June 2011
Volume 31 No. 4

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My Two Cents

A social critic wrote recently that, in terms of media moguls with political power, there should be more Rupert Murdochs in the world. The hope is that he meant, “more in each country.”

The world has a good number of Murdochs, but alas, in some countries there is only one: Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, the real Rupert Murdoch in the U.S. and U.K., Sebastian Piñera in Chile, Arnaud Lagardere in France, Shondhi Limthongkul in Thailand and, perhaps, Jimmy Lai in China, just to mention a few.

Somewhat better off are those countries that have at least two competing Murdochs, like Mexico: Emilio Azcarraga Jean and Ricardo Salinas. In Colombia: Julio Mario Santo Domingo and Carlos Ardila Lülle; India with Subhash Chandra and Ratan Tata. There are also countries where media moguls with political power have ended up in jail and in others where they are tolerated because they’re not in politics, like the case of Gustavo Cisneros in Venezuela.

VideoAge’s extensive media library houses many books that deal with media moguls, and two in particular, The Curse of the Mogul and Autumn of the Moguls, but none of the books deal specifically with moguls in politics. Plus, researching the subject on the Internet, I came across an article declaring that “Old-media moguls don’t matter anymore.” The article listed among the media moguls with the “ability to influence politics [in the U.S.] and abroad through media proprieties” Rupert Murdoch as number nine, Silvio Berlusconi and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (as number 17), but also Sony’s Howard Stringer (number 55) and Oprah Winfrey (number 65). According to the article, the fact that Walt Disney’s Bob Iger, at number 97, as the CEO of the world’s largest media company “barely breaks into the top 100, speaks more to the impotence than power of old media.” Frankly, I don’t remember Iger, Stringer or Winfrey influencing any self-serving decision by the U.S. communications authorities.

What separates a media mogul who is only interested in making money for the company from the Murdochs of this world, is a mix of media power and political influence. However, the latter combination is highly dangerous and should not be allowed. But, it is the price that democracies, especially the weaker ones, have to pay.

To stunt the growth of Murdochs in the world in the first place and to limit their political power could be undemocratic. Naturally, the Murdochs of this world are aware of democracy’s structural loopholes and weaknesses, and they know how to leverage them in order to increase their power and, in doing so, limit the democratic process that allowed them to succeed in the first place.

In other words, they take advantage of democratic rules, and then they scheme to reduce those rules in order to increase their control and power. A variation of this strategy is for media moguls to cavort with or help undemocratic rulers in order to increase their power or simply to keep the company alive.

If the Murdochs of this world want to succeed, they have to win over political powers. Some do it only with the goal of making more money, others with the task of making a political statement or both. Some, like Berlusconi, are forced to enter politics in self defense and then, in order to prosper, have to abuse their political power.

The Murdochs, however, can only prosper in weaker or weakened democracies where capitalism can be turned into anarchy.

The arsenal of weapons that the Murdochs have at their disposal to achieve their goal is vast: Media outlets, legal firepower, political patronage, financial strength, academic sponsorship and visibility for luminaries, which for many in academia is more important than money.
But in all cases, the process says less about these Murdochs and more about the structural weaknesses of the countries in which they operate. A strong democracy should have sufficiently robust rules, plus well-developed checks and balances to prevent monopolies, oligopoly and oligarchy that also foster the development of many competing Murdochs.

Indeed, countries that will prosper are those that are able to create many Murdochs. Past examples demonstrate that many of the world’s Murdochs were created throughout history and, when they confronted each other on an even playing field great things came about. But, above and ever vigilant over the Murdochs there were politicians with a great sense of democratic institutions.

Dom Serafini