Some Notes on Rupert Murdoch and Religion

With controversy continuing to engulf Rupert Murdoch, the Catholic Herald asks “Should Rupert Murdoch’s papal knighthood be rescinded?”:

In 1998 Rupert Murdoch was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory. He had apparently been recommended for the honour by Cardinal Roger Mahony, after giving money to a Church education fund. A year later he donated $10 million to help build Los Angeles Catholic cathedral.

Is it right that papal knighthoods should be awarded in this way?… And is Rupert Murdoch a person the Church should celebrate? He owns – or did own – a newspaper that lost its moral bearings; he ought to bear some responsibility for that…

The Independent reported at the time:

The Roman Catholic church is receiving complaints from worshippers following news that Rupert Murdoch has been awarded a papal knighthood from Pope John Paul II.

Senior Catholics are said to have been “mystified and astonished” when they heard that the purveyor of newspaper sex, scandal and nudity was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory at a ceremony in Los Angeles last month.

News of the award was kept out of Mr Murdoch’s British titles – the Sun, the Times, the Sunday Times and the News of the World – at his request, although it is provoking outrage in the religious media and in Ireland, where many Catholics have reacted with anger that Mr Murdoch, who is not a Catholic, appears to have been honoured purely for donating large sums of money to the church.

Murdoch showed his gratitude for the honour a few years later by announcing the appointment of Pope Benedict XVI with the Sun headline “From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi“.

Meanwhile, the Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) is concerned about having shares in Murdoch’s News International:

While the EIAG welcomes decision to close the News of the World, this action is not a sufficient response to the revelations of malpractice at this paper. Nor does it address the failure of News International and News Corporation executives to undertake a proper investigation and take decisive action as soon as the police uncovered illegal phone hacking in 2006.

The EIAG chairman has written to Rupert Murdoch today (8.7.11) to insist that the Board of News Corporation takes all necessary measures to instil investor confidence in the ethical and governance standards of News Corporation.

We cannot imagine circumstances in which we would be satisfied with any outcome that does not hold senior executives to account at News Corporation for the gross failures of management at the News of the World.

Murdoch’s empire, it should be recalled, also has a huge stake in religious publishing: Murdoch owns HarperCollins, which includes the evangelical Zondervan imprint. Collins has a strong reputation for religious books in the UK, although one editor there, Robin Baird-Smith, quit in disgust in the early 1980s for reasons that he explained to Christian Bookseller in December 2000:

If you are running a religious book list as part of a large corporation, you are in the last analysis a small part of someone else’s global plan… [Y]ou are also subject to censorship, and outside editorial control. At HarperCollins we were owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owned the Sun newspaper. One day I received a call from the features editor of that newspaper saying that they were going to publish in serial form the memoirs of Sonia Sutcliffe, the wife of Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper) and he wanted Collins to publish the book. That was the moment when what it meant to be part of a corporation really sunk in and I decided that I had to leave. (1)

Murdoch’s interference with HarperCollins was highlighted in 1998 (the same year that he received his Papal honour), when he attempted to prevent the publication of a book by Chris Patten about the Hong Kong handover – Patten’s editor, Stuart Proffitt, was told to inform Patten’s agent that the book was “substandard”. It was clear that Murdoch wished to appease the Chinese government in order to protect business interests in China (although he continues to deny it), and Proffitt, like Baird-Smith before him, resigned rather than compromise. The Independent denounced Murdoch as “a liar and a threat to democracy” over the affair.

As regards Zondervan, it is claimed that Murdoch takes a hands-off approach – in 1999, Doug Ross, President of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) in the USA, told an industry seminar in Durham, NC, that :

HarperCollins exerts no non-Christian ideas on Zondervan. Why? Well, Rupert Murdoch, who is at the helm of all that, who is not known for Christian ministry, recognises that Zondervan’s distinctive is the publishing of Christian material…They don’t want to change the company… Zondervan gets its money from HarperCollins, who is Murdoch, that’s not different than maybe you borrowing money to expand your store from a bank that does not have John 3:16 above its door… I personally don’t know of any circumstance where that message has ever been compromised.

However, there have been concerns about whether Murdoch’s business practices are compatible with evangelical religious values. In 2005 there were Christian complaints about Zondervan’s use of Chinese labour to print Bibles, and in 2007 Rick Warren’s connections to Murdoch brought him some critical attention. In 2005, the Orange County Register had reported that

Warren says he is pastor to Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. subsidiary publishes “The Purpose-Driven Life” but also publishes tabloid newspapers featuring topless women.

“I don’t have to agree with 100 percent of what another person does in order to work with them on the 20 percent that we do agree on,” Warren says.

The claim also appeared in the New Yorker the same year:

…”I had dinner with Jack Welch last Sunday night,” he said. “He came to church, and we had dinner. I’ve been kind of mentoring him on his spiritual journey. And he said to me, ‘Rick, you are the biggest thinker I have ever met in my life. The only other person I know who thinks globally like you is Rupert Murdoch.’ And I said, ‘That’s interesting. I’m Rupert’s pastor! Rupert published my book!’ ” Then he tilted back his head and gave one of those big Rick Warren laughs.

Apparently Murdoch donated $2 million to Warren’s “PEACE” plan for Africa (background here), but in 2007 Warren’s attitude changed to “I know not the man”: the Christian Post reported that:

Chris Rosebrough, head of the Calif.-based Christian Accountability Network, was one of a number of Christians who earlier this month said that Warren should “call Murdoch to repentance and/or put him out of the church.”

…According to London-based magazine The Business, Murdoch has been secretly building a stable of wholly-owned pornographic channels for his BSkyB subsidiary. The British publication claims that BSkyB now owns and operates its own pornographic channels – the 18+ Movies selection – after years of hosting third-party content only.

…In response, David Chrzan, chief of staff at Saddleback Church, pointed out that Murdoch, who resides in Manhattan, was not a member of the Southern California megachurch and that he had never even attended a service there.

The story was seized on with glee by Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily, who launched a salvo from the right which drew attention the Orange County Register and New Yorker quotes.

Murdoch does seem to have a liking for evangelists; in a new article at ASSIST Ministries, Dan Wooding recalls:

The phone rang in the Billy Graham media room just before the start of Mr. Graham’s Greater Puerto Rico Global Mission, which originated March 16-18, 1995 in San Juan, and was beamed around the world by satellite.

I picked it up and at the other end of the line was a man with an Australian accent, who asked to speak to Billy Graham.

I asked, “Whose calling,” and he replied, “Rupert Murdoch”

When I explained that Mr. Graham was not at this number I asked the media baron if I could convey a message to Billy and he replied, “Please tell him that I am praying for his crusade.”

Maybe Murdoch thought a connection to Graham would bring him luck: after all, Graham had come to fame after catching the attention of the man who must be Murdoch’s role-model. The story is well-known:

Evangelist Billy Graham recalls in his new book the pivotal point in his young ministry when, during a 1949 Los Angeles crusade, a two-word directive from publisher William Randolph Hearst to “puff Graham” made him an instant celebrity nationwide.

The sudden front-page coverage showered on Graham by Hearst newspapers in mid-October (after three weeks of little notice) was quickly matched by other newspapers and newsmagazines–literally a media circus descending on his rallies under a big tent.

The elder statesman of evangelical Christianity contends in “Just as I Am” (HarperCollins), however, that he never learned why Hearst took an interest in him. “Hearst and I did not meet, talk by phone, or correspond as long as he lived,” Graham wrote.

***

(1) In fact, Sonia Sutcliffe told the press that she was “adverse” to any book deal, and Murdoch lost interest in the face of public opposition to “chequebook journalism”: “They’ll pass a law against you”, he told the then-editor of the News of the World, Barry Askew – background here.

8 Responses

  1. […] (Via Richard Bartholomew) […]

  2. […] became a Knight Commander of St. Gregory in 1998. The Indepedent reported at the time (via Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion): “The Roman Catholic church is receiving complaints from worshippers following news that […]

  3. […] Some Notes on Rupert Murdoch and Religion (barthsnotes.com) […]

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  5. Ooops. How terrible. I am also one of those Catholics. I have not read all of your article, but saw that some British church dignitary wrote to Murdoch to ask him to “instill investor confidence in the ethical and governance standards of News Corporation”. Why don’t they go to the nearest news stand and look?
    Really terrible, much worse than if they simply ignored the scandal.

  6. […] So where did Turk get a different impression from? It should be recalled that Warren has been somewhat slippery in his statements to the media on various subjects – most famously, as to whether or not he is Rupert Murdoch’s pastor. […]

  7. […] However, it reminds us that that Murdoch is a major player in Christian media, as I discussed here (the Murdoch-owned Christian imprint Zondervan is Palin’s publisher);  and that Graham […]

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