Murdoch’s ambitions in the Middle East

With his media empire under fire in the west, NewsCorp chief eyes the Middle East market.

Rubert Murdoch and Prince Walid
Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp scandal is sending shock waves across the UK, as protesters reject the mogul’s denial of reponsibility for criminal behaviour within his empire [GALLO/GETTY]

Embroiled in a scandal that has global implications, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is under fire due to the ongoing fallout resulting from the News of the World scandal.

But while News Corp remains under heavy scrutiny in the UK, US, and the rest of the West, the launch of Abu Dhabi-based Arabic language news channel Sky News Arabia is still on track.

For someone interested in assisting in starting a television network with a planned initial reach of 50 million viewers across the Middle East, Murdoch has an interesting perspective on regional issues that affect the would-be consumers of the new Arabic channel.

“My own perspective is simple”, Murdoch told the Anti-Defamation League on December 13, 2010. “We live in a world where there is an ongoing war against the Jews.”

Murdoch emphasised “the importance of good relations between Israel and the United States”, stating: “Some believe that if America wants to gain credibility in the Muslim world and advance the cause of peace, Washington needs to put some distance between itself and Israel. My view is the opposite.”

In a speech Murdoch gave when receiving the American Jewish Committee’s National Human Relations Award in March 2009, less than three months after the end of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, he referenced Gaza and said: “The free world makes a terrible mistake if we deceive ourselves into thinking this is not our fight. In the end, the Israeli people are fighting the same enemy we are: cold-blooded killers who reject peace … who reject freedom.”

Ari Rabin-Havt, Executive Vice President of the media watchdog group Media Matters, says Murdoch’s Fox News in the US “is one of the most bigoted, anti-Muslim channels on TV”.

“Their hosts, contributors, and guests were vocal opponents of the planned building of an Islamic cultural centre near ground zero,” Rabin-Havt told Al Jazeera. “One of those guests was anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Pam Geller, who compared the centre to building a Ku Klux Klan ‘shrine’ near a black church in Alabama.”

Murdoch’s Middle East connection

Billionaire Prince Walid bin Talal bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud, a nephew of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, has, according to Forbes magazine, a net worth estimated to be at least $19.6bn. This makes him the 26th wealthiest person on the planet, as well as the richest man in Saudi Arabia.

He is also the second biggest shareholder (at seven per cent) in News Corporation, only behind Murdoch himself.

During a recent interview on his yacht with the BBC’s Newsnight, Prince Walid declared himself to be a “good friend” of Rupert Murdoch and his son James, and staunchly defended the men amid the ongoing NewsCorp scandal.

Saudi billionaire Prince Walid (centre) talks to his assistant, as Rupert Murdoch watches, before the Abu Dhabi Media Summit in March 2010 [REUTERS]

It is noteworthy that,while Prince Walid is the second largest shareholder in News Corp, Murdoch is also a major shareholder (ten per cent) in Prince Walid’s Rotana Media Group based in the Middle East. As recently as this May, Murdoch’s conglomerate took a significant stake in Prince Walid’s film, TV, and music business, a move that deepened the financial relationship between the two men.

Rotana television broadcasts in Saudi Arabia and via satellite to the Arab World and Arab Diaspora, and includes Fox (Middle East), a Fox film channel – and is better known for broadcasting US films, television and music videos.

Even though Murdoch is in business with Prince Walid, and the two men have a mutually beneficial relationship, many of his personal views and the views of his media outlets take a very adversarial stance towards the Arab and Muslim world.

“They [Muslims] are much harder to integrate into a community than the average Indian or Chinese or Japanese even,” Murdoch told the Sydney Morning Herald on June 26, 2006.

Bill O’Reilly, a leading host on Murdoch’s Fox News channel, said, during his broadcast on October 18, 2010: “Folks are fed up with politically correct nonsense. There’s no question there is a Muslim problem in the world,” and “most Americans well understand the danger coming out of the Muslim world”. The on-screen text read: “The Muslim Dilemma.” The next day, O’Reilly repeated the claim that there was “a Muslim problem in the world”.

Last spring, at the exclusive three-day Abu Dhabi Media Summit, Murdoch hinted:

“We’ve also been broadcasting some of our Fox International Channels. More recently, we took another step by investing in a local media company that also is the world’s largest producer of Arab music. The company is called Rotana. To be frank, Rotana does not really need our financing. We are partnering with Rotana for something more ambitious.”

The show must go on?

Despite the phone hacking scandal in the UK, Sky News Arabia, a 50/50 joint venture with BSkyB and the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation, has plans to launch next spring as a 24-hour news channel.

Days after the closing of the News of the World newspaper, senior executives Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton resigned over the scandal.

Their resignations came after Prince Walid urged Murdoch and his son James to “cooperate fully” with inquiries into the scandal.

“If the indications are for [Mrs Brooks’] involvement in this matter … for sure she has to go, you bet she has to go,” Prince Walid told Newsnight.

Possibly underscoring Prince Walid’s power in News Corp, fewer than 24 hours after that interview was broadcast, it was announced Brooks had resigned from her position as chief executive of News International.

Last week, Prince Walid said he welcomed the decision to close the News of the World.

“The rotten and defective apple [News of the World] has been eliminated by management,” he told Forbes magazine via text message. “Moreover, I as shareholder and the Murdochs won’t tolerate any unethical behaviour, and the fact that the newspaper was shut down is conclusive proof that News Corp wants to put this case behind it, irrespective of the BSkyB takeover. Plus, News [Corp] is a lot bigger than a newspaper.”

Muhammad Ahmad, a Glasgow-based media scholar who has taught journalism and politics at the University of Stirling, disagrees with Prince Walid’s “rotten apple” theory.

“The strangeness of the fact that a Saudi is the second biggest NewsCorp stockholder, and he has never taken any actions to curb or censor bad journalism, and there is no regulation whatsoever, is troubling,” Ahmad told Al Jazeera. “You have a ruthless media operation, especially now when it is being called out, and they were unapologetic to begin with. This is not a question of some bad apples. News Corp is a corrupt institution, to its foundations, and now it’s trying to get control over Sky Arabia. This should be outrageous for anyone, especially viewers.”

The channel intends to broadcast to more than 50 million households across the Middle East and North Africa region, according to network executives. It will be based in Abu Dhabi, with bureaux around the world.

The channel will enter a TV-news market in competition with Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and BBC Arabic, among others.

Professor David Miller, a sociologist at Scotland’s Strathclyde University and co-founder of the media watchdog group Spinwatch, told Al Jazeera that he feels the Sky News Arabia venture is “unsafe”.

“I don’t know what the regulating authority would be in this case, but it certainly does not bode well for a news organisation to have Sky or NewsCorp involved at all.”

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail

Source: Al Jazeera