By Ron Kampeas
Pro-Israel leaders in the United States, Britain and Australia are warily watching the unfolding of the phone-hacking scandal that is threatening to engulf the media empire of Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corp.
Murdoch’s sudden massive reversal of fortune — with 10 top former staffers and executives under arrest in Britain for hacking into the phones of public figures and a murdered schoolgirl, and paying off the police and journalists — has supporters of Israel worried that a diminished Murdoch presence may mute the strongly pro-Israel voice of many of the publications he owns.
“His publications and media have proven to be fairer on the issue of Israel than the rest of the media,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I hope that won’t be impacted.”
Murdoch’s huge stable encompasses broadsheets such as The Wall Street Journal, the Times of London and The Australian, as well as tabloids, most notably The Sun in Britain and the New York Post. It also includes the influential Fox News Channel in the United States and a 39 percent stake in British Sky Broadcasting, or BSkyB, a satellite broadcaster. Murdoch founded the neoconservative flagship The Weekly Standard in 1995, and sold it last year.
Jewish leaders said that Murdoch’s view of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians and with its Arab neighbors seemed both knowledgeable and sensitive to the Jewish state’s self-perception as beleaguered and isolated.
“My own perspective is simple: We live in a world where there is an ongoing war against the Jews,” Murdoch said last October at an Anti-Defamation League dinner in his honor. “When Americans think of anti-Semitism, we tend to think of the vulgar caricatures and attacks of the first part of the 20th century. Now it seems that the most virulent strains come from the left. Often this new anti-Semitism dresses itself up as legitimate disagreement with Israel.”
Murdoch, 80, has visited Israel multiple times and met with many of its leaders. In 2009 he was honored by the American Jewish Committee.
“In the West, we are used to thinking that Israel cannot survive without the help of Europe and the United States,” he said at the AJC event. “Tonight I say to you, maybe we should start wondering whether we in Europe and the United States can survive if we allow the terrorists to succeed in Israel. “
Leaders of a number of pro-Israel groups declined to comment for this story because of Murdoch’s current difficulties. On Tuesday he and his son, James, testified before a parliamentary committee in London.
Murdoch also has been seen as a friend of the Jews in the Diaspora, even though Fox has irritated the Jewish establishment for championing at times what many Jews perceive as the margins of right-wing thinking — for instance, when Fox host Bill O’Reilly defended Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ.”
When some Jewish organizational leaders complained that Fox talk show host Glenn Beck was relying on anti-Semitic tropes in peddling discredited theories about liberal billionaire financier George Soros, Murdoch nudged Fox chief Roger Ailes into meetings with Jewish leaders. Beck left Fox last month.
Murdoch’s affection for Israel arose less out of his conservative sensibility than from his native Australian sympathy for the underdog fending off elites seized by conventional wisdoms, according to Isi Liebler, a longtime Australian Jewish community leader who now lives in Israel.
“From my personal communications with him, it’s something that built up,” Liebler told JTA. “He’s met Israelis, he’s been to Israel, he’s seen Israel as the plucky underdog when the rest of the world saw Israel as an occupier.”
Australian Jews noted the pro-Israel cast of Murdoch’s papers as early as the 1970s, before he had established ties with the Jewish community. The word from inside his company was that Israel was an issue that he cared about, which helped shape its coverage in his media properties.
Robert Fisk, a veteran Middle East correspondent and a fierce critic of Israel who worked for the Murdoch-owned Times of London from 1981 until 1988, eventually quit and moved to The Independent because of what he said was undue editorial interference in his writing. Recalling those days, Fisk said Murdoch’s influence trickled down through editors who understood that he wanted his media to reflect his outlook.
“I don’t believe Murdoch personally interfered in any of the above events,” Fisk wrote recently in The Independent, describing the decisions that drove him away from the Times. “He didn’t need to. He had turned The Times into a tame, pro-Tory, pro-Israeli paper shorn of all editorial independence.”
In recent days, Murdoch has appeared wan and battered by the crisis that already has shut down a flagship paper, The News of the World, and scuttled his takeover plans for BSkyB.
The question now circulating in pro-Israel circles is whether the empire’s pro-Israel stance will survive Murdoch.
“Is this curtains for pro-Israel Murdoch?” the London Jewish Chronicle asked in a column last week.
An account of a clash over Israel between Murdoch and his son and heir apparent was first published in the diaries of Labour Party publicist Alastair Campbell and has splashed through pro- and anti-Israel blogs in recent days.
Campbell, in an account republished last week in The Guardian, which has led the coverage of the phone-hacking charges, described a dinner at 10 Downing St., the British prime minister’s residence, in 2002, when Tony Blair — also seen as pro-Israel — was its occupant.
“Murdoch said he didn’t see what the Palestinians’ problem was and James said it was that they were kicked out of their f—ing homes and had nowhere to f—ing live,” the account in The Guardian said. Murdoch chided his son for using foul language in the prime minister’s home.
Liebler said that from what he understood, the incident was an anomaly and one that emerged during one of the most intense periods of Israeli-Palestinian clashes.
“He’s had differences with his son on many issues, and this happened once and it went off the map,” Liebler said. “I don’t think it was anything fundamental.”
Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief.
With his media empire under fire in the west, NewsCorp chief eyes the Middle East market.
Dahr Jamail, Al Jazeera
Embroiled in a scandal that has global implications, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is under fire due to the ongoing fallout resulting from the News of the World scandal.
But while News Corp remains under heavy scrutiny in the UK, US, and the rest of the West, the launch of Abu Dhabi-based Arabic language news channel Sky News Arabia is still on track.
For someone interested in assisting in starting a television network with a planned initial reach of 50 million viewers across the Middle East, Murdoch has an interesting perspective on regional issues that affect the would-be consumers of the new Arabic channel.
“My own perspective is simple”, Murdoch told the Anti-Defamation League on December 13, 2010. “We live in a world where there is an ongoing war against the Jews.”
Murdoch emphasised “the importance of good relations between Israel and the United States”, stating: “Some believe that if America wants to gain credibility in the Muslim world and advance the cause of peace, Washington needs to put some distance between itself and Israel. My view is the opposite.”
In a speech Murdoch gave when receiving the American Jewish Committee’s National Human Relations Award in March 2009, less than three months after the end of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, he referenced Gaza and said: “The free world makes a terrible mistake if we deceive ourselves into thinking this is not our fight. In the end, the Israeli people are fighting the same enemy we are: cold-blooded killers who reject peace … who reject freedom.”
Ari Rabin-Havt, Executive Vice President of the media watchdog group Media Matters, says Murdoch’s Fox News in the US “is one of the most bigoted, anti-Muslim channels on TV”.
“Their hosts, contributors, and guests were vocal opponents of the planned building of an Islamic cultural centre near ground zero,” Rabin-Havt told Al Jazeera. “One of those guests was anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Pam Geller, who compared the centre to building a Ku Klux Klan ‘shrine’ near a black church in Alabama.”
Murdoch’s Middle East connection
Billionaire Prince Walid bin Talal bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud, a nephew of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, has, according to Forbes magazine, a net worth estimated to be at least $19.6bn. This makes him the 26th wealthiest person on the planet, as well as the richest man in Saudi Arabia.
He is also the second biggest shareholder (at seven per cent) in News Corporation, only behind Murdoch himself.
During a recent interview on his yacht with the BBC’s Newsnight, Prince Walid declared himself to be a “good friend” of Rupert Murdoch and his son James, and staunchly defended the men amid the ongoing NewsCorp scandal.
It is noteworthy that,while Prince Walid is the second largest shareholder in News Corp, Murdoch is also a major shareholder (ten per cent) in Prince Walid’s Rotana Media Group based in the Middle East. As recently as this May, Murdoch’s conglomerate took a significant stake in Prince Walid’s film, TV, and music business, a move that deepened the financial relationship between the two men.
Rotana television broadcasts in Saudi Arabia and via satellite to the Arab World and Arab Diaspora, and includes Fox (Middle East), a Fox film channel – and is better known for broadcasting US films, television and music videos.
Even though Murdoch is in business with Prince Walid, and the two men have a mutually beneficial relationship, many of his personal views and the views of his media outlets take a very adversarial stance towards the Arab and Muslim world.
“They [Muslims] are much harder to integrate into a community than the average Indian or Chinese or Japanese even,” Murdoch told the Sydney Morning Herald on June 26, 2006.
Bill O’Reilly, a leading host on Murdoch’s Fox News channel, said, during his broadcast on October 18, 2010: “Folks are fed up with politically correct nonsense. There’s no question there is a Muslim problem in the world,” and “most Americans well understand the danger coming out of the Muslim world”. The on-screen text read: “The Muslim Dilemma.” The next day, O’Reilly repeated the claim that there was “a Muslim problem in the world”.
Last spring, at the exclusive three-day Abu Dhabi Media Summit, Murdoch hinted:
“We’ve also been broadcasting some of our Fox International Channels. More recently, we took another step by investing in a local media company that also is the world’s largest producer of Arab music. The company is called Rotana. To be frank, Rotana does not really need our financing. We are partnering with Rotana for something more ambitious.”
The show must go on?
Despite the phone hacking scandal in the UK, Sky News Arabia, a 50/50 joint venture with BSkyB and the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation, has plans to launch next spring as a 24-hour news channel.
Days after the closing of the News of the World newspaper, senior executives Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton resigned over the scandal.
Their resignations came after Prince Walid urged Murdoch and his son James to “cooperate fully” with inquiries into the scandal.
“If the indications are for [Mrs Brooks’] involvement in this matter … for sure she has to go, you bet she has to go,” Prince Walid told Newsnight.
Possibly underscoring Prince Walid’s power in News Corp, fewer than 24 hours after that interview was broadcast, it was announced Brooks had resigned from her position as chief executive of News International.
Last week, Prince Walid said he welcomed the decision to close the News of the World.
“The rotten and defective apple [News of the World] has been eliminated by management,” he told Forbes magazine via text message. “Moreover, I as shareholder and the Murdochs won’t tolerate any unethical behaviour, and the fact that the newspaper was shut down is conclusive proof that News Corp wants to put this case behind it, irrespective of the BSkyB takeover. Plus, News [Corp] is a lot bigger than a newspaper.”
Muhammad Ahmad, a Glasgow-based media scholar who has taught journalism and politics at the University of Stirling, disagrees with Prince Walid’s “rotten apple” theory.
“The strangeness of the fact that a Saudi is the second biggest NewsCorp stockholder, and he has never taken any actions to curb or censor bad journalism, and there is no regulation whatsoever, is troubling,” Ahmad told Al Jazeera. “You have a ruthless media operation, especially now when it is being called out, and they were unapologetic to begin with. This is not a question of some bad apples. News Corp is a corrupt institution, to its foundations, and now it’s trying to get control over Sky Arabia. This should be outrageous for anyone, especially viewers.”
The channel intends to broadcast to more than 50 million households across the Middle East and North Africa region, according to network executives. It will be based in Abu Dhabi, with bureaux around the world.
The channel will enter a TV-news market in competition with Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and BBC Arabic, among others.
Professor David Miller, a sociologist at Scotland’s Strathclyde University and co-founder of the media watchdog group Spinwatch, told Al Jazeera that he feels the Sky News Arabia venture is “unsafe”.
“I don’t know what the regulating authority would be in this case, but it certainly does not bode well for a news organisation to have Sky or NewsCorp involved at all.”
Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail