The Political Re-Education of Rupert Murdoch
A new book by the mogul's former right-hand man in China tells nearly all.
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.)
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.
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.