Israel’s media tycoons prone to same fate as Murdoch’s News of the World
For decades, millions of British readers happily lapped up the sleaze and gossip served up by the predatory tabloids acquired by Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. Stalking politicians and the rich and famous, invading their privacy or even falsely accusing them was fine. The popular outrage which forced the 168-year old News of the World (2.7 million circulation) to publish its last issue this week (Thank You and Goodbye), only erupted when it was caught hacking the phones of distressed individuals.
The almost hourly disclosures thereafter opened a can of worms which exposed the extent to which the Australian tycoon's media empire had fed police corruption and, even more scandalously, the power of one man to make and break British prime ministers and influence their policies.
In the line of fire now is David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister. Less than two years in office, he is revealed now as having been backed for election by Murdoch and his media, which switched their support from Labor after helping Tony Blair win three terms. Cameron was forced to explain how he came to briefly hire the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as Downing Street director of communications.
All these murky goings-on were common knowledge in the British media milieu. Outing the secret, however, leaves the British voter wondering why he bothers to turn out and members of Parliament, who held their tongues before about press abuses for fear of wrecking their careers, taking a deep breath of relief at being freed from the threat towering over their private lives and peccadilloes.
Israeli media are not immune to this kind of scandal. Their methods are equally dodgy. While links between "money and politics" have been generally decried, the missing link of media power and its methods have been largely ignored, despite the efforts of tycoons with large media holdings to influence key political, military and economic appointments and policies. As in other parts of the world, popular TV and newspaper outlets ratchet up their ratings by pillorying chosen victims, the more prominent the better.
But nothing anywhere comes close to the enormous power wielded by Rupert Murdoch who at 80 controls more English-language news outlets in the world than any other contemporary. He constantly expands his holdings. Through News Corp., he has made himself a ruthless, one-man shaper of political and business realities – and not just in Great Britain. Serious allegations against Murdoch's media in the UK may well impact his vast American media empire of cable and satellite TV – notably Fox – a host of local stations and newspapers, including the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, film studios and many other outlets.
He has accumulated enough of these outlets to gain more clout than many elected US politicians.
He also controls a large slice of the media in his native Australia.
To pin down the loose thread threatening to unravel his global empire, Murdoch flew to London Sunday, July 10, to save what he can from the shambles left by his son and heir apparent James and the News of the World hacking scandal.
Hanging now over all his UK newspaper and television holdings (The Times, Sunday Times, the Sun, Sky News) are police, court and Parliamentary probes plus a public panel of inquiry into the practices and ethics of the country's newspapers ordered by Cameron.
The British regulator Ofcom was on the point of approving the $12 bn purchase by Murdoch's News Corp. of British Sky BroadcastingB. Now, his possible failure of Ofcom's "fit and proper" test for the owner of a British publicationhas prompted a huge sell-off of shares in the satellite broadcaster. Friday, July 8, they were down nearly 12% on the week, wiping £1.8bn off the company's value.
In New York, News Corp. stock was down 4.1 percent on the Nasdaq stock exchange. Between Tuesday and Friday, it shed more than seven percent, slashing the company's market capitalization by more than three billion dollars.
The question now is who, besides its many victims on both sides of the Atlantic owns an interest in bringing down the Murdoch empire and therefore either devised or taking advantage of the first assault on its British ramparts to weigh in with an axe?
In Israel, local and foreign billionaires have successfully wielded the media against government decisions in three notable instances:
1. The tireless campaign Yediot Aharonot – Israel's leading tabloid – and its editor Arnon Mozes wages to discredit the government headed by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Day by day, they spread the word that his policies isolate Israel, drive friends away – especially the United States – and prompt international doubts of Israel's legitimacy. This is achieved by blocking out of its pages all evidence to the contrary and sniping at the prime minister every step he takes.
2. The Mozes clan declared war on Netanyahu after his American friend, Sheldon Gary Adelson Sheldon Edelson, the fifth richest man in America, was allowed to establish a free tabloid called "Israeli Today" which makes serious inroads on the circulation of Yediot Aharonot.
While Adelson is no Murdoch -his fortune estimated at $23 billion comes from a string of casinos in the US and Asia rather than media holdings – his resources for fighting Yediot Aharonot and outdoing its political clout are almost bottomless.
3. But earlier this year, an elaborate crusade mounted by Yediot Aharonot to force the prime minister' to abandon his choice of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as the IDF's next chief of staff was unchecked. Galant stepped down two weeks before his appointment. By inflating a technical irregularity in the purchase of land for his home, one which was later resolved, the tabloid's pages started a hue and cry which left him no choice. The real objects of the Mozes crusade was Netanyahu and his alliance with defense minister Ehud Barak, whom the paper sought to depict as bumbling incompetents.
It must be said that if Netanyahu had let the Adelson paper go, Gen. Galant might now be sitting in the chair of Israel's top commander.
There is one big difference between Murdoch's British and Israel's media outlets: The News of the World and The Sun have won mass circulations by the exceptional professional proficiency of the teams which produce them and therefore influence their readers. This can by no means be said of the most popular Israeli media. Pillorying the same incumbent politicians all the time is not enough to sell papers of buy influence.
In every general election in the last two decades, the average Israeli voter has turned against the op-ed views of the mainstream newspapers and TV news channels.
Pundits later come in to explain the "surprise" results by the implying the unhealthy makeup of the electorate is at fault – too many "Russians," "ultra-Orthodox Jews," or "Arabs."
But the truth is that newspaper and news broadcasts' audiences are shrinking because they offer too little competently-produced news and are swamped by over-aggressive advertizing. In this respect, Adelson's free sheet is no better than its rivals. The aspiring Israeli tabloids all have a lot to learn from the now defunct News of the World.