Murdoch: Void Art

  1. In an episode of Channel 4’s 10 o’Clock Live,Charlie Brooker made reference to the scandal surrounding ‘sexist’ remarks made by Sky Sport’s presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys. Brooker held up a Sun newspaper and presented the front page:

    Sun
    (Article calling for the removal of both presenters
    Pic: Sian Massey, lineswoman target of remarks)

    This page Brooker referred to, half in earnest and half in jest, as the greatest piece of modern art of the 21st century.

    Though funny for a moment, the joke quickly falls flat as you remember the context and remember what Murdoch is and has been now for over 50 years. Perhaps it is true that Murdoch’s output can indeed be measured according to an artistic standard and that part of this art has been to reflect, parody and involve himself in a culture where technology, electricity and mass population have produced the means to destroy meaningful content, emotion and ideology at its most fundamental level.

    Before continuing, it is worth briefly considering what McLuhan thought about the role of the modern pressman. He says “But it is the instant consequences of electrically moved information that make necessary a deliberate artistic aim in the placing and management of the news” (McLuhan, Understanding Media,pg, 276). McLuhan’s view is that with increased electric speeds in news gathering and presentation, we have seen an abolition of time and space in the newspaper; that the newspaper in an electric age no longer represents a single ‘point of view’, but instead is a mosaic pattern of many alternative points of view (Understanding Media,pg, 286). Murdoch can be seen to have represented this shift and taken it to its absolute limit, not necessarily in a particular medium, but across all his media as a whole.

  2. For Murdoch, the guiding principle of his output has been ‘If it’s no good, no one will watch it. / If it’s no good, no one will read it’. (See Terry Wogan Interview Here). From the outset then, this does not represent a particular point of view, but only what he describes as democratic: it is the people that will dictate the content through their desires and choices, not the newsman or the entertainment industry (entertainment and news have imploded into one another in the Murdochean/electric context):

    ‘Unlike traditional media, the choices of the future are going to be generated from the bottom up, not the top down. The 13 year old girl in Deli is not going to want the same news and entertainment as a 50 year old executive in Chicago. And they’re probably going to want it delivered in different ways too. Our challenge is to personalize the experience for these people so we can reach them both.’ (Rupert Murdoch, News for the 21st Century).

    Moreover, Murdoch does not believe there is any significant difference between the quality or type of choices people make – it is the guiding principal of democratic entertainment that ‘the people’ should get what they want:

    ‘I don’t believe the people that read the Times are any better than the people that read the Sun. I just believe they’re different.’ (Rupert Murdoch, (Southbank Show)

    In the same Melvin Bragg interview, Murdoch states that part of what inspires him as a newsman is ‘communication’. Though what he means by ‘communication’ is not made entirely clear, one may assume by the above that it is a pleasure akin to artistic pleasure; a pleasure originating in the ability to gauge a wide variety of tribal feelings and ideas, then speak those feelings and ideas without ever having to commit to them himself.

    ‘The Sun I think knows how to speak to the common man and woman; and speak for them.’ (Murdoch, (Wogan Interview )

    The success of this exchange – and the pleasure of this exchange – will be measured by wealth and audience figures: ‘if it’s no good, no one will watch it’. ‘Communication’ is not to convey a point of view; rather, it is to express a commercially viable aesthetic heart.

  3. It’s in the above context that Brooker’s joke perhaps loses its jocular aspect leaving us instead with a sense that perhaps that Sun page was indeed a great work of art. It does exactly what the Murdochean corporate screen sets out to do; by its sheer hypocrisy it ironically disowns its content and thus affirms and commits to the internal nihilism on which this notion of free market democracy hangs. Murdoch is without a point of view, is not the substance of the content. The only point of view is the peoples’ point of view, which is every single view and in this, no point of view at all. To further demonstrate this, Murdoch is often accused of being Right Wing and yet he has over and over again denied this.

    “I don’t know that my views are all so right wing… Mrs Thatcher is more right than wrong, but I’m not a Tory.” (Rupert Murdoch)

    In fact, Murdoch’s papers have supported both New Labour and President Obama in elections. The traditional politics of Left and Right might better be understood as malleable variables, alternative marketable voices with their own ready-made audiences. In answer to a question asked by a student concerning whether or not he thought the news industry was better served by a neutral voice or a variety of different voices, Murdoch replied:

    ‘The answer generally to your question is the more voices the better and the greater the variety. And let’s have them from all sides and even from extremes.’ (Rupert Murdoch, News for the 21st Century).

    Politics then, art and entertainment, the emotions, ideologies and opinions of people, all become malleable variables in the theatre of entertainment. The imagination or point of view is the handle by which the entertainment/news mogul can grab the spectator and it is in this context that Fox News makes the greatest sense. Fox News is not necessarily about Right Wing propaganda, at least not for Murdoch. It is about selling impulse and hysteria, uncritical unreason, histrionics and fear and it is about engendering conflict and controversy in that it is antithetical to conventional notions of journalistic integrity and democratic ‘citizenship’. Likewise, for those that believe The Simpsons can reflect any meaningful liberal politics, or for those who believe that their ironic relationship with their hosts is brave or subversive, the view is quite mistaken. To partake in Fox is to affirm Fox and only Fox, for in its case, the medium really is the message. Content and point of view on the Murdochean screens really do mean nothing and as such too, our own identities mean less and less as we involve ourselves more deeply in a system of self-commodification.

    For Murdoch, consumers are free because their choices control media output; but this isn’t quite the case. Consumers are only free so long as their choices support the system of consumption. It is in this context that politics becomes management politics, that elections are essentially a discussion over who will best manage the system; the ideology of better systems disappears, except on screens. And yet this disappearance only marks a shift in ideology. The prevailing scheme is the Murdochean scheme: you are free to be as you like – impulsive, mad, bad, hysterical – but you must never believe in anything you become; it was always intended as a pleasure with no destiny, a commodified response to support your chosen screen.

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    • Mr. Divine
    • May 16th, 2011

    ‘but you must never believe in anything you become’

    What do you mean?

    People are consumers. The reason why they are consumers isn’t because they ‘managed’ by the system but because people want things.

  1. No, they are not managed by the system – quite right. The Murdochean idea is that the people manage the system through their desires and choices.

    However, implicit in this system is that the only purpose and meaning of desire is to create commodities and purchase them. The Liberal idea is valuable only to the extent that people purchase it, not that they practice it for its own ideological sake.

    I think Murdoch would likely argue that if the people wanted liberal values, the media would create it; likewise, if the people wanted journalistic integrity and a clear separation between journalism and entertainment, then the people would buy it. This isn’t the case however, and the people instead are more inclined to purchase hysteria, sex, fear, conspiracy, selfishness etc.

    The tricky part here though is that it becomes the media’s job to produce hysteria, fear and unreason, as this is what the people want. Your hysteria is not real, it’s manufactured, hence ‘you must never believe in anything you become’. It’s manufactured and amplified so that you buy it.

    The same is true of marketable liberalism. If you want to believe in journalistic integrity, the truth, a rational life, then you can buy that too. However, you can’t do anything with this and have to live in a world where these values are exactly as valuable as hyper-fear and news as entertainment. In this, these ideals can’t really be ‘believed in’. You recognise that you are simply buying into one of many sets of equal options. You can buy the idea of progressive politics, just don’t act on it. If there is to be a rational society, you need to buy it or at least, work around the irrational society.

    There is an aspect of this that turns your actual politics and desire into a resource itself – like a desert being drilled for oil. You are free to buy your Michael Moore DVDs or your Glenn Beck conspiracy theory, but neither one is truer than the other. The market is the only true ideology worth practising for its own sake. You are just the resource that makes up the market.

    Something like that is what I’m trying to say.

    • Mr. Divine
    • May 17th, 2011

    ‘You can buy the idea of progressive politics, just don’t act on it’

    What is progressive politics and what does it involve? When you act out ‘progressive politics’ what exactly are you doing? Is street violence ‘progressive’ politics? There is nothing to stop you setting up an ecological housing project privately.. is that action not ‘progressive’? In a way it is political.

    You appear to have a negative view that people demand and supply ‘commodities’ . But it is good that people exchange commodities. And who is the ultimate decider as to what is best for the individual? The individual of course. The exchange of commodities is the primary reason why humans live in such luxury. it is not are only way of living for their are many things that we do that we just ‘like’ and which has no commodity exchange involvement.

  2. I’m not getting into what constitutes ‘progressive politics’ as I have no idea; suffice to say however, for the purposes of this article, I was thinking of pretty much any action that is philosophically/ideologically backed and is directed towards the well-being of society and human beings generally. On those grounds, ecological housing would perhaps suffice.

    My main points though in the above are these:
    1) That Murdoch represents every marketable point of view;
    2) That though he commits to none of the points of view he markets, there is an underlying ideology: that democracy is made of people freely choosing the output they consume from producers who are free to compete and produce any output;
    3) That under this system, everything is true and valid and therefore nothing is true or valid;
    4) That this turns consumer desire and choice into a resource to be exploited (of his employees, he says ‘we see our employees as more than labour. We see them in terms of their imagination too’). Imagination is a resource.;
    5) To buy ‘progressive’ ideologies from Murdoch is to partake in Murdoch, not the ideology. It is to partake in the posture of ideology – similar to buying a Greenday CD;
    6) ‘The Simpsons on Fox’ is a larger political event than ‘The Simpsons’ alone; likewise Michael Moore on Fox News – Fox News is the wider event.

    At the bottom of all this, I have the suspicion that this is ideology’s value now – its market value or its value as an identity which is then translated into profit. People do like to have ‘their say’ and ‘their say’ is the resource extracted. I think this is down to more than Murdoch of course and I suspect the man is simply a great artist of his time. I probably have another blog post coming up at some pooint where I’ll try to redeem the value of content or at least try to separate it from aesthetic form – not that I can promise that content has any value beyond your own aesthetic form.

    • Gill
    • May 20th, 2011

    I think you’ve made some really interesting points there. Thanks. Going to chew on them a while.

    • Thank you 🙂 Really appreciate you saying so. It’s heartening to know that it communicates something.

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