Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power

Author David McKnight.
Author David McKnight.

David McKnight
Allen & Unwin, $32.99

''Does the world need another Murdoch book?'' someone asks when I explain what I am reading. It is an expanding genre, to be sure, in which David McKnight's detailed, damning analysis is a welcome and worthy addition.

This is a chronicle of Murdoch's 60 years in the publishing business, from his inheritance of the Adelaide News to his global campaign of support for the war in Iraq. The phone-hacking crisis in Britain, responsible for the demise of the News of the World, is left alone bar a rather uncertain epilogue. Also absent is the story of Murdoch's dramatic takeover of The Wall Street Journal, though this has already been told in a wonderful account by one of its former reporters, Sarah Ellison.

Most defences of Murdoch pivot on three key arguments: that tales of his editorial interference are greatly exaggerated, that his media outlets serve market demand for centre-right news, and that media-effects theory overstates audience susceptibility to bias.

McKnight smashes the first two contentions and makes an attempt at the third. He shows Murdoch to be a constant, unforgiving meddler, whether overtly or simply by reputation.

''He rules over great distances through authority, loyalty, example and fear,'' says Andrew Neil, whose reign as editor of The Sunday Times is explored in great depth. Installed by Murdoch in what is shown to be typical fashion, Neil was a conservative ally whose paper famously waged an extraordinary campaign against the ''medical establishment'' by suggesting AIDS was not linked to HIV.

Murdoch's global media operations are healthily peppered with ideological warriors who read from the same song sheet. McKnight walks us through the process time and again: at the creation of Fox News, upon repurchasing the New York Post and closer to home at The Australian, where journalists and editors were fired or pressured to resign, replaced by concordant friends and Murdoch loyalists.

Indeed, the overwhelming picture of News Corporation painted here is that of an old boys' club, with the same names, inevitably male, cropping up again and again at the initiation of a new conservative project.

On the question of News filling a gap in the media market, McKnight is unequivocal. Murdoch is, in his own words, an ''ideas man'' whose raison d'etre is ''trying to influence people''. Profits are important but News maintains chronically unprofitable newspapers for the sake of influence and because Murdoch is ''as much a preacher and a moralist as he is a businessman''.

That News is an ideological outfit is hardly contestable, despite the protestations of Murdoch quoted in this book. But does it matter? McKnight devotes less time to this question but his examination of Fox News and the hysterical campaigning of The Sun certainly suggests they have an effect on audiences.

McKnight, a senior research fellow at the University of NSW, has done his research on this subject. One of the fascinating plot points in the Murdoch story is his 1970s transformation from socialist Labor supporter to free-market conservative. McKnight pieces together the clues: he liked Nixon, came to loathe the Whitlam government (despite backing it in) and was almost brought to ruin by the print unions of Fleet Street. But you still long to know more.

The book also shines a light on those who have kowtowed to the mogul's desires, most notably Tony Blair, whose policies on media regulation and European integration were in effect dictated to him over lunch. It is a book that subtly reminds us that Murdoch's influence is only enabled by the weakness of the editors who serve him and the politicians who fear him.

This story Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.