The growth in the concentration of media ownership around the world: A Case Study of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp
Concentration of media ownership is a serious problem across the world. Since the media is considered the ‘Fourth Pillar’ of democracy, it is imperative that it remains diverse and free of commercialization. Unfortunately, the reality is quite the opposite. In this context, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, stands as a symbol of this dire imbalance. News Corporation, under the leadership of Rupert Murdoch, has unparalleled power and reach in the news media industry. The Murdoch Empire spans several continents, with significant footholds in Australia, United States and the United Kingdom. Founded and headquartered in Australia, the company now boasts of being the number one newspaper publisher in the world, with a cumulative daily readership of 14 million in these three countries alone. Murdoch has a near monopoly in the media space in Australia, owning two-thirds of all newspaper circulation in the country. Across the Tasman Sea, in New Zealand, he owns nearly half. Further, he is the owner of two fifths of the Australian Associated Press. (Knowlton & Parsons, 2005, p. 200) These holdings are notwithstanding his considerable market share in Britain and the United States. These statistics bear testimony to the Murdoch’s media monopoly. Between the lines one can read the
One of the negative consequences of media concentration is that it nullifies ethical standards of journalism. News Corp’s official Standards of Business Conduct (SBC) document makes some bold claims. But the company’s actual behaviour is contradictory to these claims. For example, in the area of building trust with business partners and customers, it claims that trust and integrity are of utmost importance. The manner in which the company actually functions makes a mockery of these ethical concerns. There are several instances where News Corp had colluded with political organizations to attain favourable deals.
One of the first instances of News Corp’s opportunistic use of political connections came to light in1995. Murdoch struck a book deal with the then House Speaker of the United States Congress Newt Gingrich for a substantial sum of $4.5 million. The ethical problem was obvious in this case. Murdoch, who was even at that time an influential and trans-global media personality, owned a newspaper chain and several television stations. He stood to gain enormously through the relationship with the Speaker. It was only after severe public backlash that Gingrich decided to return the advance and settled for sales-driven royalties. (Rohm, 2012, p.336) If the contract had remained valid, the democratic political processes of the country would have been compromised. Events such as these showcase the dangers of media concentration.
To fully comprehend how media concentration is intrinsically related to questionable business practices, one has to look at how Murdoch built his formidable empire. Murdoch had proved controversial right through his media career starting in 1968, when he “tricked his way into Fleet Street in a watered stock deal from which he emerged with 40 percent of the voting stock of News of the World” (Sherrill, 1993) News of the World, which is the flagship weekly paper of News Corp in Britain, is arguably also its most salacious. Here is another example of loose business ethics. When in 1976 Murdoch purchased New York Post from its proprietor Dorothy Schiff, he promised the latter that the newspaper’s cherished liberal values and liberal politics would be respected and continued. But in a matter of months of the takeover, the newspaper was turned into a hawkish right-wing rag. The organization was also restructured, laying-off many local employees. These political affiliations make hallow the claims of objectivity and neutrality given lip-service in the company’s brochures and annual reports.
The sort of employee relations that exists in News Corp makes it one of the least preferred organizations to work for. The numerous instances of summary dismissals by Murdoch are now legion. All employees from entry level reporters to chief editors are made to understand that their job is secure only as long as they toe the line. Any show of independent thought or personal discretion will be swiftly and surely quelled. If editors dare to show any measure of independent judgement, they are ripe to being fired. As one unfortunate such editor notes, Murdoch’s method of running the business is ‘by phone and by clone’. This practice proves very distasteful, especially when, because of chaos or tragedies in their private lives, they are most vulnerable. He also likes to fire his most loyal subordinates by memo, preferably sending the memo through a third party. What this shows is how ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Mr. Murdoch, which no opposition to question is decisions acts as he wills. Concentration of power within a particular organization or a particular individual can lead to authoritarianism and autocracy.
Murdoch’s insatiable ambitions for business expansion have brought ruthlessness to his style of functioning. While as a business personality Rupert Murdoch can be charming and polite, his style and goals of business are far from agreeable. Indeed the disrepute surrounding his media conglomerate is such that News Corporation’s foray into the American media industry was fraught with mistrust and fear by commentators and media analysts. This assessment is echoed even by other business leaders within the media industry. (Meyers, 2010, p.45) It indicates a broader public distrust of the enterprise and its agenda of media concentration. Between the lines one can read the dangers posed by monopoly in an industry that is crucial to society, culture and political discourse. It is highly unlikely that any business enterprise could establish a monopoly by adopting fair and ethical means.