Step up to any newsstand in Australia, like the one in Melbourne's Central Business District, and ask who Rupert Murdoch is, and you might get an appraisal like this one from Tom Baxter, an officer with a local disability foundation: "Long time in newspapers, ruthless; dedicated to their craft; a global citizen."
In the beachside community of Albert Park, Kate MacFadyen says feelings toward him are complicated. There is pride in the global success of a local boy, but cynicism, too: "In Australia, there are a lot of cities that only have Murdoch press as their newspaper," she says, "so it just feels like his organization dominates the media in this country."
In Sydney, I sat down in the living room of the author, blogger and media critic Paul Barry to ask why it matters how many titles the Murdochs and News Corp. own there.
"They have so much hold over the papers that we read, where they have such a large proportion of them, that's, I think, the problem," Barry says. "But ultimately it really comes down to the actual ownership. There's too many owned by Murdoch. Simple as that."
The piece of the pie is big — well, it's about two-thirds of the pie. Between 6 and 7 of every 10 copies of national and metro papers sold in Australia are owned by News Ltd., News Corp.'s Australian newspaper arm, according to government and trade figures. The papers are by no means monolithic in tone or scope. But to varying degrees, they tend to champion a smaller government with fewer regulatory powers, and they favor a strong military stance. The tabloids take on a more populist sheen than The Australian.
Barry has written periodically for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, a News Ltd. tabloid. He says the livelihoods of a large number of Australian journalists depend on the whim of a single media conglomerate and the sensibility of a single mogul.
"It's a massive, massive family company, but be under no illusions that people work for Rupert Murdoch," he says. "They know that they're working for him. They're not working for some, you know, organization with disparate power.
"Ultimately, he's the bloke they have to please," Barry says. And so, while they may not actually get an order coming down saying, 'You will run this headline, you will do this story, you will take this point of view,' they know what sort of things are going to play well."
In fact, News Corp. owns the dominant papers in nearly all the country's major cities, as well The Australian, the only national general interest paper, which has a modest circulation of approximately 130,000 but shapes opinions among elites; it's the paper that gets chewed over by talk radio, television programs and blogs. In addition, News Ltd. owns popular news websites and a controlling minority stake in Fox Tel, the nation's largest cable TV provider, in Fox Sports and the cable Sky News Australia service.
"It's a pretty clear stranglehold on the flow of information, which in itself might not be such a bad thing if you weren't open to claims that certain media organizations represent certain political interests," says Monica Attard, former foreign correspondent and media critic for the ABC. She's now the managing editor of the online Global Mail based in Sydney. "That's where the complicating issues arise. And I think it's very very difficult to overcome those barriers to arriving at a position where you're saying that the information that people are receiving is unfettered and pure."
Meanwhile, Murdoch's elder son, Lachlan, a former News Corp. executive, is a key investor in the ostensible rival broadcast Network Ten. He just became its chairman while still being a corporate director of News Corp. in New York.
Neither Murdoch would be interviewed by NPR for this series, nor would their executives, their aides, nor their journalists in Australia. Rupert Murdoch addressed the nature of media ownership in speaking with the BBC decades ago as he sought his first foothold in the U.K. by taking over the tabloid News of the World.
"I think the important thing is that there be plenty of newspapers, with plenty of different people controlling them, so that there are a variety of viewpoints, so there is a choice for the public," he said in that 1968 interview. "This is the freedom of the press that is needed."
Murdoch's Australian editors typically say that despite his stable of papers, the country does enjoy a diversity of views. They point to the nation's public broadcaster and rival Fairfax Media's papers in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the business daily, the Australian Financial Review.
And one former media regulator says critics of News Corp. in Australia paint in blacks and whites — no nuances.
"News Ltd. is powerful, but is it vulnerable? Yes, I think it is," says Graeme Samuel, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. "Like any traditional media organization, they're vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the reader."
Samuel says his greater fear is officials will push for tighter media regulation. He notes newspaper circulation is declining. People can read blogs and foreign newspapers online or tune in to talk radio. And ahead he sees the promise of Internet TV.
Samuel dismisses the idea that any one media company can control anything in Australia, even if its myriad publications generally share an outlook and tone.
"I think we do our readers — and that means 22 million Australians — I think we do them a disservice by suggesting that they are not discerning enough to be able to understand what it is they're reading and to be able to form a view," he says.
But Barry, the media critic and author, argues that misses the point.
"It's bad for a democracy when 70 percent of the newspapers in this country are pushing one line and pushing it so hard, whether it is right or whether it's wrong, frankly," he says.
Leaders of both major Australian political parties — those who have been favored by News Ltd. newspapers and those who have been punished by them — routinely pay their respects at News Corp.'s global headquarters in Midtown Manhattan when they visit New York City.
It doesn't pay for a politician to ignore Murdoch or his papers. They're everywhere.