Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Murdoch's adventures in China

When Rupert Murdoch took control of The Wall Street Journal in 2008, he collected another less prestigious Dow Jones monthly publication called The Far Eastern Economic Review. It was as the New York Times called it an incidental addition to the vast global stable of Murdoch's News Corp. Murdoch promised editorial independence to all of the Dow Jones stable as part of the price he had to pay for the Journal. But given his reputation, it was no surprise to find there would be a chilling effect whenever a story appeared that affected Murdoch.

The Review’s editor Hugo Restall had hired Australian writer Eric Ellis to write a review of Bruce Dover’s book “Rupert's Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife." The book is a privileged insider’s account of Murdoch’s attempts to woo the Chinese Government in the 19990s and his relationship with third wife Wendi Deng.  The book got a big reception in Asia in 2007 and Restall hired Ellis to review the book in January 2008. But by February, Restall had got cold feet and told Ellis the book “looks more like the work of a disgruntled ex-employee rather than an analysis of the business."

The book was nothing of the sort, as Ellis realised. In his spiked review, Ellis said for a businessman who has left such a mark on the world’s media, Murdoch himself was under-analysed and his personal life off-limits.  It was this reason why the book is of great service: because Dover (now the chief executive of ABC’s Australia Network charged with beaming content into Asia) was the Sun King’s chief courtier in the Forbidden City in a time when China meant everything to the boss. 

Dover tells the story from the time Murdoch bought STAR TV in 1993 for $1 billion to the time 10 years later when Dover has been sacked and Murdoch realised he could not replicate the success in China he had elsewhere. By 1993, Murdoch had defeated the British print unions in Wapping, was starting to make big money with BSkyB and the Premier League and expanding his footprint in America. The 23-year-old Richard Li’s STAR TV was a satellite operation that beamed programming to an area that stretched from the Philippines to the Middle East with the potential to reach two-thirds of the world’s population. 

But Li could never make money from STAR TV subscriptions as most of its users pirated the unencrypted service. He changed the model to advertising and charged big rates though no one could be exactly sure how much of an audience he was aggregating.  Li’s father Li Ka-shung was Hong Kong’s wealthiest businessman and a friend of Deng Xiaoping and he quietened ruffled feathers in Beijing over the fact the uncensored service was available at all in mainland China.  But Xiaoping told Ka-shung the business had to go and Li reluctantly sold to the highest bidder in 1993. Pearson PLC (owner of the Financial Times and Penguin Books) offered the same money as News Corp but wanted Ka-shung to stay on in some capacity. Murdoch had no such qualms.  

The problem was Li never sought approval from Beijing on the sale. When the Chinese politburo found out who STAR TV’s new owner was, there was deep concern. The Chinese saw only too well how Murdoch intervened in the politics of every other country he had interests in and feared the same would happen to them.  These fears intensified after a major speech Murdoch made in London’s Whitehall Palace. Murdoch was the main speaker in a night celebrating BSkyB’s new multi-channel offering. With the Internet still in its infancy, Murdoch used the speech to laud the new forms of communications which he said were a threat to “totalitarian regimes everywhere”. Orwell had got it wrong, Murdoch said, mass communication technologies did not subordinate individuals but liberate them. Telephony and satellite broadcasting, he enthused, made it possible to by-pass state control of information.

Murdoch would later claim he was talking about the recent collapse Communism in Eastern Europe. But the politicians in Beijing had no doubt he was talking about them. Premier Li Peng was incandescent with rage.  The Butcher of Beijing at Tiananmen was at the height of his powers four years later and he saw Murdoch’s speech as a threat to Chinese sovereignty. Within a month he banned the distribution, installation and use of satellite dishes in China, dashing STAR TV’s expansion plans from the word go.

Murdoch is nothing if not determined and quickly realised the extent of his blunder. He moved to Hong Kong with then wife Anna and started a long and assiduous campaign of wooing the Chinese leadership to see his position. The problem was that all contact with Zhongnanhai was funnelled through the State Council Information Office and Murdoch was allowed to meet no-one above the rank of vice minister.  In 1994 he used the excuse of limited transponder space on the satellite to drop the BBC from STAR TV but he later admitted to biographer William Shawcross it was because the Chinese leaders hated the BBC. Nevertheless it changed nothing and Murdoch remained persona non grata. 

The new play was for Murdoch to befriend family members of Deng Xiaoping.  He got Harper Collins to publish Deng’s daughter Deng Rong’s hagiography of her father.  He also feted his disabled eldest son Deng Pufang in an artists’ tour of Australia. The problem was Deng slipped from power in 1994 and new leader Jiang Zemin was not like the emperors of old. Deng’s children were out of favour and with them any chance of Murdoch patronage. Zemin enforced the crackdown on China’s half a million satellite dishes.

Dover himself was in China by this time trying to negotiate a joint venture with the People’s Daily. This strange alliance with the conservative communist organ was another peace plan and one tacitly approved by the politburo. The paper was under pressure to reduce its reliance on state handouts and proposed a business news magazine with News Corp. However, once again SCIO were not across the deal and did their utmost to ensure the new joint venture would never get off the ground. It was not the thaw in relations Murdoch needed.

Murdoch next’s ploy was to get into bed with businessman Liu Changle. Changle took half share in the Phoenix TV joint venture with STAR TV. Liu had cultivated several key Beijing decision makers and Murdoch was told by senior leaders this was his only way into China. Phoenix proved popular and shook up the tawdry domestic TV market. But Murdoch hated Phoenix because Changle retained day-to-day control.

Murdoch looked to the new information superhighway for a solution. As Beijing wrestled with control of the internet, Murdoch started a new joint venture with People’s Daily called PDN Xinren. The first product ChinaByte was launched to fanfare in January 1997 and soon became the most popular site in China. But after the tech bubble burst Murdoch lost faith in the product and by April 2001 has sold his foothold in the fastest growing internet market in the world.

Dover documents other manoeuvres such as getting rid of anti-Chinese China correspondent Jonathan Mirsky from the Times Hong Kong bureau. Murdoch had promised The Times editorial independence but he invited the Times editor Peter Stothard on a charm offensive of China. Southard would later spike so many stories from Hong Kong and Mirsky resigned citing Murdoch’s heavy hand. Murdoch also spiked the HarperCollins autobiography of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten on Chinese instructions. Murdoch competed with great rival Time boss Jerry Levin to fawn over Chinese leaders and promise anything for a toehold in the country. Finally Murdoch made a speech which was a mea culpa for Whitehall where he conceded cultural and social values of a country trumped open communications. 

With relations warming slightly, Dover tells the amusing story of when Murdoch met Vice Premier Zhu Rongii in Australia in 1997. Zhu asked Murdoch to tell him the story of his rise to power and the pair had an animated conversation. At one point Zhu put his hands on Murdoch’s wrists, looked him in the eye and spoke in Mandarin.”I see when you needed to expand your business interests in the US you became a US citizen,” he said. “Maybe you should think of applying for Chinese citizenship to further your business interests in China”. Murdoch blinked when he heard the translation and spluttered a reply. Zhu burst into laughter and said he was joking.  

Murdoch did in the end apply for Chinese citizenship – by marrying his young Yale-educated interpreter Wendi Deng. Deng had the language skills but not the contacts in the politburo and the Chinese kept one step ahead of the Murdochs. Just as they successfully cultivated Zemin’s Shanghai clique, the leader was replaced by Hu Jintao. Dover was on the outer too, his boss frustrated by his inability to penetrate the Great Wall.  Hu closed down STAR TV’s intrusion into the Chinese “grey sector” and insisted China retain control of Chinese television, banning cooperation between local stationsand foreign companies
After 12 years of trying, Murdoch finally admitted he had hit a brick wall in China. In 2006 he sold his remaining interest in Phoenix and reposition STAR TV towards the Indian market. But it was not a total failure. Bruce Dover said Murdoch was a major catalyst of change in China both of its media and its attitude to the Internet (which the party wanted to ban entirely).  Phoenix transformed Chinese television with its brash, downmarket programming but control remained in Chinese hands. Dover said in seeking to woo China’s leaders, Murdoch overstepped the mark. “He became too impetuous, too imprudent,” he concluded.

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