Book & Film Reviews

- Jeremy Agar

"Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's war on journalism"

A Film by Robert Greenwald

Rupert Murdoch owns the Fox television network, which has spread rapidly around much of the world from its American home. In New Zealand, Fox screens after midnight on Prime, the Australian network. This forms a contemporary symmetry in which Murdoch’s career mirrors the global economy. Our connection to Murdoch comes from Oz by way of the US; Murdoch emigrated to the US from Oz. Until 2003, he was the dominant print media baron in New Zealand, through his decades-long ownership of Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL). He sold the newspapers to Fairfax, of Australia, and today the Murdoch media empire only exists in New Zealand through INL’s ownership of Sky TV.

Murdoch’s life is emblematic of the age. The ambitious Australian made it big in the States, returning to his homeland as a media giant. Having taken US citizenship, Murdoch now is as much American as he is Aussie, and is usually thought of as being American. Perhaps, like the vast corporation he controls, he belongs to everywhere in general and nowhere in particular.

Murdoch bought the Fox network in 1985 and it’s been a huge success. The film does not consider this. How has Murdoch been so commercially astute? If there’s a lesson there, we don’t learn it. Fox has supposedly marked its niche by being "youth-oriented". It’s also unremitting in its tirades against foreign evil and domestic liberalism.

Foxhunting Those Damned Liberals

To those of us who live outside the US, the coining of "liberal" as the dirtiest word in the political lexcion, as it was in the 2004 Bush campaign, is odd. "There’s a word for that", Dubya would say, as he shredded poor John Kerry, the multi-millionaire Establishment man, with more evidence that a Kerry presidency would deliver America to Satan, "and that word is liberal".

The Foxite Right has long made a sport of bashing the "liberal media". As this includes all the non-Fox, and solidly reactionary, TV networks, like ABC, CBS and NBC, the insult is absurd. All the big US stations mouth essentially the same stuff, often on Sunday morning talk shows when few tune in. The talking heads don’t need to be seen. They’re there to set the agenda. Even the public PBS, determinedly huffing in the shadows as a "minority" broadcaster, featured William Buckley, the doyen of conservatives, for decades.

Buckley is a polite Eastern-seaboard type of neo-conservative, a ubiquitous species on US TV. Fox likes to specialise in the ranting Rightist. Where this documentary is successful is in showing how the two styles fuse, creating a barrage. "Outfoxed" uses the same technique as "The Corporation" *, in editing to show how absolute is the uniformity of opinion on those outlets which pay homage to something they like to call "choice". Most of the network commentators and pundits use the same expressions. The effect is more than the obvious one of propagating just one worldview. The more insidious result is that any alternative views are marginalised or ridiculed. TINA rules. When it comes to key economic or foreign policy There Is No Alternative to the dominant class. * Jeremy’s review of "The Corporation" can be read in Watchdog 107, December 2004, or online at Ed.

Another virtue of the film is that we get to see the postmodern technique of avoiding contradictory evidence by pretending to be "open-minded" about irrefutable evidence against whatever anti-social agenda is being advanced. When it comes to promoting the power elites and dismissing TINA’s enemies, the minds close tight. Fact and opinion are fused, so that the "experts" evade accountability behind expressions like "some people say" (a favourite way to advance Rupert’s manias).

Fox’s specialty is to promote the down-market strain of reaction. Murdoch likes to air programmes to chew over stuff like "Why is Jesus so popular right now?". Murdoch cops flak for micro-managing his staff, who get daily instruction as to what to say and how. This is a big reason why he’s so unpopular. The man is a bully, we can all agree. Whether Rupert’s interventions affect what is presented in any fundamental way is less certain. Murdoch has been notorious for his rapture over (former British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher and (former US President) the late Ronald Reagan. But did his fawning, his obvious manipulations of viewers, serve to advance the neo-con cause more than the "credible" version of 1980s-style Rightist hysteria?

We could have got more than a brief analysis of one of the more effective ways of doctoring viewers’ minds. When Richard Clarke, a veteran US official who had worked for several Presidents and was Bush’s senior anti-terrorism adviser at the time of the September 11, 2001, terrorist atrocities, was exposing his Government’s lies (in 2004, Clarke published a sensational book entitled "Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War On Terror"), Big Media wanted to discredit him. In this sort of exercise, an observer points out, you don’t have to make your case. It can be enough to muddy the waters for just a day, or even a few hours, so that the news impact of an unwanted revelation is dulled. I remember Radio New Zealand’s Nine To Noon With Linda Clark interviewing a journalist, a dupe, who had picked up some discrediting stuff about Clarke. The next day the story was forgotten - but the real news, what Clarke was saying, was that much less in focus.

Fox Is But A Small Part Of The Murdoch World

He used to be regarded as mostly a newspaper and magazine man, with interests in Australia, the UK and the US. He’s long been a major media player for decades, and now he’s dominant. To get an idea: in a typical year like 1981 (pre-Fox) the Murdoch vehicle, News Corporation, earned $US1 billion. There’s nothing about this earlier Murdoch.

Murdoch is much more than Fox TV and his significance is much more than the ravings he promotes on American channels from his Republican mates. A more important story is the global concentration of media ownership. Almost all the wellknown outlets are controlled by a handful of corporations. Few are as overt as Fox.

In a way, that rules out subtle analysis. Rupert’s ravers are loony-tune nutters, whose style is not replicated within other neo-con cultures in the West. Few Rightwingers in Europe or Britain get traction from the gaybashing, Reds-under-the-bed, xenophobic US version of the tradition. The American Right, at least in its televangelic mode, is populist, while its trans-Atlantic mates tend to prefer aristocratic disdain. In a non-Fox mass-media context, blandness, evasion and conformity to the conventional wisdom of the elites is the preferred mode.

The American tele-Right is overt. Its style is a parody of Americana - as viewed from outside. This can have the paradoxical effect of allowing non-American consumers, who are often happy to accept the more restrained propaganda that emanates from their own media, to view Fox as a sort of joke. That wouldn’t matter if they realised that the basic message - that Big Business rules and don’t you forget it - is the same in all the major markets. The global power of Big Media is a bigger story than the Foxhunting of those liberal Democrats. That story is missed in the film. The antics of Rupert’s mates are of passing interest.


"On the rampage:
Corporate predators and the destruction of democracy"

Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, Common Courage Press, Maine, 2005. $US16.95

In American cities in the 1930s public transport systems began replacing trains and trams with buses. There are two ways of assessing this. The first is that it was the inevitable, unremarkable, and welcome consequence of the invention of the internal combustion engine. The second, which is that of the authors’, is that it was the worst corporate abuse of power in the 20th Century. It depends on your point of view.

The first view has long reflected the conventional wisdom, and, as the 21st Century gets under way, it still does. You don’t see trams or passenger trains much these days, least of all in the US. In NZ, one of the least selective followers of the US model, trains are almost extinct and trams have long gone, existing as a tourist gimmick in central Christchurch to brand the town as Ye Olde English - while The City That Shines remains Fresh Each Day. Trams are literally museum pieces.

Looking at a California expressway today, it’s hard to imagine that automobiles needed a push start, but they got a boost from the likes of General Motors (cars), Standard Oil (petrol) and Firestone (tyres). These mega-corporations bought out about 100 urban American transit systems, which had been providing effective and clean public transport, just so that they could replace trains with buses and, then, the real prize, railways with roads.

It’s A Good Pick As Number One Corporate Ripoff

What other cartel has made so much money for itself for so long through a single strategy? What other trend has influenced global history as much as the victory of the car? While cars would have become more important anyway, the General Motors-led campaign to pollute the world in the name of profits is emblematic of a power that is greater now, under the Oil President Himself, than it was in 1930 - and greater than when Robber Baron John D Rockefeller got the engines running with his machinations at Standard Oil in the waning years of the 19th Century.

General Motors/Standard Oil/Firestone gave conspiracy theories a good name, but like so many of the examples in this robust little book, the events made no stir at the time. Only after an apparently random series of business deals would it have been easy to discern what had happened. And why it happened would have taken longer.

Everywhere Big Oil leaks its influence. In smoggy places like Auckland and Christchurch (where buses replaced trams for no ostensibly good reason) governments are unwilling to enforce rigorous standards for car emissions. Instead, we sing our inane jingles about how the city shines brightly and how each day is fresher, and we pretend that it is only pensioners’ log fires that dirty the air.

Meanwhile, in February, 2005, in another little observed development, it was announced that General Electric, themselves successful conspirators against the public interest* (and well deserving of the chapter they are given in the book) had been supplanted as the biggest corporation in the world. The new champ is Exxon Mobil. As Exxon, the company made it to Number Two in the Mokhiber and Weissman all-time list of villains. That was for the 1989 oil spill in Alaska by the supertanker Exxon Valdez. *Jeremy’s review of "Power Play", by Sharon Beder, can be read in Watchdog 104, December 2003, or online at Ed.

As it consists of short, punchy, daily columns, aimed at a domestic American readership, much of the book is of limited interest. Its value is in the way it reminds us that the biggest headlines don’t necessarily run over the biggest stories. Defenders of the global power structures would not care for its tone. They might say that the authors see things that aren’t there or that they’re tilting at windmills. They’d be wrong. Sometimes things are so much part of the scene that we don’t notice them.


"An uncooperative commodity:
Privatising water in England and Wales",

Karen Bakker, Oxford University Press, New York, 2003. $NZ180

Water finds its own level. Because water is so basic to our existence, this is something that everyone knows. As engineers or gardeners or plumbers we plan for this tendency of water to flow downhill to level ground. When Karen Bakker refers to water as being uncooperative she has this in mind. Even neo-liberal economists can’t make water flow up and down like a line on a balance sheet.

Bakker’s monograph is an analysis of privatised water in the UK. She notes that there are two conventional explanations of this venture. The first is that the 1979-90 Thatcher Conservative government wanted to privatise water for political reasons, as part of its crusade to deregulate. The other view is that privatisation was an attempt to deliver service more efficiently. Put this way, privatisation would make sense, as its advocates, who claim to be seeking only a better system, must be right. Who would advocate that basic services be more wasteful or expensive than they need to be?

The terms of this discussion are more than familiar to New Zealanders. It’s a generic debate about the sort of society we want to live in, but it is not the squabble the conventional wisdom likes to portray. It’s not a contest between self-serving champions of public inefficiency and rational advocates of private efficiency. If it were that simple there would be no real argument against the neo-liberals. There would be no basis for a rival concept.

The common supposition that the economic and political are parallel universes is misleading. People who think that privatised services will be more efficient than publicly owned services, might express themselves in economic terms, but they base their belief on a political assumption. So do those who think the opposite is true. The real difference is to do with the State’s role. On whose behalf should it govern?

Bakker’s view is that water was privatised neither for purely ideological reasons nor for wholly technical reasons. But her evidence suggests that privatisers only pretended to talk about efficiency or cost. What they really wanted was a State run in the interests of corporations. As a shorthand to capture the essence of official policy Bakker opts for what she calls "re-regulation". This, she explains, combines "deregulation along with a different and sometimes expanded State role". The resulting re-regulation has come to be called the "British model". Bakker says that it has evolved in "unforeseen ways". Water privatisation has been seen as a failure. Bakker’s book is a detailed account of what went wrong and how the water companies and the Government careered from crisis to crisis.

The British, in their own estimation, are said to be given to muddling through. A 20th Century Conservative Prime Minister, the pragmatic Harold Macmillan (1957-63), brooded that his job involved coping with "events". "Re-regulation" could be seen as no more than a series of "events" - fumbling, ad hoc responses to make sure that the reforms did not collapse. But this bias would allow the important questions to be begged. Why did Thatcher bother to privatise water? Could the re-regulation have been avoided?

In the 19th Century, Bakker reminds us, water delivery had been brought under public ownership as it was thought to be not profitable for entrepreneurs but essential for a dignified life. This approach was entrenched by the Welfare State. Between 1850 and 1950 the number of UK houses receiving piped water went from less than 10% to over 90%.

Meanwhile, back on the farms, new methods of production also demanded a dependable supply of water. The State’s takeover of water was soon taken for granted. This was a period of unprecedented urbanisation, perhaps the most intense in world history. What would have happened to the health of the millions of people who migrated from the country to the towns of the industrialised Britain without municipal water? It’s anyone’s guess, but epidemics would have been likely.

The State Had To Intervene Because Private Competition Is Inefficient

As an example, it was normal practice for there to be two water mains in the same street. Besides being wasteful, duplication meant that both companies tended to be unprofitable, so standards were cut and the privateers cherrypicked rich areas. Poor people, the large majority, were not worth the bother. So local councils were given the job of supplying them on grounds of public health. There was no humane alternative to regulation in the public interest, but, even so, governments were handed the responsibility only in the worst cases when private interests consistently failed to provide clean water to all. I refer you, once again, to Jeremy’s earlier review of "Power Play", by Sharon Beder. She makes the same points about corporate electricity supply in 19th Century USA. It can be read in Watchdog 104, December 2003, or online at Ed.

A century later, in 1989, a decade after its own deregulation, the British government was in a similar position. The free market was not working. To attract investors, prices had been set low so that, on their first day on the market, shares of water companies zoomed by one billion pounds. The new companies and the Government set up a pricing system intended to guarantee liquid profits. Bakker mentions another motive. Thatcher wanted to foster the idea of a "share-owning" public. More than anything, this rhetoric, prevalent in late 20th Century Britain, was aimed at discrediting the Welfare State and its ethos of public ownership.

The water entrepreneurs did not want to invest in infrastructure. Leaks in their pipes, which wasted up to a third of all water, were unprofitable to fix, they explained to the Government. It was not rational economics to patch them. When in 1995 the water almost ran out in Yorkshire, the corporates claimed to be have been surprised by a freak drought. Bakker diagnosed a more likely story. Weather patterns had been long predicted, and corporates had long resisted ameliorative action (this has a parallel in the electricity failures. Neo-libs around the world routinely blamed freak weather for power outages).

Another new pattern that privatisation’s higher prices encouraged was that some poorer families had failed to pay up, so the water had been cut off. Britain became known as the "dirty man of Europe". According to Bakker, during the ’80’s, as private corporations were encouraged to profit at the community’s expense, it poured more sewage pollution into the sea than any country in the world.

Privatised water delivery achieved several predictable outcomes. It risked the health of people, especially in the inner cities; it encouraged waste and pollution. Yes, but what were the benefits of the new system? What had the Thatcherites learned that their 19th Century predecessors did not learn? In what way does the profit motive ensure that water will flow from river to tap more efficiently than it flowed when local councils owned the pipes? Bakker does not say.

How was the old Victorian dream, to do with the virtue of "property rights" (for corporations) exposing the vice of "bureaucracy’ (community control) realised? Thatcherite "re-regulation" involved a convoluted - and, it must be said, bureaucratic - attempt to will water to flow according to the wishes of water executives. Re-regulation has involved trying to separate the different uses of water and trying to invent prices for its delivery (while resisting the installation of water meters - a compliance cost). Yet no matter how hard they theorised, neo-liberal economists could not make water divide itself into marketable modules.

In both Victorian and Thatcherite Britain, the State existed to subsidise private owners. A conventional politician, like Macmillan, would have tried to do so unobtrusively. He would have shied away from a policy that was always detested. Thatcher, who fancied herself a revolutionary, saw the public's contempt as proof of her political correctness. If the proletariat disliked privatisation, Thatcherism knew the policy must be good. But, after its first fine careless rapture, the revolution reached its Thermidor*. A 1989 consciousness suggested that the privateers had to be saved from their excesses. They had to be regulated away from public relations disasters like cutting off late payersı water supply. * Thermidor – the date in the 18th Century French Revolution (in the new revolutionary calendar) when the reaction against its excesses, specifically the Reign of Terror and its liberal use of the guillotine, led to the overthrow of that batch of Revolutionary leaders, such as Robespierre, and the end of the Revolution proper. Ed.

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