RUPERT MURDOCH - A PORTRAIT OF SATAN

Wednesday 25 April 2012, 12:06

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Today the Rupert Murdoch story has finally reached the issue that has been lurking in the shadows of this whole saga - and what has always made people most uneasy about him. It is the true nature of his relationship to politics and power in Britain and how he may have used that to create his vast empire.

A year ago I published the story of Murdoch's rise to power in Britain over the past 40 years - as told through the BBC's coverage of him. I thought it would be good to republish it today.

I notice that Lord Justice Leveson brought Woodrow Wyatt's diaries with him into the enquiry today. As you will see from the end of this story he might learn something very interesting about Rupert Murdoch from one of Wyatt's last entries in those journals.

RUPERT MURDOCH - A PORTRAIT OF SATAN

Rupert Murdoch doesn't like the BBC.

And sometimes the BBC doesn't seem to like Rupert Murdoch either.

Following the principle that you should know your enemy, the BBC has assiduously recorded the relentless rise of Rupert Murdoch and his assault on the old "decadent" elites of Britain.

And I thought it would be interesting to put up some of the high points.

It is also a good way to examine how far his populist rhetoric is genuine, and how far its is a smokescreen to disguise the interests of another elite.

As a balanced member of the BBC - I leave it to you to decide.

Murdoch first appears in the BBC archive in a short fragment without commentary shot in 1968. It shows him ambling into the City of London on his way to see Sir Humphrey Mynors who was head of the City Takeover Panel

Murdoch was going to ask Sir Humphrey for permission to take over the News of the World. Then he is interviewed afterwards.

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The News of the World was a salacious rag, but it was run by Sir William Carr who was a member of an old establishment family. He had already received a hostile bid from the publisher Robert Maxwell. Carr hated Maxwell because he was not British (he was Czech).

Then Murdoch arrived. He wasn't British either, but he told Sir William he would buy the paper but they would run it jointly together.

Maxwell warned Sir William not to trust Murdoch. He told him - "You will be out before your feet touch the ground".

Sir William replied - "Bob, Rupert is a gentleman"

But Lady Carr began to worry. She took Rupert Murdoch out to lunch in Mayfair. She reported that he had little small talk, no sense of humour and that he had lit up a cigar before the first course.

The BBC got interested in Murdoch - and they put out a profile of him. It was shot with him at work and at home in Australia. It has a great interview with Murdoch's secretary about what a sensitive man he is - and how upset he gets when he has to fire someone.

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The News of the World battle ended at a showdown at the shareholders meeting in January 1969. The BBC had a camera inside. Here are some of the shots - again without any commentary.

The shareholders were being asked to accept Murdoch's offer.

It has great bits with Robert Maxwell huffing and puffing about how Murdoch hasn't played by the rules. Murdoch's response - "Yesterday Mr Maxwell called me a moth-eaten kangaroo. I'd like to point out that I haven't yet got to that stage"

Robert Maxwell would go on to become one of the greatest criminals in British business history. And then he would fall off a boat in the Atlantic and drown in 1991

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But Robert Maxwell was right in his warning. Within three months Murdoch forced Sir William Carr out - and took over complete control.

Carr died in 1977. Murdoch offered to pay for a memorial service. But a proud Lady Carr refused.

The British establishment decided Murdoch was not a gentleman. And then he did something much worse. He announced he was going to publish the memoirs of Christine Keeler in the News of the World. Keeler was a "model" whose liaison with a government minister John Profumo in 1963 had ruined Harold MacMillan's government.

But since then Profumo had redeemed himself in the eyes of the establishment by going off to work for a charity in the east end of London. So when the News of the World published the sordid details of the affair, the whole of London society was scandalised. Murdoch was unearthing a scandal that should have been dead and buried, and destroying one of their own.

And, they said, he was doing it with the sole interest of lining his own pocket. Murdoch was seen as sleazy and destructive.

And this is where his monstrous image began. The man who had first taught Murdoch journalism on the Daily Express in the 1950s summed it up:

"The trouble is - Rupert was regarded as the Supreme Satan"

And he had also just bought the Sun.

So the BBC decided to make a longer, more probing profile. And to do it they sent a key member of the broadcasting elite - David Dimbleby.

The film is surprisingly fair - given the outrage. Dimbleby puts the accusations to Murdoch, but he also flirts with him, and with Murdoch's wife Anna. It is fascinating to watch Murdoch's face as Dimbleby does this. You can see him beginning to realise just how the British establishment really operates.

The Canadian in spectacles who appears first is Lord Thomson of Fleet - head of a global newspaper empire. He owned the Times in Britain.

The man chairing the editorial conference with Murdoch is the News of the World editor Stafford Somerfield. He was a legendary Fleet Street figure. A few months later Murdoch would sack him.

Somerfield then went off and edited a magazine about pedigree dogs - and became a judge at Crufts.

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This rejection by the British establishment was one of the main reasons why Murdoch decided to leave Britain in 1973. He took his family and went to live in New York while still running the News of the World and the Sun in Britain. He talked about his reasons in an interview he gave to a left-wing journalist called Alexander Cockburn in 1976 in the Village Voice.

Although, as the consummate newsman, Murdoch turns it round and portrays it as him rejecting them. And you can see his guiding myth beginning to take shape here - the revolutionary outsider against the decadent British system.

Then in 1981 Rupert Murdoch returned to Britain and took his revenge. He bought the Times.

It was an act that united both the liberal elites and many old Tories in shock and outrage. This got worse when Mrs Thatcher's government allowed the takeover to proceed without it being referred to the Monopolies Commission. Under law this should have happened, but the government excused it with the flimsy excuse that neither the Times nor the Sunday Times actually made money.

There was a growing sense that Murdoch was now manipulating British politicians for his own personal gain. So the BBC decided to investigate Murdoch's business and personal background.

A Panorama was made called "Who's Afraid of Rupert Murdoch?" It was in two parts. First is a film which tells the story of Murdoch's rise to power in Australia, Britain and America. And then he is interviewed live in the studio by yet again - David Dimbleby.

The film is tough. And Murdoch is made to sit and watch it in the studio as he waits for the interview. It lays out and reports all the accusations that would become the foundation for future criticism of the way Murdoch both built and ran his media empire.

-That he takes over intelligent newspapers and turns them into trash. As the ex-editor of the New York Post says - "he took it towards a readership we believed didn't exist"

-That his critics say he turns the news reporting in his newspapers into a propaganda wing of his chosen editorial line, and then uses that to destroy politicians he doesn't like and help elect those he does.

- It describes the scandal in America when Murdoch got a massive favourable loan from the US government just after he had endorsed Jimmy Carter in the New York primary. Murdoch denies there was any connection.

- And it reports the outrage in New York over the sensational way his newspapers reported the serial Killer Son of Sam. Headlines personally overseen by Murdoch that seemed, it was alleged by other journalists, to turn a brutal killer into a celebrity.

- And it gave the American liberals a chance to reveal that they too now hated Rupert Murdoch as much as the British elites. "He is a force for evil" says the head of the Columbia Journalism review rather smugly.

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And then Murdoch is given a chance to respond. Here are the parts of the interview where Murdoch takes on those allegations and responds with what was now his central argument.

That he is engaged in a war on elitism - both on journalism in America and the "typical piece of slanting and elitism" that he has just had to watch. Made by the BBC.

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It now became his mantra. Anything that was "elitist" could be a legitimate target.

In 1986 Murdoch moved all his operations out of Fleet street to Wapping. The print unions went on strike - only to discover they had fallen into his trap. Murdoch promptly sacked them. The unions, he said, were another part of the decadent elites that were preventing Murdoch performing his proper role - making sure the market system served the people properly.

There was massive TV coverage of the outrage. But the BBC made an interesting programme that looked beyond Murdoch's rhetoric and linked the move to Wapping to what Murdoch was doing in America.

Murdoch had bought Twentieth Century Fox and then, in the months before Wapping, a chain of TV stations called Metromedia (they would become Fox TV). He was massively in debt, and the only way for his empire to survive, it was alleged, was to get more money out of his original purchases - the News of the World and the Sun.

The BBC programme was made by Robert Harris. He went and interviewed one of the American bankers involved in the deal - from Drexel Burnham Lambert - who says that the move to Wapping immediately increased the value of the British papers by over 300%.

Or as one of the union men says in the programme - "British workers are being forced to lose their jobs to fund his investments in America"

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In 1989 - on the 20th anniversary of buying the Sun - Murdoch helped write an editorial that trumpeted his vision of himself as a revolutionary:

'The Establishment does not like the Sun. Never has

There is a growing band of people in positions of influence and privilege who want OUR newspaper to suit THEIR private convenience. They wish to conceal from readers' eyes anything that they find annoying or embarrassing.

LIVING LIES AND HYPOCRISY ON HIGH CAN HAVE NO PLACE IN OUR SOCIETY

IT IS THE STRUGGLE OF ALL THOSE CONCERNED FOR FREEDOM IN BRITAIN.'

But the liberal elite were already fighting a counterattack. It had begun with the chat-show host Russell Harty the year before as he lay dying in a hospital bed from hepatitis.

Harty was a homosexual who had been hounded by the News of the World. With his illness this had turned into a media frenzy - with reporters from all the tabloids pursuing him in hospital, posing as junior doctors demanding see Harty's medical notes, and photographers renting a flat opposite his hotel room.

At Harty's funeral in 1988 the playwright Alan Bennett publicly accused the tabloid press of accelerating his friend's death. "The gutter press finished him"

The Sun chose to reply:

'Stress did not kill Russell Harty. The truth is that he died from a sexually transmitted disease.

The press didn't give it to him. He caught it from his own choice. And by paying young rent boys he broke the law.

Some - like ageing bachelor Mr Bennett - can see no harm in that. He has no family.

But what if it had been YOUR son Harty had bedded?'

The BBC decided to quiz Rupert Murdoch. And they chose not David Dimbleby but their main attack dog.

Terry Wogan.

Murdoch was agreeing to interviews at the time because he was promoting his new Sky TV.

It is a very odd episode. Wogan starts off in an embarrassed way - asking Murdoch "is it difficult for you to keep a grasp of reality?". Then he attacks him in a chat show way about his behaviour towards "other chat show hosts" and he manages to get the audience to boo Murdoch.

The only other guest on the programme was someone from the very heart of the British establishment. The Duke of Westminster. Wogan interviews him in a creepy way about the Duke's good works for charity.

A balanced programme.

Here are some parts of the Murdoch interview.

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And then came the Sun's distorted reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy which disgusted even some of Murdoch's most fervent supporters .

All this was a disaster for Murdoch the revolutionary. When the 1992 general election began Labour announced that if they won they would introduce new cross-media ownership rules - and force Mr Murdoch to break up his empire.

This would mean he would either have to give up his new dream - the satellite TV station Sky - or he would have to sell his newspapers.

One of Murdoch's biographers says that no other company in Britain stood to lose so much from a Labour victory in 1992 as News Corporation.

And the Sun launched a massive campaign against Labour. Ending on the day before polling with a famous cover. While inside on page three there was an overweight old woman in a swimsuit with the caption - "Here's what Page Three will look like under Labour"

When Murdoch heard the news that John Major had been re-elected he was on the lot at Twentieth Century Fox. He said two words:

"We won"

The key to Murdoch is how you interpret the word WE. Did he mean "We the people" - and that he truly is a populist revolutionary?

Or did he mean by "we" the new financial elite that had risen up in the 1980s that was using debt and junk bonds to break into the old corporations and businesses?

One man who thought he had the answer was one of Murdoch's closest allies who a few years later would come to believe he had been ruthlessly betrayed by Murdoch.

He was the journalist Woodrow Wyatt. Wyatt had been very close to Mrs Thatcher throughout the 1980s and he had become what he proudly called "Rupert's Fixer". But secretly Wyatt was writing a diary every day recording not just his life within the establishment but also his day to day dealings with Rupert Murdoch.

The diaries are wonderful. And in them Murdoch is a dark, silent figure - always listening on the other end of a phone somewhere in America or Australia as Wyatt tells him the inner secrets of the powerful people who run Britain.

But then - in 1995 - Murdoch begins to change. He decides he likes Tony Blair and tells Wyatt he may support him at the coming election. Wyatt can't believe it. He had thought that Murdoch would always support the Conservatives.

And then Murdoch does something worse. He tells the editor of the News of the World to cut back on the column that he had allowed Wyatt to write every week.

Wyatt is in despair. There is a wonderful moment in the diaries when Wyatt sleeps all night on the floor of his study next to the phone waiting for Murdoch to ring.

He never does.

And then - towards the end - Wyatt pours out the truth (as he sees it) about Murdoch. It is in a diatribe to one of Murdoch's American advisers, the economist Irwin Stelzer.

Wyatt cannot believe the treachery. He was the man who fixed it so Mrs Thatcher wouldn't refer the Times purchase to the Monopolies Commission. And now Murdoch is betraying him and turning to Blair.

Like a flash of lightning on a dark night Wyatt believes he sees Murdoch's true relationship to power.


And then in 1997 when Murdoch comes out for Blair, Wyatt has only one line.

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Comments

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    It'd be interesting to know whether the kind of corruption of media and politics that Murdoch has championed has spread to other organizations. If politicians are elected based on corrupt media practices of one organization, they will come to expect such behaviour from other organizations.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    There's a certain neatness in Rupert Murdoch starting and finishing his involvement in the British newspaper trade by dropping the sticky stuff on toffee-nosed Tories from a great height.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    Ah a real villain so evil he catches himself like the successful tea leaf who has to boost the waitress's tip. Yet he is not quiet like his competition at the the NYT or the weasels who own the Washington Post and other dying rags. They are dying of reader boredom and apathetic writers who feel lucky they are working for the lapdog press. We do not forget the envelope that arrives at their home with the second check. No the rest of the pack lack total sociopath profile but they cover their trails with Igors cleaning up the blood of the profession they are killing.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    I always remember the memories of people who knew Maxwell when I lived near Buckingham in the 1990’s. One friend had a photo of him on the wall even then. Maxwell was the MP for Buckingham in 1960’s and of course the rival of Murdoch for NEWS OF THE WORLD in 1968. We all know who won !!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    Been hearing about this case all day here in South Africa, reading this blog has enlightened me

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    Comment number 7.

    slightly irrelevant this; it would be nice to have built up such a body of work that one could, when questioned on a new topic, point to a book or picture that dealt with that issue

  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    Don't forget Murdoch funded a dirty tricks/smear bulletin, called 'British Briefing', in late 1980s. It was directed largely against left, Labour Party and charities. It was exposed initialy in 'Lobster' magazine (which specialised in parapolitics, etc) and later in the mainstream press. At the time Murdoch was down again for a knighthood: it was then dropped (though Murdoch claims he never wanted it anyway). It would be really useful to look into British Briefing again, especially since Leveson seems to be unaware of this. The affair is mentioned in a paragraph in this report (re-blogged from the lobster magazine article): http://www.american-buddha.com/cia.psyops.htm

  • rate this
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    Comment number 9.

    An excellent blog as always and none the worse for repetition.

    Perception is a key matter here I feel. I was fascinated when I watched an interview with a political representative of a south east asian country (I forget which I'm sorry to say). The interviewee, when quizzed about the "political interference" with the media in his country, and the fact that religous leaders controlled many aspects of that government, responded with obviously genuine bafflement, by asking how this accusation could be levelled at him by a British reporter from the BBC, which was a State-funded corporation, which corporation was from a country where Bishops sat in Parliament. I laughed at how obvious this must have seemed to him of the overweening sense of superiority in the West.

    In a similar way, I can quite see how Murdoch might persuade himself that he never asked for favours and so of course, because he never needed to ask - never received any. I'm not sure that the deliberate wooing of the Murdoch press by Blair via his press-man Campbell, could be said to be less self-deceiving however. In order to break the New Labour/Murdoch stranglehold, Cameron then perceived this system as being the natural order of things too, and his lack of self-perception has left him picking up the pieces of his own dream.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 10.

    Excellent post as always. I've done a little bit of research of my own on Murdoch, particularly in the wake of his recent Leveson appearance and accusations of forcing the hands of Editors. Tony Benn discusses the Murdoch-Thatcher relationship in his diaries, as does Harold Evans (Murdoch's first appointed Editor of The Times) in his autobiography. I've copied these passages on my own blog, if anyone's interested

    http://bit.ly/IgljTS

    Cheeky, I know ;)

  • rate this
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    Comment number 11.

    I'm an American teaching English in Japan, and I find this blog entry adds greatly to my understanding of Murdoch. I like to follow stories like this (media manipulation, popular programming, propaganda, Adam Curtis' documentaries, etc.), but I am still behind the ball on my understanding of this very relevant and timely subject. The sad thing is that this means there are millions more like me.

    The Murdoch story, though, taken in its overall scope, is a great story! Murdoch could make a mint selling it. The story has legs. That it is *his* story is the only thing stopping him. Can no one else in the world put this narrative before a critical mass?

    Well-synthesized, concise elaborations on Murdoch's history are far too rare, in my estimation, in the popular press of the societies where Murdoch has power and influence. And I don't think Murdoch is stopping it; we are just too cowardly and intellectually lazy to challenge the narrative his operations broadcast every single day.

    Murdoch has a vertical monopoly in turning ideas into rumor into commentary into news. His "news" then infects the other media organizations, the bad money chasing out the good, as was said. And Murdoch chooses what bad money it is he wants to flood the market with. I think Sir Thomas Gresham would be envious with how long Murdoch has kept that game up and to what effect.

    So, what happens when a journalist has his Howard Beale moment, gets mad as hell, and decides not to toe the decorum-to-Rupert-Murdoch-line anymore? What is it going to take? Mainstream anchors deciding to take the gloves off? In America, at least, the non-rightwing extremists always try to be diplomatic, giving "both sides of the story". But when one side is posturing for media attention, the two sides aren't equal. Rupert and Rush, Rove and Ailes coach their side and say everyone else is in a conspiracy. It is like a gang attack on civil society. And with the phone tappings, bribes, espionage, and influence-peddling, it is clear that it is also organized crime at the highest levels.

    Maybe the British inquiries will bring him down in Britain and everywhere else too. I sure do hope so.

    We Americans should be able to see through him on our own, though, and not a third of us be enthralled with FOX news' consistently slanted way of characterizing the world. Murdoch really does bring the "unthinkers" of the world together under the same mission. Anti-abortion, anti-science, anti-liberal-elite, anti-liberal, anti-tax, anti-government, anti-gay, pro-crazy, pro-war, pro-business, pro-rich, pro-tits, pro-long-legs when all banded together form a big group -- capable of shaping elections and advertisers.

    Thanks for the reporting on this, Mr. Curtis. I only wish many, many more people would see your work.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 12.

    @11 I'm not sure what's holding these Curtis documentaries from being seen internationally. In this age of You Tube and torrents (although the latter is a whole other can of worms via phishing etc) it's not really a problem, but for years these shows were unseen outside of the UK I think. They still aren't officially exported and broadcast as far as I know.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 13.

    I'm looking for some of Adam Curtis' older documentaries if anyone is able to help.
    40 Minutes: Bombay Hotel
    An Ocean Apart
    Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh


    Thanks

  • rate this
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    Comment number 14.

    @12, Agent00Soul, Adam Curtis' videos are available for streaming free from his website: http://adamcurtisfilms.blogspot.com However, currently several of them are cross-linked. I hope the webmaster sees this soon. I could find no link to contact him or her.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 15.

    A very interesting article from Adam Curtis. The Leveson enquiry's conclusions will no doubt even more be an historical benchmark on Murdoch's story.
    Already there is no News of The World.
    All people are contradictions, and for all his flaws, I do strongly feel Murdoch has been sincere with his view that the common man needed to be championed by a media output that broadly reflected the majority views and beliefs and overall interests. His was a democratic spirit, he realised the need to provide an effective voice that was largely missing. He certainly saw the money making potential there.
    Those who instinctively spit at the notion of Fox News do so preferring a stream of thought dictated by a 'liberal' elite. such as the BBC, CNN, and the 2 major national newspapers of America. This elite is contemptuous of the views of the majority, and always seeks to manipulate them and propagandize using their own power over the media. Who really is more dangerous?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 16.

    @ Burt: Be careful about simple "liberal elites versus the great unwashed" dichotomies here in relation to the global media. I am not so sure that what passes for the liberal left in the UK (the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent) and the US (The New York Times, The Washington Post) is really all that "liberal". They have all supported NATO intervention in Libya as has also News Corporation and they all support Western intervention in Syria.

    As I write, Russia Today has reported that a number of British politicians across the political spectrum who voted for the privatisation of the National Health Service in the UK stand to benefit financially from its dismantling. Have the so-called liberal media in the UK reported this news as well? Not as far as I can see. You can view the list of British politicians who will gain from a privatised health service:
    http://socialinvestigations.blogspot.in/2012/02/nhs-privatisation-compilation-of.html

    The Western mainstream news media depend on advertising revenue from companies to meet their costs (or cross-subsidisation from sister companies, as is the case with news media owned by News Corporation which also owns film studios, book publishers and music labels) and in this respect both so-called politically "left" and "right" newspapers are not different. The bottom line ultimately determines the allegiances of the news media.

    Initially Rupert Murdoch, when he was a student at Oxford University, supported the British Labour Party. When he returned to Australia, he supported the Country Party (the junior party in a politically conservative coalition) and in the early 1970s switched his support to the Australian Labor Party which under leader Gough Whitlam campaigned on a platform of free universal health care, free education, recognition of the People's Republic of China and nationalisation of Australia's resources. During the 1980s he supported the British Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher whose platform included selective privatisation and financial deregulation. If Murdoch ever had a democratic spirit, it seems to have disappeared during the 1970s and in any case News Corporation's domination of the media in Australia, the UK and the US does not accord with free market economic theory or the promotion of diverse opinions and access to important news and information. It is significant that a British parliamentary committee has found Rupert Murdoch "unfit" to head News Corporation.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 17.

    @NausikaDilazBlindaz You make some very good points and the list of politicians who have back privatising health is very illustrative of how political agendas are often being hijacked for personal gain.
    My point was made suggesting we lack an alternative slant on a media that is far from balanced in this country. Of course all media outlets have their own agenda.
    I also tune in to RT's own brand of unbalanced reporting, just to get an alternative point of view.
    It's always been a case of 'whose news' your exposed to. at least over the pond you have some access to a broadcasting media with a different voice. I am not saying It's always an agreeable one to me.
    Sun news in Canada is a station I am enviable that there is no such platform in the UK. I have no knowledge if that is a Murdock owned channel.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 18.

    @ Burt: For some reason Murdoch wasn't interested in expanding his media empire into Canada. Perhaps he didn't wish to compete with Conrad Black. Sun News Network is owned by Quebecor. A former Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, is on the Board of Directors of Quebecor.

    If I were living in Canada, I'd probably prefer the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail for reading, and the CBC and La Television de Radio-Canada for passing out in front of the TV.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 19.

    I worked as a photographer at the New of the World for over 20 years. You
    would not believe how many news stories we faked, and how many sex and
    sleaze activities exposed by the press were regularly indulged in by the
    very same two-faced journalists who had blown the lid off them. Is it any
    wonder that journalists are now rated by the general public on the same low
    footing as lawyers, the police, politicians and pornographers? Murdoch
    brought the British press to an all time low. Can it recover?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 20.

    "The key to Murdoch is how you interpret the word WE."

    Well, who bailed him out after the enormous financial difficulties with Sky Mark 1? I think it was Citibank. Isn't that when his American adventure really took off, and when he became part of the elites, after all? So how did their agenda influence Murdoch's own? And at what price?

 

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