Global Economics

How Rupert Murdoch Got it Wrong in China


A new book by former NewsCorp insider Bruce Dover tells how the media mogul tried and failed to get his strategy right with the mainland

Rupert Murdoch is that breed of businessman who people either admire for his do-or-die tactics or dislike intensely for his willingness to bend the rules. And Bruce Dover's book titled Rupert's Adventures in China, will reinforce that opinion, no matter which view you hold.

"I have heard cynics who say he's a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes," Dover recounts Murdoch saying in an interview with respect to the Dalai Lama in 1999. The brazen attempt by Murdoch to curry favour with the powers that be in China by criticising someone Murdoch may not have even met, sets the tone for the book.

Dover, who was director of business development in Asia for Murdoch's company, News Corporation, for several critical years in the 1990s, paints a picture of a man obsessed with getting his China strategy right at any cost.

Early in the book, Dover sets the backdrop for China's hostility towards Murdoch. Murdoch delivered a speech in 1993 as chairman of BSkyB satellite television company on new communications technology. He was speaking from a position of strength, having turned BSkyB around. But Murdoch's comments about telecommunications proving "an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere" struck a chord in China, which was still smarting under global condemnation of the way the country handled the Tiananmen Square protests.

Within a month of Murdoch's speech, then Premier Li Peng banned: "the distribution, installation and use of satellite reception dishes anywhere in China", writes Dover, putting "Murdoch's dream in China permanently on hold".

Dover tells the tale well, setting it against a backdrop of liberalisation in China. He draws interesting parallels between anecdotes and business events: he tells of Murdoch offering a higher price to a tie vendor in Beijing's Xiushui Market than what was asked, as he misunderstood the basic tenet of bargaining. Dover likens this to Murdoch paying Richard Li $1 billion for Star television, "knowing full well he had overpaid but convinced he had a bargain just the same".

The book has its weaknesses. Dover is (understandably) keen to portray himself well, although I began questioning whether the author could be as naive as he makes himself out to be. The chapter "Enter Wendi" was clearly written to justify the "How Murdoch..." title because Wendi Deng's role in the tale is peripheral. And the story suffers from the fact that from 1999 onwards Dover was assigned to Australia. He then quit News Corporation in 2001 to join Time Warner, and was no longer an insider. This raises questions about the facts he cites from 2001 onwards.

It has been widely reported that the Far Eastern Economic Review, which is now owned by Murdoch, commissioned a review of the book but then decided not to publish it. The unintended consequence of that decision was to enhance the credibility of Dover's story and, thanks to the flurry of publicity it created, boost sales.

Dover's book is about why China was a challenge for Murdoch to conquer. And, for the most part, he tells that tale well. But the story does not change the fact that Murdoch is one of the most powerful names in the media world this century. Some of the means he used to get to this position may not be everyone's cup of tea; but his influence is indisputable.

Anand is a writer at FinanceAsia.com .

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