Barack Obama takes on Rupert Murdoch, the last media baron

By Media Reform Coalition / Monday September 23, 2013 Read More
This article originally appeared at the Daily Mirror. President Obama has had enough of Rupert Murdoch. His target is the right-wing media mogul’s Fox News – the ultra-conservative TV news channel whose presenters openly compare America’s first black president to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein. Exasperated by the constant stream of televised attacks, Obama has hit back, telling Rolling Stone magazine that Fox News was peddling “a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth” of the United States. Obama is one of the few politicians on either side of the Atlantic who owes little to Rupert Murdoch’s news outlets – which is perhaps why he has come under such intense attack from Fox News. Glenn Beck, the network’s most outspoken presenter, once described Obama as having a “deep seated hatred for white people or white culture” – while a presidential plan to introduce a civilian national security force was seen by Beck as akin to “what Hitler did – he had his own people, the brownshirts”. Yet Mr Murdoch’s position in the US is nothing compared to the power he already wields in the UK. As well as a stable of newspapers – including the Times and the News of the World – he has 39% of BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster. Three generations of British politicians from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron via Tony Blair have sought and won his patronage. If Mr Murdoch is in your corner he can turn his media outlets into crazed cheerleaders while pouring scorn and menace on your enemies. He also sets about his commercial opposition with equal gusto, hence the relentless attacks on the BBC by all his papers. Yet the last of the media moguls is hungry for more. The plan is to spend £8billion to buy the rest of Sky that his company, News Corporation, does not own – if he can persuade regulators and politicians to grant approval. The Murdoch empire now takes the view that David Cameron owes it for supporting the Tories at the Election – although the party’s lack of an overall majority would indicate that News Corp’s supposed power to influence public opinion may be largely an illusion. Mr Cameron dismisses suggestions that he did a deal. However while no deal may have been done, Mr Murdoch is still influential as he was the first non-political visitor to No 10 after the General Election. Few believe the Sky deal will be blocked – even if the result would be to create the most dominant media company in British history. In the US, News Corp owns the conservative Wall Street Journal as well as the New York Post and the Fox network. But its power is counterbalanced by several equally large rivals including Disney, which owns the famous film studio and the ABC network, and Time Warner, which controls CNN, Warner Brothers and the political magazine, Time. There are other powerful TV networks – NBC and CBS – which means for all the influence of Fox News, there are big economic forces to prevent News Corporation using its existing muscle to grow at the expense of its competitors. In Britain, rivals are relatively small. When it comes to newspapers the public has, on the face of it, a lot of choice. There are 10 different dailies, from the Financial Times to the Daily Mail. All told, the titles have eight different owners and, as a result, historically Fleet Street has been highly competitive. But even in that battle, Rupert Murdoch has long enjoyed a leading position, with over a third of the British market thanks to the combination of owning The Times and The Sun. Commercial TV was also highly competitive – with ITV split among regional companies such as Granada, Yorkshire, Scottish and LWT. However, the emergence of Sky over the last decade has changed the picture completely. Sky may not be on in everyone’s house, but nearly 10 million people pay £500 a year to watch satellite TV. The result is a business that is already bigger than the BBC, with a £5.9billion turnover, compared to the BBC’s £4.8billion and £1.9billion for ITV. Sky dominates sport in the UK, and is spreading its net – last week it snatched US drama Mad Men from the BBC. Fully combined, the enlarged Murdoch empire would be able to threaten rivals with its economic muscle, a £7.5billion company with Mr Cameron’s government having little incentive – and perhaps being too afraid – to stop it. There is speculation that Murdoch newspapers could be bundled cheaply with a Sky subscription, leaving no opportunity for rivals to compete. Advertising could be sold at a discount across all platforms, again squeezing smaller media owners. What ultimately will happen is that those media outlets – such as the Daily Mirror – which present a different view of the world, and believe in a different set of values, will be squeezed. Mr Murdoch’s titles are already notorious for ignoring big stories that may commercially impact his business. Even his senior lieutenants were embarrassed by their constant tub-thumping for George Bush and Tony Blair’s Iraq invasion, even when the independent-minded observer could see it was a mistake of epic proportions. The ultimate result is that the only voice we will hear is that of an Australian-born, right-wing billionaire who lives in New York. Dissenting voices will disappear from the mainstream media which cannot be good for debate or democracy. Media analyst Claire Enders predicted last month that by 2020 a combined News Corp and Sky could control 50 per cent of the UK’s newspaper and TV markets. Sky News would come under the same direct Murdoch control as the newspapers – particularly if the existing rules on TV impartiality are relaxed. Already the signs are there, using a Soviet-style logo when talking about new Labour leader Ed Miliband. If Mr Miliband does not play ball with News Corp, he may find such attacks are only the beginning – and without strong alternative outlets to offer a different view, he may face an uphill battle for his voice to be heard. Mr Murdoch’s bid for full control of Sky has been described as Britain’s “Berlusconi moment”. The Italian Prime Minister owns most of his nation’s media which voices little criticism of him or his policies. But as Ms Enders said: “The level of concentration [of News Corp media] already seen in the UK is substantially greater than would be allowed in Italian law. We are already way past any Berlusconi moment in Britain”.