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MATING game

Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch relies on loyalty of his friends

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Conrad Black may have dwindled to a talking head on a television series for oldsters, but media-watchers seeking a fix of megalomania can still rely on Rupert Murdoch.

Chroniclers and critics continue to discover in the 82-year-old Australian a reliable source of outrageous behaviour, both corporate and personal.

Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires is the most recent of a good dozen or more investigations into this unsavoury topic.

It focuses on unethical and illegal doings since 2007 in Murdoch's multibillion-dollar expanse of newspapers, television and book publishing. That's when his British journalists began going to jail for hacking into the voice mails of royalty.

This book has several faults. It does not fulfil the promise of its subtitle to explain why Murdoch is the last of his breed, and its reporting of Murdoch's corporate plotting is often plodding.

But it offers a key insight into how one man could construct an international media empire and a personal fortune while ruining lives and manipulating the politics of democratic nations. Oh, yes, and flouting their criminal and civil laws.

Author David Folkenflik covers media for National Public Radio in the U.S. He has written Page One: Inside The New York Times and the Future of Journalism, which was made into an informative and entertaining 2011 movie.

In this book he quotes many current and former Murdoch journalists and executives, although he says Murdoch's businesses and family discouraged sources from talking to him.

The key to Murdoch's success and failure is the Australian concept of mate culture or "mateship," he argues.

"The defining element of the mate culture was a kinship infused with a sense of grievance that led Australian men to risk their careers, security or lives for their brothers."

Mates "believe themselves to be outsiders, rough-hewn, self-sufficient, distrustful or even contemptuous of authority. The establishment rules are not for them."

This concept would explain why many of Murdoch's closest male associates -- and one notable woman, Rebekah Brooks -- have pursued the proprietor's corporate interests blindly.

The book opens with Murdoch apologizing for the violation that finally enraged the public and politicians, prompting a lacerating public inquiry in Britain.

Pursuing stories that their competitors could not find, Murdoch's employees at Britain's News of the World had hacked into the voice-mail messages of a missing British schoolgirl later found murdered.

This turned out to be only the most appalling of several decades worth of illegal practices at Murdoch's papers, including paying police for confidential information and hacking the phones of celebrities and commoners.

The fallout in Britain has included resignations in the prime minister's office and at senior levels of police, as well as many criminal convictions.

Recounting these sins, Folkenflik views the uppity Australian's international empire through occasionally condescending American eyes.

He devotes a good chunk of the book to assuring readers that Murdoch's foreign contagion has not infected his main properties in the U.S., Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.

Perhaps it is these blinkers that lead him to assert incorrectly, "Under British law, the press cannot report on criminal trials while they are underway."

How much British journalism has the author actually read?

For a more persuasive account of the U.S. machinations, readers may want to turn to one of the most detailed and readable of the Murdoch books, Sarah Ellison's War at the Wall Street Journal.

Murdoch's world may or may not be the last of the old media empires. But with more of his mates facing criminal trials this autumn, the sun seems unlikely to set just yet on the empire of Murdoch books.

Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism at Red River College.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 A1

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