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Citizen Murdoch and the Pope's indulgence: who owns the Waldorf?

Rupert Murdoch has just been awarded a papal knighthood. The man perhaps best known for his association with gutter tabloid journalism and sports cable-television is honoured in the category of nonCatholics of `unblemished character' who promote the interests of society. The commendation noted particularly his support--read: handing over money--for the Archdiocesian Education Foundation in Los Angeles. Presumably when Mr Murdoch is staying at his mansion in LA, one of half-a-dozen residencies around the world, he drops into the diocese to see how his generous expression of pastoral care is being administered.

There should have been an uproar about this marriage of expedience between two powerful global organisations. However, over the past decade or so it seems that we have become muted to the mutual self-promotion of the rich, the famous and the grotesque. In the few articles in the Australian press and a news release by Reuters it all passed as an item of novelty. Why do global citizens such as Citizen Murdoch have so much cultural power? To begin to answer that question it is instructive to follow a trail of interconnections from the Vatican to Beijing and back to New York. In the foreground is an exotic Chinese puzzle; in the background is a prosaic story about the nature of power in a globalising world.

How quickly, it seems, the bizarre becomes normalised. Thirteen years ago, I cut an article out of the Good Weekend Magazine and filed it away thinking that it was an interesting aberration. In the article, Charles Kaiser, whom I realise now must have been writing under a pseudonym, reported on how Rupert Murdoch's News America Syndicate was revolved in a deal to market the Pope's words of wisdom to the world's media. Rupert had just bought the Metro Media stations to start the Fox Network. Later that year, I was travelling in outback South Australia and found a forty-eight page booklet on sale for one dollar: Man of Many Talents: The Life of Pope John Paul II (1986). The front cover showed a picture of Karol Wojtyla, the first non-Italian pope since 1535. The back cover was taken up by an advertisement for Diners Club International. It thus appeared that the Holy Leader of the Catholic Church was beginning to sup with the once-dreaded money-changers--it was being defended as necessary in the name of spreading the Word in the new global parish.

In one way this corruption of the Church by the commodity market has had a long history. It goes back at least to the beginnings of capitalism, when in 1562 the Council of Trent outlawed the practice of `papal indulgences': promises of shorter stays in purgatory were being given `in return' for pieces of silver. (It should be said that the Church always claimed that money gamed in this way was given as donations, not by way of sale--just as Sir Rupert did not buy his knighthood.) Going back further in history, Richard Sennett records a story told by the twelfth-century Parisian scholar, Humbert de Romans. It concerned a man who:

upon entering an abbey, found many devils in the cloister, but in the market-place found only one, alone on a high pillar. This filled him with wonder. But it was told him that in the cloister all is arranged to help the souls to God, so many devils are required there to induce monks to be led astray, but in the market-place, since each [person] is a devil to him [or her]self, only one other devil suffices.

In another way, 1986 marked an unprecedented watershed. It was certainly no longer necessary for even that one devil on the high pillar to maintain an active presence in the market-place. As the year proceeded it became clear that this Pope had followed various monarchs into the secular sanctum of image politics. Image consultants, tourist operators, money launderers and art auctioneers were moving in to carve up the City of God.

In November of that year, John Paul II began a tour of Australia, one that some critics began to dub the Pope-Soap-on-a-Rope tour. My manila file filled up with articles and brochures. They ranged from Tony Abbott, now greater defender of the monarchy, writing a defensive piece in the Bulletin with the Planet-Nescafe title `The Pope Will Revive the Warmth of a Shared Cuppa', to confirmed reports of the Pope's minders signing a deal with Marvel to do a comic on the life of young Karol Wojtyla. The official mail-order catalogue listed the comic--`Learn about his rise to Pontiff'--as well as offering such product lines as a `medium-bodied tawny-style port' and an Advent calendar showing Santa in sunglasses reclining among the kangaroos. At that time, the critics effectively maintained their rage; some by satire--a pop song called `Do the Pope' was released as a single: `I like thissa job but Jees, God's honour, I'd chuck it all in for a night with Madonna'. Others closer to the Church expressed heartfelt anguish. Sister Veronica Brady most eloquently and accurately criticised the papal tour as having been `absorbed into the consumer society of spectacle and consumption'.

It is nice to know that in 1986 our fair country was the site for a watershed in the history of the global market, and that there was a culture of critical debate that responded to it. Now, in January 1998 we can claim, at least by proxy, another development in the nexus of the sacred and the secular, but this time it has passed with little public comment. The same Citizen Murdoch who gave the Pope his first big break in the media back in 1986, is now a recipient of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great. Acclaim and forgiveness have also come from a variety of other sources: the same Citizen Murdoch who in his capacity of head of the Fox Network was once criticised by the religious Right in the United States for `polluting' family television has recently been in commercial talks with one of his critics, the very reverend Pat Robertson. In one report, `negotiations are well along--only "technical matters" remain to be resolved, according to one source--for Murdoch to buy Robertson's International Family Entertainment, parent company of the Family Channel'. This channel, now available in 67 million homes, was known before 1989 as the Christian Broadcasting Network. As economic rationalism worked in its mysterious ways the channel changed its name to reach a larger market-share. Murdoch now wants to use the channel as a competitor to Viacom's Nickelodeon in the very lucrative area of children's programming--and the mixed marriage of global religion and global media is consummated. To the extent that church congregations have been turned into audiences it is in the mutual best interests of capital and church.

Lest it be thought that it is only Christians who are taken by that devil who used to sit on the high pillar, it should be remembered that in May 1997 Henry Kissinger, on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation, awarded Rupert Murdoch the title of `Humanitarian of the Year'. A few critics demonstrated outside the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. However, by then most people had forgotten, for example, that in 1994, soon after Deng's Government complained about BBC broadcasting on Murdoch's Asian-based satellite network Star TV for critically focussing on China's human-rights record, Murdoch dropped the BBC from Star.

The Waldorf-Astoria was also the site of another Rupert Murdoch triumph (I wonder who owns the Waldorf). In April 1995, in its Grand Ballroom, the International Radio and Television Society awarded Citizen Murdoch its highest honour. The night of splendour was recorded in a glossy monograph with inscriptions such as `Our Congratulations to One of the Century's Most Extraordinary Individuals', endorsed by companies whose executives are on record as expressing disdain for the man. Fox Television included a full-page advertisement (I wonder who paid for the advertisement) with the words: `Leadership. Vision. Skill. Bold, Confident Achievement. The Respect of Colleagues and Competitors'. The copywriter obviously had not read the book by ex-Murdoch soul-mate, Andrew Neil (Full Disclosure). There the former editor of London's Sunday Times writes about Rupert's regime of `calculated terror' and `astute' political manipulation. We find out that Mr Murdoch `detests' John Major, and that he was `determined to stop' the political career of Chris Patten, former Governor of Hong Kong, because (here comes the closure of the Chinese puzzle) Mr Patten's line on Beijing had not been good for the media business-Star TV is based in Hong Kong.

It would be possible to extend this story in a thousand directions, and if I had a second lifetime maybe it would be worth it. However, the foregrounded point is simple. The media magnates of the world are as powerful as any persons in human history, and the power to address a global audience, sustained by careful manipulation of the market, has the potential to corrupt all those attracted to the bright lights of mass communication. The background point is also simple, but strangely less obvious. With the globalising of the information revolution, the market for which the media is competing is all of us. It does not matter who owns the Waldorf. Neither does it matter primarily what the content of the message is. The market is the message.

Paul James (with thanks to Andrew Dodd, ABC `Media Report',for lending me his manila folder.)
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Title Annotation:Rupert Murdoch
Author:Warburg, James Paul
Publication:Arena Magazine
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 1, 1998
Words:1566
Next Article:Australia and the crisis in Asia.
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