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'Murdoch's World': Inside One Of The Last Old Media Empires

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch's vast empire encompasses everything from newspapers to television networks to tabloids.
Jamie McDonald
AFP/Getty Images
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch's vast empire encompasses everything from newspapers to television networks to tabloids.

People used to say the sun never sets on the British empire. These days, says NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, it would be more accurate to say the sun never sets on Rupert Murdoch's empire.

In a new book, Murdoch's World, Folkenflik writes about the Australian newspaper owner whose company now stretches to India, Great Britain and the United States. He describes a powerful media insider who wants to be seen as an outsider.

"He very much cultivated this notion that the people who worked for him were swashbuckling buccaneers fighting against these elites at the BBC and The New York Times and places like that," Folkenflik tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

Folkenflik explains how newspapers and TV channels run by Murdoch's News Corp. have taken a strong conservative line, even though Murdoch himself is considered less conservative.

Interview Highlights

On News Corp.'s treatment of climate change

His publications and outlets — you know, particularly if you think, in this country, of Fox News — have conveyed some of the most skeptical coverage of the idea that global warming is occurring and that humanity has contributed significantly to that and that there really is some obligation to address that.

All the same, in 2007, convinced by presentations involving Al Gore ... and [British] Prime Minister Tony Blair, Murdoch himself became convinced that it was important for News Corp. to take a stand on this. And indeed the News Corp. company took a stand and said, "We are going to become carbon neutral within five years."

On how to reconcile the differences between Murdoch's own views and those of his publications

I think it's a confluence of political conviction and canny business sense. I think that Fox News has found it to its advantage to play up doubts that it plays to a certain very loyal, large part of its core audience. I would say the same for the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, although I would point out that I think it was doing that independently of the Murdochs, well before the purchase in 2007, and has maintained a consistent conservative tone that is to the right of Mr. Murdoch.

He would argue that he actually offers his publications great autonomy, and it's true. He doesn't send out a daily email to all of his outlets saying, "This is the uniform line you should take." But he certainly has antipathy to government involvement in regulating commerce and in taxation. And you see that play out. You see that breadth in so many of his publications and outlets.

On the News Corp. hacking scandal

The hacking scandal involved revelations that journalists for his newspapers in Britain had been involved in hacking into the phone mail messages of hundreds, even thousands, of people — some of them celebrities, some of them just private citizens. And concomitantly, there was the revelation that there had been widespread bribing of public officials to gain information that should have been kept private by law in a way that seemed like a second, and in some ways greater, betrayal, if you look at it from the legal standpoint of the promise to uphold the public good that journalists profess so often.

On how The Wall Street Journal covered the scandal

People at the Journal were so cognizant of the fact that this was the first true test. You know, [Murdoch] had bought the paper in 2007. ... And journalists were actually aggressively pursuing a story in which they felt they could show that, actually, knowledge of the kinds of hacking that was going on was known within the newspaper — not by a single reporter, as has been claimed for so many years, but as far back as 2002 by senior figures at the paper.

Before joining NPR in 2004, David Folkenflik spent more than a decade at the <em>Baltimore Sun</em>, where he covered higher education, Congress and the media.
Stephen Voss / Courtesy of PublicAffairs
Courtesy of PublicAffairs
Before joining NPR in 2004, David Folkenflik spent more than a decade at the Baltimore Sun, where he covered higher education, Congress and the media.

They were onto a story they thought would show this, and Robert Thomson — then the managing editor, or the top news executive, for The Wall Street Journal, now the CEO for the new News Corp. — Robert Thomson personally intervened again and again to try to forestall publication of that story. The reporters who I talked to — and I talked to reporters and editors on both sides of the Atlantic about this — said that his objections were so insistent, that he was trying to set the bar so high, that that story would never see the light of day. But to the credit of the Journal, its journalists insisted on that story being published.

So News Corp. can say, "Hey, look, the story was published — what's the issue?" What's the issue, to my mind and to the journalists that I spoke to, was that the integrity of the Journal was put in doubt, and it was very clear that Robert Thomson would have been happier to protect Rupert Murdoch.

... I went to Robert Thomson and the Journal, I believe, five times and said to them, "I think we need to talk about Robert Thomson and particularly his leadership at the top of the hacking scandal." And they just said that they would not participate in this book whatsoever.

On the experience of reporting the company's story

On the one hand, it was a fascinating journey. This was an opportunity to see the company and the creation of Rupert Murdoch in its entirety. I really was able to get a feel for how these ... corporate cousins in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. operated and how they evolved similar characteristics from originally the same DNA.

That said, you know, News Corp. — there were people throughout all these properties who helped me in many ways, who patiently answered questions, sometimes convenient ones, sometimes inconvenient questions, but offered their insights throughout. Nonetheless, News Corp. did its best to ensure that people would not cooperate or collaborate with the book, and some of its various entities — I think, particularly, of Fox News — have at times really thrown roadblocks. Fox didn't do that in this case, but they've done that for a lot of stories throughout the way. It is a company that feels very comfortable with a muscular and robust response for those who raise questions they'd rather not be ventilated.

On the polarizing figure of Rupert Murdoch

There are ways in which I very much admire Rupert Murdoch. I admire the fact that he wants to imagine bigger things, he wants to figure out ways to reach people. You can look at a guy like Rupert Murdoch and look at what The Sun does — with the Page 3 topless girls and with phone hacking and bribery in Britain — and you can also look at the fact that he's essentially subsidized The Times of London and the Times' literary supplement and other fairly thoughtful publications that have lost money.

At the same time, there's a cruelty to his journalism. There's a desire to be punitive at times to people who are critics or people who are political opponents. When I talked to reporters who work for Murdoch, they almost uniformly said it was an exciting, exhilarating, giddy time; and at the same time, many of them recoil as they look back at what they did and what those papers did on behalf of Rupert Murdoch.

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NPR Staff