How the BSkyB setback to Rupert Murdoch will affect his legacy in the US

The news that Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, dropped his bid to take over the BSkyB network raises questions about his ability to maintain his influence in the US.

Sang Tan/AP
News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch arrives at his residence in central London, Wednesday, July 13. News Corporation announced Wednesday it has dropped its bid to takeover British Sky Broadcasting (BskyB), will that affect Murdoch's legacy in the US?

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s empire continues to shudder under allegations of illegal phone hacking and bribery of public officials with an impending summons to testify before the British Parliament.

But Wednesday’s news that the Australian businessman has dropped his bid to take over the lucrative BSkyB broadcasting network after closing the iconic tabloid paper, News of the World, raises questions about Mr. Murdoch’s ability to maintain his influence both in Britain and the US, where he has been acquiring media properties for years.

“His business may survive,” says Richard Levick, president of Levick Strategic communications, a global firm specializing in crisis management, “but his legacy will not.”

While Murdoch may be able to regroup the long-term strategy for his media empire predicated on acquiring BSkyB, the largest broadcasting network in Britain, he will not be able to downplay the magnitude of what are now mounting criminal charges, Mr. Levick says.

Calling the breadth of the downfall, “Shakespearean,” Levick points out that alongside his reputation for great business acumen, Murdoch was also known as someone who “always saw himself as the little guy fighting against the Man, such as big government.”

Now, however, Levick asserts, what Murdoch will be remembered for are the journalistic excesses that led to his empire’s stunning setback: the scandalous, long-term abuse of the least fortunate among us – “a 13-year-old murder victim, deceased veterans of foreign wars, and victims of the 9/11 attacks.”

History will also mark Murdoch as the “main engine behind the race to the bottom of the journalism barrel,” says Levick. Murdoch’s key contribution to accelerating the “tabloidization” of media, he says, was his uncanny ability “to monetize the salacious.”

His steady acquisition of media outlets in the US parallels a well-documented rise in tabloid-style values across the US media landscape, “infotainment,” or “McNews,” as it has been called.

“Murdoch can be blamed for bringing some of the worst of British journalism culture to the US,” says Jeff Cohen, associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College in New York.

He points to what he considers one of many examples. “Look what happened with the New York Post, which used to be one of the leading papers. Just look at it today,” he says, noting what he calls unfounded allegations about the hotel maid whose accusations led to rape charges being brought against former managing director of the International Monetary fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

“The article called her a prostitute. They have no evidence for that, and she will sue and probably win,” Mr. Cohen says.

When Murdoch launched Fox News channel in 1996, Cohen says, “he brought over people all trained in the British tabloids.” Cohen, who was paid to appear on the channel for the first five years of its operation, says he observed the Murdoch-inspired culture “up close.”

Murdoch’s hands-on impact on the content was a hallmark, says Cohen. “If you were a politician and Murdoch was against you, then the station went after you 24/7,” he says, “and not in the opinion section, but in what was called the news.”

Fox News and the New York Post did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Cohen points to the charges now coming out in Britain about Murdoch’s alleged dirty tricks against British politicians such as Gordon Brown, whose financial and family medical records were hacked and the information published in Murdoch’s papers.

However, Murdoch’s impact on what is arguably his most prestigious purchase, The Wall Street Journal, back in 2007, has allowed it to buck the declines suffered by the overall newspaper industry. It was the only newspaper among the nation’s top 25 to increase circulation last year.

“Murdoch may not be a consummate journalist, but he is a consummate businessman,” says Mark Tatge, Pulliam professor of journalism at DePauw University in Indiana.

Look at what he accomplished, points out Mr. Tatge. “People told him he couldn’t launch a fourth TV network, and he did. People told him he would never be able to buy the Wall Street journal, and he did,” he says.

Meanwhile, the forces dumbing down content on TV as well as on the Internet are much bigger than Murdoch, says Len Shyles, professor of communications at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

The pressures to attract viewers in a fragmenting media landscape are much bigger than one person or outlet, he says.

“Murdoch may have brought his own special power to it,” he says, “but with or without Rupert Murdoch, the forces of tabloidization will continue to grow.”


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