Thursday, September 15, 2005

News Corp hedging its political bets in US?

Tina Brown, writing in the Washington Post, notes something that most Americans might find incredible: that Rupert Murdoch could switch his allegiance to the Democrats if he felt it was in his business interests to do so. In a piece titled "Rupert Murdoch, Bending With the Wind," Brown notes Bush's sinking poll numbers and the unexpectedly strong performance by "liberal" CNN in its coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She also notes "Recent friendly meetings between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Murdoch, recorded in the New York Observer" that just could "be early signs of embryonic bet-hedging" by the media veteran. Really? How far can we take this? Can we really countenance tthe possibility that, come the next Presidential election, Murdoch's empire might turn from the Republicans and toward a Democrat--even Hillary?

To address that question, Brown tries to illuminate something about the basic instincts of the man who has proved to be perhaps the globe's greatest buccaneer and survivor. She points out: "Less publicized than Murdoch's fierce political conservatism--undoubtedly his private conviction--is his readiness to turn on a dime when it's commercially expedient. That suppleness is one of the things that make him such a formidable opponent. Nothing distracts him from his business goals--not ideology, not friendship, not some inconvenient promise, not even family."

Need a historical exemplar? Brown reminds American readers of Murdoch's volte-face in 1997, when he shifted his media empire's support from John Major's hapless conservative government to "New" Labour's up-and-coming Tony Blair. Could he be planning a similar shift in the US--taking a leaf out of his UK playbook? Perhaps.
    No one in London believed that the Sun, Murdoch's rabidly Thatcherite tab, would ever support the Labor Party. But in the 1997 election Rupert was quick to spot Tony Blair's rising star. The tabloid cowboy editor, Piers Morgan, kept a diary of working for Murdoch while editing his scandal sheet the News of the World and wrote a book that rode the bestseller list all summer in Britain. "The Tories look like dying donkeys," he notes in a diary entry in August 1995, "and Blair is starting to resonate with the public as a fresh, dynamic, viable alternative. Murdoch doesn't back losers and he is talking in a way that suggests he might ditch the Tories."

Brown goes on to cite the comparisons frequently made between Murdoch and William Randolph Hearst, which she characterizes as often "misleading." Why?
    Like Hearst, Murdoch was a liberal populist as a young man and moved far to the right in middle age. But Hearst, once he switched, kept his flag flying from the same ideological pole. When the vehemently anti-communist Rupert wanted to expand his television beachhead in Asia, he didn't hesitate to cancel a book contract by his HarperCollins imprint with the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, rather than risk alienating the Chinese. Bruce Page, author of "The Murdoch Archipelago," described to me Murdoch's outwardly authoritarian character as "fluid nothingness at the core -- less a matter of drives than lack of the containing structure found in normal people."

Add in a possible change-of-heart by Murdoch's right-hand man at Fox News, Roger Ailes, and you have a script that could--just possibly--lead to a shift in direction for Murdoch's empire. Remember, it happened in the UK eight years ago, and it happened overnight. The only question--at least for Brown--is whether the Republicans, like the British Conservatives, have really "started to look like dying elephants." Remember, Rupert doesn't back losers.


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