Keith Rupert Murdoch has been a name to conjure with in the business of news, throughout the English speaking world, for a long time. He founded Fox Ltd. in Australia in 1952, acquired a number of newspapers in that country and New Zealand in the ‘50s and ‘60s, then expanded into Britain in 1969, the year he took over at News of the World. His subsequent career, in the UK, the US, and elsewhere has been not merely historic but legendary.
Rupert and his family, through a trust, control both 21st Century Fox and News Corp. The Fox Entertainment Group is a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, and the Fox News Channel (FNC) is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group. Last year, long-term chairman Roger Ailes left FNC as a consequence of sexual harassment allegation, and Murdoch himself stepped in, so that he now the chairman and CEO there.
The latest controversy of the many in the history of this corporate empire concerns the proposed acquisition of Sky plc, the Europe-wide subscription broadcasting operation. Sky, listed on the London Stock Exchange, is a constituent of the FTSE 100. Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox already owns a 39.14% stake in Sky, but last December 21st Century Fox proposed to buy out all the rest of the stock. That deal awaits review by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority.
Left Wing View
Ed Miliband, a Member of Parliament and a prominent figure within the Labour Party (he was its leader for five years, a tenure that ended just two years ago) has come out in unequivocal terms against approval of this acquisition. Writing in the London Evening Standard, Miliband said that Murdoch “uses his power where he possibly can to push a divisive and deeply ideological political agenda,” and that approval of this deal would give him “extraordinary power across different platforms” in doing so.
Miliband has advanced that view through social media as well. One tweet reads, “Murdochs haven’t changed: ‘support us or you’re anti-business.’ Regulators need to show they aren’t cowed and will examine the facts.”
In the United States, careful observers understand that the fact that Murdoch’s media empire tends to be conservative does not imply that it is always pro-Trump. Some on the left are happy to avail themselves of anti-Trumpery wherever they find it.
Bob Brusack, a journalist and law professor who writes about politics, calls the Wall Street Journal “the Murdoch paper” and on his blog expresses delight that it has signaled “its diminished patience with Trump.”
On twitter, though, and more recently, Brusack has written, “When the whole ugly history of this period is written, there ought to be a chapter devoted to the corrosive propaganda sold by #RupertMurdoch.”
Right Wing View
Murdoch himself doesn’t tweet anymore. He has a twitter account, but his last tweet there in March 2016, said simply “No more tweets for ten days or ever! Feel like the luckiest AND happiest man in world.” He tweeted that while setting out on his honeymoon with supermodel Jerry Hall. That marriage may indeed have distracted him from social media for “ever” as he suggested.
Further, Rupert hasn’t taken a leading public role in debate over the Sky deal. His son James, who is both the CEO of 21st Century Fox and the chairman of Sky pls, has spoken up on the matter.
On September 14, the younger Murdoch appeared before a gathering of media executives and made the family’s case. He said, “If the UK truly is open for business post-Brexit we’ll look forward to moving through the regulatory review process,” he said, promising a “transformative transaction for the UK creative sector.”
Back in early August news outlets not owned by Murdoch were already reporting that shareholders were getting spooked by the delays and scrutiny of the proposed takeover.
Prospects in that respect have only gotten worse. Though Fox News is called “conservative” for lack of a better word, and the party now in control at 10 Downing Street is also called “Conservative” with a capital C, the two sorts of conservatism are quite different, and it may be indicative of this that Fox News was recently taken off the air in Britain due to its low viewer numbers. The May government doesn’t appear inclined to let this acquisition skid through: not quickly, at any rate.
According to Bloomberg, it is the “sexual and racial-harassment allegations at Fox News” that have “given opponents” including figures within the May administration, “ammunition to slow a deal that initially appeared on track to sail through.”
The Big Issue
Beyond the specifics of the controversy over the Fox/Sky deal, beyond even the specifics of views of the Murdoch family empire as a whole, there exists an important though more abstract issue: what are the causes and consequences of heavy concentration of media ownership? Is such concentration compatible with the politics of free republics (or of free constitutional monarchies for that matter)?
That more abstract controversy deserves and will soon receive separate treatment in this column.