the proper sense of that word.

By Dover’s account, the tycoon who conquered Australia, Britain, the US, and more than a few other places, has spent 15 years and a very great amount of money to secure an invitation to entertain the 380 million Chinese homes with the technical ability to access his services. Murdoch stands, as yet, rebuffed, and there is a certain poetic justice in that. Given a choice of brutal totalitarian regimes, the difference between Chairman Rupe and the heirs of Mao might seem – unless you are in jail or the football is on – slight.

There may also be an alternative poetry, a version the author recognises only tangentially. The men who run China are scumbags: this is not seriously in dispute. On the other hand, Mr Murdoch is not (see above) venerated universally. Yet while the polities of Australia, the UK and America could be done in, and were, with bullying, flattery, or by the old political smash and grab, the inscrutable party men resisted. A Chinese wife and the “unstoppable” internet did not secure Murdoch’s desire. China might, in a certain light, look quite proud of itself.

Dover approaches the idea towards the end of his book. “He” (Murdoch) “remained convinced that in the same way that he had challenged the status quo in Australia, Britain and the US, his influence, money and charm would enable him to gain access to the living rooms of China. Political leaders the world over have fallen under the Murdoch spell… But in seeking to woo the Chinese leadership, Murdoch overstepped the mark – he became too impetuous, too impudent.”

True enough, no doubt, and no doubt a tragedy for News Corporation’s loyal shareholders. But those descriptions invite a serious question. If a disreputable Chinese leadership can put the old deal-maker in his place – the burden of Rupert’s Adventures in China – what do free and boastful democracies have to say for themselves? As I write, Sky News and the Times (London) have nothing much to say on the subject. Strange, that.

The Beijing oligarchs answer to no one, not after Tiananmen and a sustained economic boom. While western investors bow and scrape before their new masters at their trade fairs, the prospects for Chinese democracy, and for Chinese people, recede. Yet Murdoch’s passage has been easier, by far, in the nice, white, free and liberal societies of the west

whose political DNA he has been altering for four decades. The word, rarely employed in the Sun, is irony. Beijing told him where to get off. Canberra, London and Washington, each in their turn, lacked the nerve.

It matters more, I believe, than Mr Dover prefers to realise. Watch Fox News or read the Sun: Murdoch’s attitude towards information, its sources and uses, is no different, in essence, from the editorial policies of the People’s Daily. If Rupert’s Adventures in China is to be believed, indeed, that strange work of vindictive Chinese pulp fiction was also once a prospective “partner” for News Corp. They call it, I think, “closer relations”.

In Beijing, hypocritical ideologues tumble from the career conveyor belt. In the universe of which Rupert Murdoch is master, their peers get to write post-dated memoirs on political re-education, and on life after the Sun King. The pollution of the well-springs of fact and thought continues, in both empires.

Mr Dover tells some droll tales – a dazed Murdoch lost at the Hong Kong imperial handover is good – but these would not have detained a Balzac or a Bellow, even on a bad day. If you must speak of uncle Rupe you must speak, finally, to power. Rupert Murdoch: fit and proper? Or not? Mr Dover does not get around to sharing his view.

Murdoch and the WSJ can get themselves a cheap virtual motel room, for all it would matter to me, or to western civilisation. Who does what to whom, in those circles, is of no account. Tycoons come and go, the WSJ was always unspeakable, and the former Australian will be gone, before long. The supposed junior dynasty will not then endure. But what of the havoc on three – or four, or five – continents?

Murdoch matters in a manner that his many employees, past and present, do not care to address. Mr Dover has not written a bad book about the efforts made by his former boss to conquer China. It’s decent gossip, mostly. But there is only a single question of interest. All junior hacks recognise the old formulation. We know who, and what, and where. So why?

Murdoch has been trailing that tiny interrogative around the western world like a strange smell for a very long time. The Chi-nese dusted his arrogant western posterior. But if your butt faces westwards, economically speaking, you might seek to ask why old Rupe has been getting away with it for quite so long. Then you could ask why our freely-elected democrats have been quite so keen to help him do so.

Mr Dover’s amiable book contains some stray, small clues. But nothing much, really, that would pass for a serious answer, even among the very able and charming subs down-table on the Sun. Or on the wholly uncorrupted People’s Daily, for that matter.

Bruce Dover 298pp
pp320, ISBN 184596277X

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