This is in response to the recent New York Time’s commentary on the Empire of Rupert Murdoch, P&I 5th April. Murdoch’s insight has been passed to many of the publishers of commercial media and political parties. It has damaged society and there’s no easy way for it to be countered.
Since Moses was a boy, one of the universal challenges of any person who needs to communicate, sell, preach, or evangelise, is of communicating to the maximum number of people at the smallest cost per person. It’s a maxim in trade, politics, religion and any form of communications. It’s the fundamental dynamic that undergirds the entire advertising industry. The vast majority of the population scarcely pay attention to the techniques used to attract their attention.
Larger audiences at the lowest cost
In recent history where trade, business and sales are perceived as vital to modern capitalist economies, this search for communications pathways has become more important than ever.
We are familiar with the way businesses and political parties seek out demographic segments. We see ’boutique businesses’ catering for the wealthy, or people seeking products that will ‘set them apart’. We see businesses, and political parties, targeting demographic segments such as the migrant vote, the blue collar vote, and so on.
The ‘genius’ of Rupert Murdoch is that he identified a sector of the population that is far larger than all the rest put together. Many, including the authors of the NYT’s study, mistake this for some ‘conservative sector’ in society. I’d argue that is a by-product of the brilliance of what Rupert discovered. Initially, his challenge was the changing media and technological landscape that was stealing the audiences that underpinned profits, largely sourced from advertising, in his newspapers. His quest has been to find a new audience to replace those who were no longer buying his newspapers and tuning in to his television and radio stations. Rupert is not stupid. What he came up with was sheer genius. It has not only delivered him wealth beyond imagination; it has also delivered him power to manipulate vast, even national audiences and populations.
Where did the inspiration come from?
Who knows how he came up with this strategic breakthrough? There might be a Catholic connection. Rupert isn’t a Catholic, but in 1967 he married his second wife, Anna Torv, a Catholic. Together they had three children, Elizabeth, Lachlan and James. The two boys are in contention to eventually be the successors to inherit their father’s empire. That ‘Catholic connection’ eventually led to Rupert being made a papal knight – a Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory, KCSG – in 1998, three months before he split with Anna. You can read more at this article in the Los Angeles Times where a pile of these knighthoods were handed out like confetti to people who helped fund the reconstruction and refurbishment of Cardinal Roger Mahony’s cathedral in Los Angeles.
Back in 1979 another Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who subsequently became Pope Benedict XVI, made an observation about the ordinary pew-sitters in the Church. In a homily he stated, “The Christian believer is a simple person: bishops should protect the faith of these little people against the power of intellectuals.” While only a small number of people in the educated, affluent, first world heard or read those words, it seems about 90% of the baptised picked up that it was how the hierarchs were going to treat them: as “little and simple people who needed to be protected from intellectuals”. In other words, Catholicism was for simpletons. The majority gave up listening and participating across the Western world.
There is insight and wisdom in Cardinal Ratzinger’s words…
Yet, I would argue, there was actually a lot of insight and wisdom in the future pope’s words, beside the fact that it reflected the outlook of the majority of bishops in what they saw as their chief role of protecting ‘the faithful’ from intellectuals and from thinking for themselves. More importantly, this insight is also linked to the genius insight of Rupert Murdoch KCSG.
The sad truth is that the majority of the human population do not aspire to be intellectuals or to devote a lot of energy to thinking about what they see as esoteric theories, and rules and laws in such fields as theology, politics, economics or even the sciences. They want, even demand, ‘simple answers’ answers than can be digested in three sentences and simple slogans. Look at how few people join political parties these days compared to the total population. Participation in political parties is declining as rapidly across the Western world as participation in religion.
Rupert’s genius insight is that most of the population want ‘simple answers’. Above all else they want a little bit of security. Yes, some of them do aspire to be as rich as the Murdoch family, but most are simply content to preserve what they already have. Insurance and superannuation have become massive growth industries. So have personal development courses offering people forms of security and the opportunity to ‘get ahead’. But they’re not going to invest a huge amount of intellectual, mental and emotional energy thinking about it.
The Romans learned this long ago. They built huge stadiums to entertain and distract the masses from having to think too much. This is also one of the inheritances of the institutional Catholic Church from Emperor Constantine and his successors: Keep It Simple for the masses. Provide them with what are essentially emotional distractions, such as superstitions and simple pieties, and big dollops of anxiety and fear about eternal damnation. Perhaps somewhere between 60 and 70% in any population operate out of this mindset.
Rupert Murdoch reads the minds, needs and wants of the populations where he operates better than any priest, politician or pope. He feeds them what they most want: wall-to-wall, 24/7 entertainment and distraction. All the major commercial media have borrowed his formula and today offer this constant diet of over-the-top sentimentality mixed in with slogans to generate anxiety and envy about others. Politicians also have adopted his genius and now offer ‘slogan solutions’: “Stop the Boats”; “Build a Wall”; “Make Us Great Again”.
None of it is about genuine conservatism. It’s an exercise in stirring up sentimentality – getting people crying on television is a common trick in commercial current affairs programs and talk-back radio – and then stirring up anxiety, anger and venting about somebody who’s going to steal your job or rip off all your hard-won assets.
Rupert was merely trying to maintain the audiences that had once caused the rivers of gold to flow through classified advertising in his newspapers. Stirring up the basest human instincts in the ‘fight or flight’ responses gave him access to a far larger audience than anything that could be expected through appealing to any particular demographic or sub-sector of the population. The truth is all of us have this ‘fight or flight’ instinct that is as old as humanity. Some refer to it as the ‘lizard’ part of our brain that we share in common with the lowest animals. It utilises a technique that appeals to those with a narcissistic streak who know how to exploit populations for their own acquisition of wealth or power.
What’s the answer to Rupert’s genius?
I don’t pretend to know the answers to how any nation can respond to this. We’re dealing with forces in the human psyche that are more powerful than virtually any other force known to humankind. We see it manifested in the increasing instability emerging all over our planet today: from Britain with Brexit and the refugee problems in Europe, to Trump’s efforts to build a wall in the United States. We see it in the political and economic instability in countries like Venezuela, Brazil, the Philippines, Italy, Hungary and even France.
We need to confront the narcissistic leaders who are exploiting this. But we also need to tame the insecurities and anxieties of this vast population who seek simple answers, hate ideas, thinking and intellectuals, and who think and act in very shallow ways. The task, and challenge, is not going to be easy.
Brian Coyne is editor and Publisher of the online website www.catholica.com.au