12.09.10

Murdoch's WikiLeaks Cameo

A cable shows the News Corp. boss trying to expand his reach into Saudi Arabia, whose powerful prince is willing to allow Western ideas in exchange for big revenues.

The Wall Street Journal has been aggressively covering the WikiLeaks controversy. Turns out that Rupert Murdoch's newspaper also pops up in one of the secret cables released by the shadowy organization.

In a May 2009 missive from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh—titled "IDEOLOGICAL AND OWNERSHIP TRENDS IN THE SAUDI MEDIA"—there are indications that Murdoch wants to do more business with the kingdom. According to a source whose name was redacted, a Saudi (whose name was also withheld) "recently had a three-hour discussion with one of Rupert Murdoch's sons on a deal to publish an Arabic-language version of the WALL Street Journal." What's more, the cable says, the Saudi Research and Marketing Group—the country's largest publisher, and said to be one-third owned by Prince Waleed bin Talal—"is trying to win a contract to publish the International Herald Tribune (uncensored, he emphasized) in Saudi Arabia."

A spokeswoman for Murdoch's News Corp. had no comment. Since the cable is a year and a half old, it's entirely possible those discussions went nowhere. (Prince Waleed bin Talal holds a large investments in News Corp.)

Even more intriguing in the largely self-censored Saudi media, one channel of the Middle East Broadcasting group (MBC) is described as providing such fare as the CBS and ABC evening news, David Letterman, Desperate Housewives and Friends, "all uncensored and with Arabic subtitles."

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A rival broadcaster, Rotana—in which News Corp. holds a 9 percent stake—has a Fox Movie Channel, and since its commercial revenues "probably matter more to Prince Waleed than the dissemination of western ideas (MBC and Rotana—in which News Corp. holds a 9 percent stake—are in a bitter battle for market share) it is easy to understand why [three people whose named are redacted] believe that this programming is having a profound effect on the values and worldviews of Saudi audiences. During the recent Eid holiday, Rotana's 'Fox Movies' channel repeatedly aired two mawkish U.S. dramas (again with Arabic subtitles) featuring respectful, supportive American husbands dealing with spouses suffering from addiction problems—in one case gambling (lost the kids' college funds and then told her college professor husband it was because he was boring) and the other alcohol (smashing cars and china when she wasn't assaulting the husband and child.)"

Sounds rather cheesy. But hey, anything goes in the global war of ideas.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.