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    Greater China
     Jul 26, 2011

Murdoch's misery, China's delight
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - How many times have how many Western governments hopped on their favorite soapbox to lecture China on the virtues of press freedom and human rights?

Now, thanks to Rupert Murdoch, the tables are turned. As Murdoch's News Corporation - the world's second-largest media conglomerate, topped only by the Walt Disney Company - teeters under the weight of a phone-hacking and bribery scandal that promises to get worse before it gets better, Chinese state media are reveling in the unseemly spectacle of it all.

Is this where the Western media model leads - to criminal acts by reporters and parliamentary grillings of media executives interrupted by angry pie tosses?

Let's face it, the only person caught up in the Murdoch maelstrom

of the past few weeks to have acquitted herself with any semblance of dignity and honor happens to be Chinese. When the svelte and redoubtable Wendi Deng Murdoch, the octogenarian media baron's 42-year-old wife, stymied a parliamentary pie tosser last week with a deft right hook to the nose on the floor of the House of Commons, it was the most impressive move any Murdoch had made for a long time.

His interrogation by British members of parliament may have been, as the elder Murdoch testified, "the most humble day of my life". But it also could have proved to be his most humiliating if he had wound up wearing shaving-foam pie on his face in photos and video seen around the world. Thanks to his wife's quick thinking and athleticism (she used to play volleyball in middle school but clearly saved her best spike in defense of her billionaire husband), he was spared that abasement.

As it stood, the aging tycoon's general cluelessness about what was going on at the News of the World - the best-selling newspaper in his vast stable of media outlets before revelations of phone hacking and bribery by its reporters forced Murdoch to shut it down this month - made him look bad enough. And the arrogant dismissiveness of his son, James, 38, head of News Corp's operations in Europe and Asia, who was trusted to do the lion's share of the talking as father and son sat side by side fielding barbed questions, also did nothing to help the cause.

Only Wendi's spontaneous show of nimble beauty and fierce loyalty saved the hearing from being an unmitigated fiasco for the Murdochs. But she could not save the family and News Corp from becoming convenient whipping boys for everything that is wrong with the West in her native China, where her husband's determined efforts to win favor and become a major media player have been rebuked by Communist Party officials.

And who can blame Chinese commentators for seizing this sensational opportunity to take their revenge? For decades, they have endured lectures from the West about their suppression of the media as part of an ongoing, sweeping condemnation of Beijing's callous disregard for human rights in general; meanwhile, the no-holds-barred, profit-driven media of the West - whose chief symbol is indeed Rupert Murdoch; Disney, the largest corporate purveyor of Western stereotypes and propaganda, somehow mostly gets a pass - has set a daily example of irresponsibility and excess.

It is no surprise that now, with the News of the World in the dock, former reporters at rival tabloids - the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror - are stepping forward to admit that they engaged in the same illegal practices as a matter of course. There is no telling where all this will end.

Official publications such as Xinhua, the People's Daily and the Global Times have covered the News of the World scandal in depth and detail, freely offering commentary on how News Corp's current troubles reveal the hypocrisy and empty sloganeering of the Western media and political elite.

"Phone hacking scandal crushing blow to Murdoch empire," one recent Xinhua headline asserted; in another article, the news agency predicted a major overhaul of "the regulatory model of Western media" now that its corrupt and fraudulent nature has been revealed.

"Some experts in Beijing and Shanghai believe that [the scandal] directly exposes the inherent money-seeking nature of Western media today," the agency said, "and the false nature of the concepts of 'freedom', 'impartiality' and 'human rights' that they have long bandied about. As the scandal has continued to develop, it has become a major assault on the model of media supervision and control in the West."

An article in the People's Daily on Thursday reminded readers that British reporters do not have a lock on wayward ethics and conduct in their trade, recalling that virtually every media outlet in the United States jumped on the bandwagon to invade Iraq in 2003 based on what turned out to be false reports that then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

And Murdoch's Fox News, a de facto arm of the Republican Party and an ardent supporter of the George W Bush administration that perpetrated the WMD myth to launch the Iraq war, was the invasion's loudest and most demonstrative cheerleader.

The Global Times was keen to point out the irony that two of the more high-minded newspapers in Murdoch's stable, The Wall Street Journal and The Australian, have been consistent critics of China's record on human rights and media freedom. Suddenly, their voices have gone silent as their owner finds himself pilloried for the criminal acts of reporters working for one of his decidedly low-minded tabloids.

These criticisms of the West may be overzealous and willfully blind to any of the merits of a free, unfettered media, but they also have the sting of truth. The profit motive often does poison the well of the Western media, and Xinhua's prediction that a new and tougher regulatory regime is in the offing will likely prove true.

That would not necessarily be a bad thing if that new regime sets out to break up media behemoths like News Corp, which has become far too powerful a political player on the world stage, perverting the media's traditional role as watchdog in a system of checks and balances in Western democracies.

But let's be clear: Murdoch is certainly not the first profiteering media mogul to abuse his power. Remember William Randolph Hearst? In 1887, at the age of 23, he burst brazenly onto the American publishing scene when he took over the San Francisco Examiner from his father.

At the peak of his career, Hearst owned nearly 30 newspapers in major American cities. He and arch rival Joseph Pulitzer recklessly boosted circulation and profits at their papers by creating a new kind of titillating but fanciful reporting dubbed yellow journalism, which Hearst used to whip up enthusiasm for American military adventures that eventually led to war with Spain.
In the age of cable television and the Internet, Murdoch, a native of Australia who acquired American citizenship in 1985, has far more power and influence than Hearst ever dreamed of possessing. But now the tycoon's many enemies smell blood, and his empire is under threat. In a fair system of checks and balances, Murdoch and News Corp are due for a huge, ego-shattering check.

That said, there is also a mighty, monopolistic media empire in China. Its aging chief executive officer is the Communist Party. It, too, could use some checks and balances.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@netvigator.com

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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