With the finding this week by a committee of the British Parliament that Rupert Murdoch is “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company,” the Federal Communications Commission should move to prohibit Murdoch from owning television stations in the United States.
The licensing system for TV and radio stations in the U.S. requires that their owners be of good character. It also mandates that only U.S. citizens hold a major interest in a station —the reason why Murdoch became a U.S. citizen in 1985 as he moved to create a U.S.-based media empire.
His Australian citizenship went, but as for his questionable character, that remained. In its extensive and scathing report on the hacking and bribery scandal in the U.K. involving Murdoch’s News Corporation, the Parliamentary committee declared that Murdoch “turned a blind eye and exhibited willful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications. This culture, we consider, permeated from the top.”
The “claim that phone-hacking could be dismissed as the work of a single ‘rogue reporter’…was a false one,” said the committee about the assertion of Murdoch and his son James in earlier testimony before it. “As a result of our own investigation, but also of civil cases currently before the courts, Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry and investigative journalism, there has been a steady flow of evidence which, taken together, comprehensively discredits that assertion. This is beyond dispute.”
“Rupert Murdoch is certainly not, as part of his evidence would have us believe, a ‘hands-off proprietor,’” the panel stated. Indeed, last week, Murdoch finally acknowledged to the committee that there was a “cover-up” of the scandal in which he took part.
The report, said the BBC, “directly questioned the integrity and honesty of Rupert Murdoch” and could lead to a determination in the U.K. that Murdoch’s company “is not fit and proper to hold a broadcasting license.”
When the Federal Communications Act—the regulatory structure for radio and later also TV in the U.S.—was initially enacted in 1934, a similar standard requiring station owners to be “stewards” of the public airwaves became law in America.
Broadcast media, it was reasoned, were using a limited resource—the airwaves—and thus standards were needed to be set for who could own a station. Unlike newspapers, there could not be a virtually unlimited number of stations—frequencies were finite and use of them should only be granted to those of good character committed to serving the public interest. That also applies when a station undergoes a periodic process of relicensing.
If the owners are found guilty of a felony, an anti-trust violation, a fraudulent statement to a governmental entity, discrimination, among other things, they can lose their license to operate the station.
This is what should now happen to Murdoch in the U.S.
A problem is that the Federal Communications Commission, which enforces the Federal Communications Act, has—like so many U.S. regulatory agencies—been a lapdog to rather than a watchdog of industry.
Dark Genius by Kerwin Swint, a book about Roger Ailes who with Murdoch put together the hard right-wing Fox News Channel, notes that Murdoch “has always gotten what he wanted out of the FCC.” This included, in 1993, the FCC waiving “its cross-ownership rule—barring a company from owning a newspaper and/or a radio or TV station in the same market.”
Murdoch’s mission in media is politics. “At Murdoch’s media companies,” writes Swint, “his operations are often used for expressly political purposes.” For example, the “New York Post is not profitable in a financial sense for Murdoch, but it has been invaluable to him as a battering ram for political causes and vendettas….He has skillfully used his media properties to advance political agendas , and conversely, has used those political assets to advance his media properties.”
There have been outrageous media barons through the years. Citizen Kane, often considered America’s finest movie, is about the meglomania of William Randolph Hearst.
But Murdoch has operated—in the U.K., in the U.S., indeed all over the world—as what William Shawcross in Murdoch, his biography of Murdoch, describes as “an international Citizen Kane, with influence beyond imagining.”
His cynicism—such as the Fox News Channel proclaiming to be exactly what it’s not, “fair and balanced”—is profound. The quantity of his media holdings is vast. And some are extremely important. He now owns 150 newspapers in Australia including The Australian, the nation’s biggest paper. In the U.K., he bought what had been the most distinguished newspaper in the English-speaking world, The Times of London, the quality of which has been downgraded under Murdoch. His other U.K. holdings include Sky Television.
In the U.S. his holdings, in addition to the New York Post, include The Wall Street Journal which he has been using to take on The New York Times to become the leading American newspaper. His News Corporation also owns the giant book-publishing company, HarperCollins; 20th Century Fox movie studio; 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Broadcasting Company. His U.S. cable TV assets in addition to Fox News Channel include Fox Movie Channel and Fox Business Network.
Murdoch’s holdings also extend to Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. All in all, his News Corporation owns more than 800 media companies in more than 50 countries.
According to Forbes magazine, Murdoch’s net worth is now $8.3 billion making him, says Forbes, the 106th richest person in the world, the 38th richest in the U.S.
“With News Corp undoubtedly facing increased regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. as the phone-hacking scandal expands in the U.K., the company is acting to correct a breach of FCC laws regarding foreign ownership,” the website Studio Briefing reported last month. “The media conglomerate will likely suspend half the voting rights of foreign shareholders to bring it into compliance with FCC rules limiting foreign ownership of broadcasting stations to 25 percent.” The largest foreign shareholder, it said, is Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who “owns 7 percent of News Corp’s voting stock.”
Now what about the man at the top—Rupert Murdoch—and the requirement of integrity?
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.