What Politics and Cricket Have in Common: Rupert Murdoch


World Economic Forum

To an outside observer, it's a heated series of contests characterized chiefly by the over-the-top rhetoric from both sides. There's constant name-calling, allegations of dirty tricks, and questioning of the other side's patriotism. If the two combatants once shared a common set of assumptions—or at least a healthy respect for one another—it's all vanished in a pile of vitriol.

Yes, it's the American midterm elections. But it's also the Ashes, cricket's oldest test series rivalry: five five-day matches between Australia and England, beginning late this week and continuing over a two-month period across the land down under.

And the common thread in both? Well, for one, Rupert Murdoch.

No, Murdoch didn't invent the intense rivalry between Australia and England, just as the fierce partisan differences that separate the U.S. electoral parties were here long before he immigrated. But in each case, first in his native Australia, then in England, then here, Murdoch has displayed an absolute genius for pouring gasoline on fires. It's an old tabloid technique, of course, as William Randolph Hearst well knew as he pushed us into war with Spain a century ago. But with Murdoch—a product of the tabloid culture overseas where the rag sheets make ours look tame in comparison—it has rarely been raised to such an art form.

The Ashes have always incited fierce displays of nationalism on each side, for reasons not entirely clear to an outsider. "All Australians are an uneducated and unruly mob," said Douglas Jardine, an English cricketer, commenting on the behavior of Australian fans in the early 1930s. But with tabloids and sports linked at the hip (Joseph Pulitzer invented the U.S. sports department when he invented the U.S. rag sheet), the rhetoric has only escalated throughout a media in which the tabloid tail now wags the dog. "Dissecting the English corpse: no nerves, absence of guts and a missing tail," was the headline in one Sydney writer's account of a recent Ashes series. "English resistance was a candle whose flame was too easily extinguished," wrote a sage in Melbourne. Murdoch's Melbourne columnist went him one better: "The Englishmen cracked wide open—as they have done so many times in the past," he wrote.

As the owner of the UK tabloids The Sun and News of the World, Murdoch gets to play both sides of this nationalist street (Recent headlines: "Trott: Ricky Talk Is A Lot of Rot" and "Ponting: You're Not Real Poms," which is a lot more insulting than it sounds to us.) And his political headlines there have achieved notoriety too. ("If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights," followed by the self-congratulatory "It's The Sun Wot Won It.")

But it's Murdoch's excursion into U.S. TV "news," where his tabloid influence has made itself felt the most. Before Murdoch entered the scene, TV news here aspired to an ethic of objectivity, even if its efforts in that direction often fell short—just as national TV sports coverage is supposed to be fair because announcers are not supposed to favor the Saints over the Colts.

Under the slogan "fair and balanced," Murdoch's Fox News obliterated the ethic of objectivity in the news sphere, at least on all the primetime shows that mattered, bringing the tabloid take on sports and politics to American news TV. To his financial credit, Murdoch created a remarkably successful cable channel. That means that once he achieved his triumph, other media outlets copied the formula, especially in an internet age in which "narrowcasting" has become the name of the game.

The problem, of course, is that whatever happens in the Ashes, life will go on exactly as before. Trite but true: It's only a game and a few months from now in the Cricket World Cup, Australia and England will probably play again. In politics, it's a different story. Once you amp up the stereotypes and bad feeling on both sides, the political system has to deal with the consequences—as we'll discover once again beginning in January. In our current tabloid political culture, the Rupert Murdochs of the world win. In the long run, it's not clear if anyone else does.