Rupert Murdoch’s debasing taste

Sidney Blumenthal
29 November 2006

Rupert Murdoch's suppression of OJ Simpson's hypothetical confession of double murder, If I Did It, after contracting, printing and distributing 400,000 copies of it, as well as producing a two-part interview with Simpson for broadcast on Fox TV, demarcates, at least for now, the outer limit of Murdoch's indecency. Yet his brief two-sentence statement contains not a glimmer of acknowledgment of any moral element of his quandary.

Murdoch's press release is a perfectly pitched production of false deference and anxious deflection. "I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project", Murdoch said, as though this were the first time it had occurred to anyone at his publishing company, HarperCollins, that paying Simpson $3.5 million to hold forth on murdering his wife and her friend might not reflect prudent judgment.

Murdoch's invocation of the wisdom of "the American people" inadvertently describes him and his executives as lacking in their own independent judgment, deferring to "the American people" as a nebulous corporate executive committee and deciding to "agree" with them before being trampled.

But the appeal to "the American people" also cleverly implies that Murdoch and his executives had nothing to do with the Simpson project and were as innocent as couch potatoes, as if both they and "the American people" were outsiders to News Corp.

"We are sorry for any pain this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson", Murdoch concluded. This was a line undoubtedly written by News Corp. attorneys to deflect potential lawsuits from the families of the murder victims. But this lawyerly crafted apology, such as it was, was not the limit of Murdoch's heartfelt response.

Denise Brown, sister of the murdered Nicole, told NBC's Today show that News Corp. offered her family and the Goldman family proceeds from the Simpson book as a form of hush money but that she said: "Absolutely not." "There were no strings attached", a News Corp. spokesman explained. Of course, there was no suggestion of obligation in receiving millions of dollars from the likes of Rupert Murdoch.

If I Did It from beginning to end, perfectly encapsulates how Murdoch does it - down to his inability to discuss the squalid deal as anything other than a commercial property gone awry. A peasant uprising of Fox affiliates that suddenly refused to air the interview forced his heavy hand. Had the TV stations remained passive transmitters, Murdoch would have gone ahead as planned. The unintentional irony of Fox affiliates finally protesting the airing of something that is almost certainly true - never having raised a peep about the endless stream of Fox falsehoods - was lost in the din.

When Fox News talk-show host and self-described "traditionalist" Bill O'Reilly, warming up for his annual campaign against "the war on Christmas", jumped into the fray, seizing upon the OJ interview as a platform for publicity, the controversy reached a critical mass of hilarity. O'Reilly proclaimed the cancellation of the Simpson interview "a culture war victory", and said, "News Corp. led by Rupert Murdoch did the right thing." Murdoch might be gratified that O'Reilly's bellowing promoted one Fox show, albeit at the expense of another. It's the only consolation Murdoch gained from the incident.

The main chance

Understandably, Murdoch failed to mention that this was not the first time he had suppressed a book. In 1998, he attempted to censor criticism of the Chinese government in the memoir East and West, written by Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. Murdoch, of course, has extensive commercial holdings in China requiring government approval. When Patten refused to knuckle under to Murdoch's line editing, HarperCollins declined to publish the book. Breaking his contract, Murdoch accused Patten of double-dealing and bad faith.

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton. He is the author of How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime (Princeton University Press). He writes a column for Salon and the Guardian.

Among Sidney Blumenthal’s recent articles in openDemocracy:

"The imprisoned president" (March 2006)

"The secret passion of George W Bush"
(May 2006)

"The president of dreams" (May 2006)

"The war for us"
(June 2006)

"The rule of law vs the war paradigm"
(July 2006)

"A pattern of calamity: 9/11, Katrina, Iraq"
(September 2006)

"Neocon fantasy, Iraqi reality"
(September 2006)

"The Bob Woodward version" (October 2006)

"Bush's choice, Baker's move"
(November 2006)

"The Republican implosion"
(November 2006)

It was the usual transparent Murdoch projection. The News Corp. publicity department issued a statement: "Rupert Murdoch did not agree with many of Patten's positions in Hong Kong which he thought abrogated promises made by the previous government." The editor at HarperCollins resigned in protest. And Patten said, "I don't see how you can be in favour of free speech in one part of the world and less keen on it in another."

Hypocrisy, however, has never caused Murdoch a self-reflective moment of hesitation. His high-flown rhetoric about "diversity" and "liberty" in media, echoed by teams of publicists and polemicists in his employ, is simply cover for his expansion motives. The Australian-born mogul turned United States citizen owes allegiance above all to his piratical self. Citizenship, like everything else, is a commercial proposition. The flag he flies is the Jolly Roger.

Murdoch's reputation as a conservative derives from his enthusiastic support for the Margaret Thatcher government in Britain through his panoply of high- and low-end newspapers there. (And HarperCollins bestowed a $5.4 million book advance on Thatcher for her memoirs.)

Meanwhile, in Australia, Murdoch was a backer of a Labour government. When the Tories looked like losers in Britain, he switched almost overnight into a supporter of Tony Blair's New Labour. In the US during the Reagan period he supported the ascendant Republicans. When the GOP took control of Congress in 1994 he not only founded a neo-conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, as a loss leader for influence, but also gave the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, a $4.5 million advance for a book just as Congress was considering telecommunications legislation that would directly benefit Murdoch. In the furore after the book deal was disclosed, Gingrich felt compelled to return his advance. But Murdoch still got his benefit, which, in 1996, cleared the way for him to launch Fox News.

This year, sensing the tide against Republicans, Murdoch's wretchedly rightwing tabloid the New York Post begrudgingly endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton for re-election, an abrupt reversal after sliming the Clintons for more than a decade. To anyone who has tracked Murdoch's peripatetic career, the endorsement was consistent with his opportunism. When Murdoch says "the free market", it translates as "the main chance".

The argument for Murdoch's authenticity is that as an Australian, even as the scion of a provincial press lord, he was something of an outsider and outrider, and he came by his antagonism to establishments everywhere honestly. Thus his attraction to Thatcher, who rattled the eye-teeth of the Tories, can be explained. On the other hand, he always follows power magnetically.

It's difficult, furthermore, to take a thrice-divorced adulterous man at his word when he says, as Murdoch did in 1988 about the presidential campaign of the Reverend Pat Robertson, "He's right on all the issues." Perhaps Murdoch best captured the essence of his own outlook in his pithy remark favouring the invasion of Iraq: "The greatest thing to come out of this [war in Iraq] for the world economy ... would be $20 a barrel for oil. That's bigger than any tax cut in any country." Applying to him the rule "follow the money" never fails to elucidate.

In any case, the most interesting thing about Murdoch is not his vulgar Marxism but his penchant for vulgarity. He has some intangible need for degradation that evidently cannot be assuaged by piles of loot. Murdoch's media empire is a kingdom of kitsch. Whether as entertainment or news, talk shows or song contests, the aesthetic is consistent. (The ironic social commentary of The Simpsons, not to be confused with OJ Simpson, is the exception that proves that rule.)

Murdoch's programming almost invariably traffics in faux-populist identities of the privileged and powerful battling phantom (liberal) elites. Murdoch-ism aims to unmask the great and the good as charlatans, frauds and crooks, proving that even as they masquerade as worthy they are really as cynical as he is. The programmes delight in bullying and humiliating little people to provide vicarious drama for viewers similar in social background to those being embarrassed but who feel bigger and stronger and identify with the cranks posing as domineering father figures.

This sadomasochistic exchange appeals to the authoritarian conservative personality. The hip Simon Cowell, host of American Idol, is just a variation on the theme of Bill O'Reilly, with the notable difference that he has an actual talent as a music producer.

The base instinct

And why shouldn't Murdoch continue to treat "the American people" as Pavlovian subjects to be titillated and aroused endlessly by his well-grooved methods? A study of voters for President Bush in the 2004 election conducted by social scientists at the University of Maryland's Programme on International Policy Attitudes determined that most of them overwhelmingly believed that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaida, that he had been personally involved in the terrorist attacks of 11 September, that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) existed in Iraq, and that WMD had indeed been found. These Bush voters occupied a "parallel universe", citing the administration and Fox News as validators of the fervently held falsehoods that were the building-blocks of their worldviews.

The OJ Simpson project was intended to debase everyone involved, but particularly "the American people", held in utter contempt as hungry consumers of tabloid trash, whose imbibing of the Murdoch product would enable their superior loathing and resentment of the black man who gets away with murder and is paid handsomely to boot. As Murdoch takes the money and runs, the joke's on them. At least that's the business plan.

Judith Regan, packager extraordinaire, whose ReganBooks is the greatest profit centre at HarperCollins, impresario of If I Did It (the book and the TV show), even serving as OJ's TV interviewer, is the ideal representative of Murdoch-ism, far more vital (and cost-effective) than the bleached neoconservative nasty boys on the payroll. Her bestselling titles include How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, Juiced and Sex, Sex, and More Sex. "I'm not running a philanthropic library, OK?" she explained to the LA Weekly.

Before the Simpson project, she branched out into "docudrama", becoming executive producer of Growing Up Gotti and The Other Man: John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette and Me. She boasted of her affair with the married and corrupt Bernard Kerik, former New York police commissioner, whose memoir, The Lost Son, Regan Books published in 2001. Kerik lavished her with his highest compliments: "She is brash, very assertive, extremely demanding, and talks like a man", he said. Regan, for her part, has described herself as "an average American with a two-minute attention span."

In the early days of the expected uproar over the Simpson project, Regan issued a bizarrely incoherent but revealing eight-page statement, which she titled, "Why I Did It." She sets the scene by describing watching the 1995 verdict in the Simpson case with Howard Stern. "Many of you probably remember where you were at that moment," she writes. Then she recounts being beaten up and abandoned by an abusive husband, implicitly comparing herself to murder victim Nicole Brown Simpson.

She draws out the theme of her victimisation, blaming the media for complaining about her Simpson production. "In the past few days, since the announcement of the forthcoming book and televised interview If I Did It, it has been strange watching the media spin the story", she writes. "They have all but called for my death for publishing his book and for interviewing him." Publishing the faux confessions of a murderer, therefore, potentially exposed her to being murdered herself for her bravery as a free-speech advocate - Nicole with a cause.

Yet Regan felt compelled to explain that she didn't approve of Simpson - and then compared him to Hitler. "'To publish' does not mean 'to endorse'; it means 'to make public.' If you doubt that, ask the mainstream publishers who keep Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf in print to this day." As she sought refuge in the reductio ad Hitlerum argument, mindlessly conflating the Brentwood killings with the Holocaust, she seemed to be reaching out to Hitler's agent. If only, through time-travel, she could do the two-part TV interview.

But the controversy spun out of Regan's control and she incited a sectarian civil war within News Corp. With Murdoch's cancellation, Regan must tend to other titles, like her recently published How to Make Money Like a Porn Star and soon-to-be-released Outrage: How Liberals ... and the Democratic Party Are Ripping Us Off ... and What to Do About It, by Dick Morris.

For Rupert Murdoch, If I Did It is unlikely to reverse how he does it. Obloquy, even coming from Fox affiliates and the oafish grandstander O'Reilly, will only momentarily slow him but hardly discourage his basic instincts. Despite his spiking of the Simpson project, there is something elemental that attracts Murdoch to the debased and inspires him to debase others.

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