The political re-education of Rupert Murdoch at the feet of his Chinese masters.

The political re-education of Rupert Murdoch at the feet of his Chinese masters.

The political re-education of Rupert Murdoch at the feet of his Chinese masters.

Media criticism.
Feb. 12 2008 5:40 PM

The Political Re-Education of Rupert Murdoch

A new book by the mogul's former right-hand man in China tells nearly all.

Rupert's Adventures in China by Bruce Dover.

Bruce Dover must have taken a terrific set of notes when he worked as a right-hand man for genocidal tyrant Rupert Murdoch in China. His memoir of those years, just published in Australia and the United Kingdom, details every bow, scrape, stoop, and bootlick by the mogul as he strives to open the Middle Kingdom to Star TV, his satellite broadcast service.

Rupert's Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife, written in the plain-spoken style you'd expect from an ex-journalist, which Dover is, observes in retrospect that Murdoch's News Corp. had a very poor chance of ever directly reaching China's 380 million TV households with Star. The protectionist Chinese government distrusts outsiders, especially Westerners pushing their decadent "news," and it prefers that profits extracted from China's citizens remain in-country. (See this excerpt of Dover's book.)

Advertisement

But Murdoch has always subscribed to a personal kind of exceptionalism, believing himself capable of making deals and striking alliances that are beyond the reach other mortals. They said Murdoch couldn't break the British printers' unions, and he did. They said he couldn't build a fourth TV network in the United States, and he did. They said he could never hope to compete with CNN, and he made fools of them.

Because sucking up to government bigwigs has served Murdoch very well on several continents, Dover writes, the tycoon believed that China's hostility to Star, which he bought into in 1993, could be overcome. If he could sit down with the proper political leaders, he was certain he could reach an accommodation that benefited all.

But the powerful Chinese potentates routinely snubbed Murdoch, dispatching him and his underlings to speak with powerless junior officials. Dover writes that the "Chinese were well aware of his proclivity to involve himself in a nation's politics if it were to the advantage of his business interests," and they weren't going to budge. The prospect of a Westerner beaming uncensored TV signals directly into Chinese homes appalled the country's leaders.

Then, on Sept. 1, 1993, Murdoch made his bad situation worse when before a group of London advertising executives he gave "The Speech," "word for word," Dover writes, "probably the costliest ever uttered by an individual." Murdoch declared that modern communications technology was the anti-Nineteen Eighty-Four, capable of toppling every tyranny. He said:

Advances in the technology of communications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes: Fax machines enable dissidents to bypass state-controlled print media; direct-dial telephone makes it difficult for a state to control interpersonal voice communication; and satellite broadcasting makes it possible for information-hungry residents of many closed societies to bypass state-controlled television channels. … The Bosnian Serbs can't hide their atrocities from the probing eyes of BBC, CNN and Sky News cameras; … the extraordinary living standards produced by free-enterprise capitalism cannot be kept secret.

Advertisement

The speech enraged authorities in South and North Asia, where the Star TV footprint landed. The Chinese took the fax machine comments as a direct reference to the Tiananmen protests, where the organizers had relied on the machines to avoid state surveillance and manage their demonstrations.

Chinese Premier Li Peng regarded Murdoch's speech as a "personal insult" and a "premeditated and calculated threat by Murdoch to Chinese sovereignty." Li almost immediately banned the distribution of the private satellite dishes that Star TV needed to leapfrog into China.

According to Dover, the speech was written by Irwin Stelzer, a Murdoch friend and economist who writes for News Corp.'s London Sunday Times and the Weekly Standard, and Murdoch never anticipated the Chinese reaction.

"I read through it the afternoon before the speech and just didn't pick it up—not the context of China," Dover quotes Murdoch. "I was really thinking in terms of all that happened in the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall coming down. It didn't dawn on me that it would be portrayed as it was."

Advertisement

"The Speech" lowered Murdoch into a muddy ditch that he spent much of the next decade trying to crawl out of. No demonstration of self-abasement was beyond Murdoch, no act of groveling too demeaning if it held some promise of earning the Chinese government's favor.

Murdoch first assumed the servile position in 1994, after he heard that the inclusion of the BBC news on Star TV offended the Chinese government. He deleted the channel, Dover writes, but tried to claim that it was a business move. Later that year, Murdoch confessed to his biographer, William Shawcross, that he'd cut the channel to please the Chinese. But then in May 2007, Murdoch recanted that confession by telling the Financial Times that booting the BBC was all business. Thanks to Dover's book, Murdoch will never be able to traffic that lie again.

Next stop on Murdoch's truckle express was an effort to curry the favor of every blood relative of Deng Xiaoping's he could locate in hopes that a connection to the country's former maximum leader would help. News Corp.'s book subsidiary purchased rights to My Father: Deng Xiaoping, by Deng's youngest daughter, and in February 1995 Murdoch attended a party for the book and its author at Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria and a dinner party at Le Cirque. Murdoch later hosted Deng's daughter at his Carmel, Calif., ranch. He also played benefactor to Deng Xiaoping's oldest son, who led an association for the disabled in China, despite government signals that the Deng "princelings" had no influence.

"The level of irritation with Murdoch within the walls of the Chinese leadership compound at Zhongnanhai * was palpable, I was later told," Dover writes.

Advertisement

Murdoch continued to connive against the blacklist, thinking that the right meeting with the right propaganda minister or the premier would deliver the country to him on a satellite dish. In 1996, he underwrote Web site development for the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's "official mouthpiece."

Dover writes of his conversation with Murdoch about the hatred the Chinese had for Jonathan Mirsky, the East Asia editor of News Corp.'s Times, who had honestly reported the butchery from Tiananmen Square. Although Dover doubts that Murdoch ever overtly pushed Times editors to squelch Mirsky, as the reporter's contributions to the paper went unpublished, he finally quit in 1998.

In 1997, Murdoch and Dover plotted to nullify "The Speech" by shipping a hunk of blunt kowtow to the government. Dover composed a speech, which Murdoch gave at a publishers' conference in Tokyo, in which the rotten old bastard stated:

China has proved the sceptics, including myself, wrong, by not shunning new information technologies, but embracing them. ...

Advances in telecommunications contribute to the "universalization" of cultural interests and lifestyles. However, nations retain their own social and moral values that the media must take into account. China is a distinctive market with distinctive social and moral values that Western companies must learn to abide by.

Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng Murdoch. Click image to expand.
Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng
Advertisement

Team Murdoch made certain that "every relevant Chinese government official received a copy of the Murdoch speech as well as extracts for the world's press coverage," Dover writes.

Murdoch's rank submission to his Chinese lords paid off. They put him on the VIP list for the official hand-back of Hong Kong to the mainland and then granted him an audience with Vice Premier Zhu Rongji!

Zhu, a towel-snapping wit if ever there was one, commented to Murdoch that he was fascinated that the mogul obtained U.S. citizenship to advance his business interests in the United States. According to Dover, who witnessed these meetings, Zhu said Murdoch should think of applying for Chinese citizenship for the same reason.

"Murdoch visibly reeled back, blinked and started to splutter a reply, not knowing quite what to make of the proposition," Dover writes. Laughing, Zhu assured Murdoch it was a joke, but it's obvious whom the face-losing joke was on. Zhu encouraged Murdoch with talk about China reforming its media technology. Later, a Chinese representative asked Dover for a personal letter from Murdoch to President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li addressing the context of "The Speech."

Murdoch obliged with a genuflecting letter of apology to the Chinese and promised to remain a "good friend of China" and a supporter of "development of the Chinese economy."

By this point, News Corp. had invested $2 billion in the enterprise and was losing $2 million a week. Murdoch continued to pester Dover for a meeting with President Jiang. "If I can just sit down and talk with Jiang, I'm sure we can work something out," Dover quotes Murdoch, but the most successful introduction Dover made was of Murdoch to Wendi Deng, a fledgling executive at Star, who would soon become his third wife.

No count of Murdoch kowtows would be complete without acknowledgement of Murdoch's 1998 spiking of a News Corp. book by the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, to please the Chinese leadership. The BBC covers that affair here, and Dover adds confirming color. Murdoch never gave direct orders to his media executives to go easy or hard on anybody or anything to benefit the boss, because he didn't have to. What was expected was "a sort of 'anticipatory compliance,' " Dover writes. "One didn't need to be instructed about what to do, one simply knew what was in one's long-term interests."

After Murdoch killed Patten's book, continues Dover, "Our Beijing minders were impressed and the Patten incident marked a distinct warming in the relationship" with the Propaganda Department that watched over News Corp. His rehabilitation complete, the meeting with President Jiang finally happened.

Comfortable before the Chinese on his knees, Murdoch couldn't stop appeasing. In 1999, he slagged the Dalai Lama, saying, "I have heard cynics who say he's a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes," and, "Maybe I'm falling for [Chinese] propaganda, … but [Tibet] was an authoritarian, medieval society without any basic services."

Winding his narrative down, Dover reports Murdoch heralding India as media's hot developing country. Murdoch's prize for submitting to half a decade of political re-education was all consolation—the crumbs of joint ventures and co-productions with the Chinese.

Dover does, however, credit Murdoch's China programmers with one achievement that won't startle any News Corp. watcher. Star TV "effectively moved the entire Chinese broadcast market into a new era of lowbrow reality and infotainment television."

******

If you've thought the worst of Rupert Murdoch, you've probably underestimated him. After Rupert's kowtowing came that of his son and presumed successor James, who in 2001, while running News Corps.' Asian branch, publicly complained about Western news coverage of China. The nut doesn't fall very far from the tree, does it? Send nut mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: Here's a hand-built RSS feed that will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word kowtow in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Correction, Feb. 13: This article originally  misspelled Zhongnanhai, the name of the Chinese leadership compound in Beijing. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)