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.

Upon buying MySpace in 2005, Murdoch declared that young people "want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe, to offer a different angle." A year later, while still riding the MySpace, new-media wave to cheers from the press, Murdoch spoke with some satisfaction about power "moving away from the old elite in our industry—the editors, the chief executives, and, let's face it, the proprietors."

But that was then, and this is now, what with MySpace having recently entered a death spiral, its unique visitors down 15 percent over the year, its September U.S. page views down to 22 billion from 40 billion the previous year. This dramatic plunge in page views means that the site will "earn about $100 million less than the $900 million it was promised in a three-year [search] deal with Google," the Associated Press reported last week. Hence Murdoch's new rhetoric in which he hails the old elite and calls for their return!

When whistling past the graveyard, it's wise to keep one's options open. It's a maneuver Murdoch excels at. Cory Doctorow, Jason Calacanis, and Mark Cuban hypothesize that Murdoch is gunning for an arrangement in which a search engine from the second tier, such as Bing or Ask, pays him big money for exclusive rights to crawl his sites and display results. In other words, applying the MySpace/Google formula—which expires next year—to his newspaper sites. Good luck with that, Rupert!

When Rupert Murdoch speaks, he's either lying or filibustering. The only sensible time to listen for him is when he's running silent.

******

Thanks to Dan Gross for the vigorous brain massage. Copy-editing by Chad Lorenz. Make-up by Chris Wilson. Laugh by Timothy Noah. For more Murdoch hypocrisy, see this timely observation by Michael Pascoe in the Age. For a direct line to me, send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com or follow my Twitter feed. Both are free. (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: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type jawboning in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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