Keep close eye on Murdoch II

It is as yet unclear how the media supremo sees Israel

By Alex Brummer, November 26, 2009

The day when Rupert Murdoch decamped to New York to concentrate on his American interests, leaving his son James in charge at Wapping, little change was expected. How wrong you can be.

James, like his father, is a media genius and used his stay at Sky (where he has moved up from chief executive to chairman) to push the frontiers of HD and invest in digital.

But he always seemed more interested in delivery than content. That is now changing. As chief executive of News Corporation Europe and Asia, he is beginning to exercise real political power.

The first real sign of his independence of thought came in the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival in late August, when he accused the BBC of being an “Orwellian” organisation suppressing commercial companies like Sky. It was a bravado performance, overshadowed by a row across the dinner table with BBC business editor Robert Peston.

Most recently we have seen the James Murdoch influence in the switch of political allegiances at the Sun from support of Gordon Brown (still a friend of his father) to the younger David Cameron. The Tory leader gained his only commercial experience as the communications director of Carlton (now folded into ITV) under the stewardship of Michael Green.

The younger Murdoch is as political as his father. It was James, alongside the former Sun editor Rebecca Brooks, now chief executive of News International, who turned the dogs of war on Gordon Brown when the Prime Minister wrote a flawed letter of condolence to Jacqui Jones, the mother of a serviceman killed in Afghanistan.

It was only when Brown intervened directly with Rupert Murdoch in New York, placing a personal phone call, that the attacks on the Prime Minister were halted. The significance of the shifts in the Murdoch empire could be profound. James Murdoch still has the enthusiasm of youth and huge confidence in his views.

In the UK alone, News International owns the best-selling Sunday and daily titles, the News of the World and the Sun (just celebrating its 40th birthday), and has managed to attract 10 million paying subscribers to its Sky network. For good measure, it also owns the Times and the Sunday Times. The group is also in the frontline of the battle to charge for web content.

Murdoch ownership has been a benign influence in the Israel-Arab conflict. At times of greatest peril for Israel had no better friend in the UK media than the Sun and other Murdoch titles. In the Second Lebanon War, Sky News managed to cover both sides of the border, providing a balance absent from the BBC and other visual media.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Fox News is attacked for its unquestioning support of Israel’s cause and searing criticism of President Obama. The Wall Street Journal, which employs former Jerusalem Post editor Brett Stephens as a columnist, is a beacon of support for the Jewish state.

So why should anyone be worried? Because it is by no means clear that James Murdoch is as enthusiastic about the Zionist cause as his father. The main evidence of hostility comes from Alistair Campbell’s diaries, published in 2007, where it is alleged that the younger Murdoch launched a foul mouthed tirade — in the presence of Tony Blair — about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian Arabs.

Maybe, but when I chatted with the younger Murdoch about Sky’s coverage of the second Lebanon conflict and the Gaza campaign earlier this year, he was gratified that it was seen as balanced. Clearly, a change of generation and leadership will produce differences of tone. This is evidence that the younger Murdoch led from the front on the campaign against Brown in the face of contrary advice. His views are hard wired and he is not afraid to express them publicly.

For the moment, the person behind the first Jewish editor of the Times (James Harding), should be given the benefit of the doubt. But the changing of the guard inside the Murdoch empire will need monitoring.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 4:34pm, December 10 2009


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