What's behind Rupert Murdoch's trash-talking of Google?

Media criticism.
Nov. 10 2009 5:49 PM

Read Between the Lies

What's behind Rupert Murdoch's trash-talking of Google?

Rupert Murdoch. Click image to expand.
Rupert Murduch

Rupert Murdoch knows two modes: doing things and talking about doing things.

When he's doing things, nobody does so more decisively and with greater impact than Murdoch. Take, for example, his destruction of U.K. union power at Wapping, his purchase and transformation of the old Metromedia television group into the Fox Broadcasting Network, his acquisition of Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones, his aggressive entry into satellite broadcasting around the world, his poaching of NFL football from CBS, his establishment of the Fox News Channel, his wily and victorious bid for MySpace, and his carbon-cutting initiative, just to name a few of his unswerving exploits.

And then there is Rupert the talker, who preaches about the importance of free speech and civil liberties while routinely undermining them with his actions in China, who talks the Tory line until it suits him to talk Labor and then only until it serves his interests to switch back to Tory. If Murdoch bothers to say something, it's almost an even bet that he's lying. Upon taking over the New York Postin 1976 from Dorothy Schiff, he assured all that "the political policies [of the Post] will stay unchanged." We all know where that one went. He has bleated on and on about the glories of the free market while queuing for government subsidies for his businesses. He claimed that a "special committee" would maintain the Wall Street Journal's "editorial independence" but then ignored it to drive out the old editor and install a new one.

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Murdoch the talker has been dominating the headlines this week with angry words about how Google, Microsoft, Ask.com, the BBC, and others have been stealing his News Corp. newspaper content (Wall Street Journal; Times of London; the U.K. Sun,et al.), and goddamnit, he's going to put a stop to it with fair-use lawsuits and pay walls to keep the poachers out!

As evidence that Murdoch doesn't really think he'd win a fair-use suit against search engines for displaying snippets of his newspaper copy, consider the fact that he hasn't filed one. (I'll bet that Murdoch's lawyers have advised him against filing a fair-use lawsuit against the search engines because it could backfire, expanding fair-use rights rather than limiting them.) Evidence of his low confidence in the wisdom of erecting universal pay walls resides in the fact that he hasn't built them, even though he's been threatening to do so for months. And for evidence that he doesn't really hate Google, look to his refusal to add to his sites the robots.txt file that prevents Google from adding them to its search database.

Murdoch is simply jawboning. Three months ago he promised that News Corp. would start charging for its newspapers by June 2010. Now he doubts that the company will hit that mark. In typical Murdochian fashion, he's sowing confusion and harvesting bewilderment.

If it were in News Corp.'s economic interests to dig an Internet moat around its newspaper properties, Murdoch would have already done it rather than talk about it. Instead, he's shouting about it to signal to his competitors 1) where he'd like to take News Corp. and 2) his desperate desire for them to follow. And they must follow, because if they don't, the genocidal tyrant's general-interest newspapers—the Australian, the Times, the New York Post, the Sun, News of the World, and others—will be doomed to irrelevance.

The best pay-wall candidate in the Murdoch portfolio is the Wall Street Journal, which already charges for access while allowing nonpaying visitors to view some of its content. (Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson calls this model "freemium.") If Murdoch were to raise the Journal's pay wall all the way to the heavens to block Google and Google News completely, it could lose 25 percent of its traffic, Bill Tancer of Experian Hitwise writes this week, and the move "could isolate the Journal from potential new online subscribers."

That's not what Murdoch wants, of course. Although he loves to yodel about how "quality journalism" is expensive and how "an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalizing its ability to produce good reporting," remember he's the guy who drove the price of newspapers down in London (and later tried the same in New York). He's also delighted to give away content—to allow it to be "cannibalized," if you like—if he can get the numbers to work in his favor: All of his terrestrial-broadcasting properties are free, which is to say advertising-supported. No user pays Murdoch for the right to settle down in News Corp.'s MySpace, either.

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