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Commentary | PACIFIC PROSPECT

Murdoch Caters to His Overseas Customers by Customizing His Product

Media baron explains why he removes content that offends News Corp.'s Chinese buyers.

May 31, 2000|TOM PLATE

For a man who has his profit-grabbing paws wrapped so tightly around such a significant corner of the world's media market, Rupert Murdoch sure tends to attract a disproportionate share of unfavorable press notice. Indeed, that part of the world's media not actually in his control tends to depict this multinational mogul of print, video, cinema and Internet as everything from a barbarian at the gate to a latter-day corporate appeaser of China. His notorious 1994 decision to heel to Beijing's demand for removal of BBC News from channels offered Chinese viewers by his Hong Kong-based Star TV struck the Western world as a massive multinational suck-up. This Australian-born multibillionaire will do just about anything to make a media buck, right?

Perhaps, but a statesmanlike, culturally sensitive Murdoch made an appearance at an international conference in Los Angeles last week. Sponsored by the Asia Society as part of its annual effort to bring together American and Asian leaders on a single large topic, this year's Entertainment and Media in Asia conference examined China's entertainment and media business through the eyes of big-time Chinese and American operators who have significant positions in the worldwide industry.

Despite all the corporate clubbiness, the conference tackled difficult questions--censorship, piracy or Western intellectual imperialism. And on these issues, Murdoch, in a speech the day before the House of Representative's historic approval of permanent trade rights for China, again and again came to China's defense, though somehow in a way that avoided crossing the line into pandering apologetics. "The most important fact is that China is changing as never before," he told the packed house at his Fox Studios, the conference site. "It is no small undertaking to modernize a country the size of China, while at the same time minimizing the social impact of such enormous change on its large and diverse work force."

But the chairman of News Corp. had very little nice to say about "trade unions, religious groups and environmentalists who believe that by closing world markets to the West, they can promote their own special causes." No matter how well intended, he suggested, they will fail: "They're quite simply wrong. China cannot be bludgeoned or bribed into adopting internal policies that we Americans may find more congenial."

Murdoch accepts that globalization will change China, just as it is changing the West. Yet rather than apologize for his BBC about-face, Murdoch ruminated openly about the West's need to get a handle on its own, sometimes obnoxious, intrusive ways: "We in the entertainment and media industries must realize that, unlike many other industries, what we do has important consequences for the political, social and cultural life of the other nations in which we operate. Some of our products--'Titanic' being the outstanding example--appeal to audiences all over the world. But audiences also want programs that are made in their own countries, in their own languages and aimed specifically at them and for them."

The Murdochian world view is that the advance guards of globalization, like his News Corp., that operate in Asia must not behave as Western missionaries: "We can strike a balance by deferring to our host's views into what we may broadcast in countries in which we are guests, while refusing to distort what we are able to broadcast. If a film is unacceptable in a country in which we operate, we don't show it. If a TV program covers forbidden ground, we will have no choice but to delete it from our broadcast."

The world's most famous media mogul admits that his philosophy is far from a perfect solution to the ethical and operational dilemmas faced by an international media company. But, he says, "I doubt whether such perfect solutions exist." It may just take a media imperialist to appreciate fully the paradoxes of cultural imperialism.

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Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column runs Wednesdays. The full text of Murdoch's speech can be found at the home page of the Asia Pacific Media Network: http://www.asiamedia.ucla.edu.

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