STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
People used to say the sun never sets on the British Empire. These days, our media correspondent David Folkenflik says it would be more accurate to say the sun never sets on Rupert Murdoch's empire. In a new book, David Folkenflik writes of an Australian newspaper owner whose company now stretches to India, Great Britain and the United States.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: He could be counted on as the clock moved forward to be calling editors in New York, in London, in Sydney to say, hey, what do you have coming for me? What do you got going on?
INSKEEP: Folkenflik's new book is called "Murdoch's World." He describes a powerful media insider who cultivated an image as an outsider.
FOLKENFLIK: He very much cultivated this notion that the people who worked for him were swashbuckling buccaneers fighting against these elites at the BBC and the New York Times and places like that.
INSKEEP: Newspapers and TV channels run by News Corp have taken a strong, conservative line, even though Rupert Murdoch himself is considered somewhat less conservative on many issues. Consider News Corp's treatment of global climate change.
FOLKENFLIK: His publications and outlets - you know, particularly if you think in this country Fox News - have conveyed some of the most skeptical coverage of the idea that global warming is occurring and that humanity has contributed significantly to that, and that there really is some obligation to address that. All the same, you know, in 2007, convinced by presentations involving Al Gore out in Pebble Beach and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Murdoch himself became convinced that it was important for News Corp to take a stand on this. And, indeed, the News Corp company took a step and said we are going to become carbon-neutral within five years.
INSKEEP: Well, I want to make sure I understand this, because you're telling me that Rupert Murdoch himself has acknowledged the importance of climate change, and yet his own publications have continued to reflect profound skepticism about something that he himself believes is real.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think it's a confluence of political conviction and a canny business sense. I think that Fox News has found it to its advantage to play up doubts, that it plays up to a certain very loyal, large part of its core audience. I would say the same for the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, although I would point out that I think it was doing that independently of the Murdochs well before the purchase in 2007 and, you know, has maintained a consistent conservative tone that is to the right of Mr. Murdoch. He would argue that he actually offers his publications great autonomy. And it's true. He doesn't send out a daily email to all his outlets saying this is the uniform line you should take. But he certainly has antipathy to government involvement in regulating commerce and in taxation. And you see that play out. You see that breathe in so many of his publications and outlets.
INSKEEP: What happens when the story that News Corp outlets have to cover is News Corp?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's a very, very sensitive thing. I think you saw during the hacking scandal two years ago.
INSKEEP: Let's remind people what the hacking scandal was.
FOLKENFLIK: The hacking scandal involved revelations that journalists for his newspapers in Britain had been involved in hacking into the phone mail messages of hundreds, even thousands of people, some of them celebrities, some of them just private citizens. And concomitantly, there was the revelation that there had been widespread bribing of public officials to gain information that should have been kept private by law in a way that seemed like a second and in some ways even greater betrayal - if you look at it from a legal standpoint - of the promise to uphold the public good that journalists profess so often.
INSKEEP: And, of course, this became a worldwide story, and one of the questions that came up was how the British press that he owns would cover it. Another was how the Wall Street Journal, the great American newspaper that he owns, would cover it.
FOLKENFLIK: And people at the Journal were so cognizant of the fact that this was the first true test. You know, he had bought the paper in 2007, and there were other instances where people thought: Gosh, are his handpicked editors trying to affect the political tilt of a story? And journalists were actually aggressively pursuing a story in which they felt they could show that, actually, knowledge of the kinds of hacking going on was known within the newspaper - not by a single reporter, as been claimed for so many years - but as far back as 2002, by senior figures at the paper.
They were onto a story they thought would show this, and Robert Thomson - then the managing editor, or top news executive of the Wall Street Journal, now the CEO of the new News Corp - Robert Thomson personally intervened again and again to try to forestall publication of that story. The reporters who I talked to - and I talked to reporters on both side of the Atlantic about this - said that his objections were so insistent, that he was trying to set the bar so high, that that story would never see the light of day.
But to the credit of the Journal, its journalists insisted on that story being published. So, News Corp can say, hey, look. The story was published. What's the issue? What's the issue, to my mind and to the journalists that I spoke to, was that the integrity of the Journal was put in doubt, and it was very clear that Robert Thomson would have been happier to protect Rupert Murdoch.
INSKEEP: When you reached out to Robert Thomson, or other people at News Corp and told them that you had learned the story of this almost-non-story in the Wall Street Journal, what did they say?
FOLKENFLIK: I went to Robert Thomson and the Journal, I believe, five times and said to them I think we need to talk about Robert Thomson, and particularly his leadership at the moment of the hacking scandal. And they just said that they would not participate in this book whatsoever.
INSKEEP: OK. So, what was it like covering News Corp more broadly over a long period of time, going to try to learn the story of this company that maybe did not want all of its story told?
FOLKENFLIK: On the one hand, it was a fascinating journey. This was an opportunity to see the company and the creation of Rupert Murdoch in its entirety. I really was able to get a feel for how these cousins, essentially, these corporate cousins in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., operated and how they evolved very similar characteristics from, originally, the same DNA.
That said, you know, News Corp, there were people throughout all these properties who helped me in many ways, who patiently answered questions, sometimes convenient ones, sometimes inconvenient questions, but offered their insights throughout. Nonetheless, News Corp did its best to ensure that people would not cooperate or collaborate with the book. And, you know, some of its various entities - and I think particularly at Fox News - have, at times, really thrown roadblocks. Fox didn't do that in this case, but they've done that for a lot of stories throughout the way. It is a company that feels very comfortable with a muscular and robust response for those who raise questions they'd rather not be ventilated.
INSKEEP: Can I just ask one other thing, David Folkenflik? You've been talking about Rupert Murdoch, who is one of those intensely polarizing figures. People despise him. People love him. I wonder if you felt yourself pulled into either camp as you were trying to understand Rupert Murdoch, or if you felt that nobody really understood what this guy was.
FOLKENFLIK: There are ways in which I very much admire Rupert Murdoch. I admire the fact that he wants to imagine bigger things. He wants to figure out ways to reach people. You can look at a guy like Rupert Murdoch and look at what The Sun does with the page three topless girls and with phone hacking and bribery in Britain. And you can also look at the fact that he's also subsidized the Times of London and the Times Literary Supplement and other fairly thoughtful publications that have lost money.
At the same time, there's a cruelty to his journalism. There is a desire to be punitive at times to people who are critics or people who are political opponents. When I talked to reporters who worked for Murdoch, they almost uniformly said it was an exciting, kind of exhilarating, giddy time. And at the same time, many of them recoil as they look back at what they did and what those papers did on behalf of Rupert Murdoch.
INSKEEP: David Folkenflik is NPR's media correspondent, and now the author of "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires." David, thanks very much.
FOLKENFLIK: Thank you, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.