Murdoch vs. The Man

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about Rupert Murdoch’s drive for total world domination. I’d be as disappointed as anyone if he took over the Wall Street Journal and wrung out of it what makes the Journal a great paper.

But a recent New York Times story on “Murdoch, Ruler of a Vast Empire” rather off-handedly made clear what real power is — and it isn’t what Murdoch has. As the Times reported,

Shortly before Christmas in 1987, Senator Edward M. Kennedy taught Mr. Murdoch a tough lesson in the ways of Washington.

Two years earlier, Mr. Murdoch had paid $2 billion to buy seven television stations in major American markets with the intention of starting a national network. To comply with rules limiting foreign ownership, he became an American citizen. And to comply with rules banning the ownership of television stations and newspapers in the same market, he promised to sell some newspapers eventually. But almost immediately he began looking for ways around that rule.

Then Mr. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, stepped in. Mr. Kennedy’s liberal politics had made him a target of Murdoch-owned news media outlets, particularly The Boston Herald, which often referred to Mr. Kennedy as “Fat Boy.” [This is an unfair claim by the Times; one columnist at the Herald calls Kennedy that. This is like saying “The Times often refers to Cheney as ‘Shooter’ ” because Maureen Dowd does.] He engineered a legislative maneuver that forced an infuriated Mr. Murdoch to sell his beloved New York Post.

Murdoch could spend $2 billion on American media properties and change his citizenship — but one irritated senator could force him to sell his favorite American newspaper. The Times continued,

“Teddy almost did him in,” said Philip R. Verveer, a cable television lobbyist. “I presume that over time, as his media ownership in this country has grown and grown, he’s realized that you can’t throw spit wads at leading figures in society with impunity.”

Well, actually you can in a free society. That’s what makes it a free society — that you can criticize the powerful. And true, nobody tried to put Murdoch in jail. They just forced him to change his citizenship and sell his newspaper.

He ran into similar problems in Britain. His newspapers there, unsurprisingly, usually supported the Conservative Party. But in 1997 two of them endorsed Labour Party leader Tony Blair for prime minister. Blair reacted warmly to the support, but some Labour leaders still wanted to enact media ownership limits, which might have forced Murdoch to sell some of his properties.

“Blair’s attitude was quite clear,” Andrew Neil, the editor of The Sunday Times under Mr. Murdoch in London from 1983 to 1994, said in an interview. “If the Murdoch press gave the Blair government a fair hearing, it would be left intact.”

Is this what the long British struggle for freedom of the press has come to? A prime minister can threaten to dismantle newspapers if they don’t give him “a fair hearing”?

Murdoch has been a realist about politics. He knows that while he may buy ink by the barrel, governments have the actual power. They can shut him down at the behest of a prime minister or a powerful senator. So he plays the game, in Britain and the United States and even China.

After the 2006 elections, for instance, News Corporation and its employees started giving more money to Democrats than Republicans.

“We did seek more balance,” said Peggy Binzel, Mr. Murdoch’s former chief in-house lobbyist. “You need to be able to tell your story to both sides to be effective. And that’s what political giving is about.”

Rupert Murdoch’s empire may become yet more vast, but he’ll still be subject to the whims of powerful politicians. This is hardly surprising in China. But one would hope that in the country of John Milton and the country of John Peter Zenger, and especially in the country of the First Amendment, a publisher would be free to say whatever he chooses without fear of government assault on either his person or his property.