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Is it time to stop laying into Rupert Murdoch?

Why should we, you ask, when it’s so much fun?

It is indeed fun to observe the over-mighty Murdochs, paterfamilias Rupert and once super-cocky son James suffering the slings and arrows of the commentariat, various MPs and, rather more worryingly from their point of view, legislators on either side of the Atlantic and, possibly, Australia too.

For decades Rupert (pictured with ‘Tiger Woman’ wife Wendi), chairman and CEO of giant News Corporation, has imposed his increasingly right wing views on the public through his ever-expanding media empire including News International’s UK papers, their Australian and US counterparts and the combative (we’re being polite here) Fox network in the US.

Politicians, in the UK anyway, have sucked up to him shamelessly and the empire has not been afraid to try to use its power, most notoriously when sprog James launched an all-out attack on the sainted BBC in a keynote speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival back in 2009. The younger Murdoch even had the temerity to get into a loud public argument with BBC business editor Robert Peston and Pesto has been on his case ever since.

Now, with the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics still to publish its findings (hardly likely to be helpful to the Murdochs), the UK Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport select committee has announced that it has found that Rupert is “not a fit person to exercise stewardship of a major international company,” although we didn’t know that international companies were part of its self-chosen remit.

That the committee has divided on party lines – Labour and Liberals hard on the Murdochs, Conservatives less so – is hardly a surprise but it does weaken the power of its condemnation. They would say that, wouldn’t they? Even so, UK media regulator Ofcom, which is also looking at the baleful influence of the Murdochs, in particular in regard to their 39 per cent stake in UK pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB, may feel emboldened to demand changes to their influence over the company. Another bad result for Rupert and James who thought they were going to be able to buy the whole lot just last year.

So what started with phone hacking at the (now extinct) News of the World in 2007 has now turned into a full-on crisis for the Murdochs, one that is also exercising its opponents in the US, where News Corp makes most of its money.

But does the Murdochs’ behaviour merit the dismemberment of the empire? Would we be better off without them and it?

Let’s look at the credit side of the ledger.

In the UK Rupert Murdoch has invested heavily (and riskily in the early days) in BSkyB to introduce more competition into the TV market. The fact that much of Sky’s behaviour these days is anti-competitive, buying up all sorts of broadcast rights that most people would prefer to be on free-to-air TV should also be borne in mind.

He has supported the loss-making Times newspaper for decades. We reckon this has cost him about £400m minimum.

He rescued the Sun newspaper from oblivion in the 1960s and turned it into the highly-profitable, one-eyed monster it is today. But at least it works.

He has created a vibrant film and broadcast business in the US. His commercial record is much better than that of other would-be film moguls like Sony. Even Fox News reflects (and shapes) the views of a big part of America. It may be the mad part but this is democracy, after all.

He challenged successfully Silvio Berlusconi’s dominance of the Italian media with Sky Italia.

He created the often-forgotten Star TV in Asia which, one day, may be the world’s biggest broadcaster.

Which is quite a lot to cram into even a 60-year media career.

Tempus fugit will eventually see off Rupert (he’s 81) and the current kicking the company is taking will probably mean that James will not succeed him (not immediately anyway) and News Corp will be unable to buy all of BSkyB, a potential outcome that many found alarming.

When Rupert goes News Corp may well be broken up anyway, other senior managers in the company (including deputy COO James) are not fans of newspapers. A paper like the venerable Times will always find a vanity buyer however, possibly one rather worse than Murdoch.

So you can, I’m not saying you should, make a case for leaving the hobbled Murdochs to get on with trying to revive the empire as it does quite a lot of good things along with the bad.

The alternative may be over-mighty legislators tightening their control on the media. We can see this happening with the internet as governments and special interest groups such as music companies try to regulate something that is supposed to be open to every view and taste, however unruly.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation as a bastion of freedom? Well, maybe.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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