Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Understanding Rupert Murdoch from an Evolutionary Perspective

Posted 19 Jul 2011 / 0

If you have been following the news at all this summer, you are undoubtedly aware of the recent phone hacking scandal at The News of the World, a tabloid newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s [1, 2, 3] global media empire, News Corporation. For those of you who missed it, here is what happened: reporters from The News of the World were discovered to have hacked into the phones of celebrities in order to get scoops on various salacious news stories. While the scandal had been simmering for almost four years, it boiled over when it was discovered that reporters had hacked into the cell phone voicemail of a missing girl who later turned up murdered. The reporters had gone so far as to delete voicemail messages to free up more space, giving the family of the missing girl false hope that she was still alive. Since these allegations came to light, it has been discovered that police officers provided the numbers of crime victims, politicians, and even the royal family in exchange for bribes. In the midst of an exploding scandal, Rupert Murdoch made an unprecedented decision to permanently shutter The News of the World, the leading Sunday periodical in Britain.

Although I pride myself on taking a very broad view of ecology and evolution, I am also proud of my track record of keeping this blog on topic. So by now you may be asking yourself “what does the Rupert Murdoch phone scandal have to do with evolution?”.

When evolutionary biologists observe an entity performing a behavior, they seek to understand what benefit that entity derives from that behavior. While we have been cautioned against reading function into every trait (Gould and Lewontin 1979), the essence of evolutionary thinking is to ask why a behavior exists based on its possible function.

Why in the world would a very powerful news entity like The News of the World take such tremendous risks just to get a gossip-column scoop? And why would the owner of this news entity, Rupert Murdoch, kill off this influential paper in response to this scandal? I think that evolutionary thinking has the unique potential to answer these questions.

The usual answer to such questions has nothing to do with evolution and everything to do with an explanation often applied to Murdoch: greed. Getting the juicy tabloid scoop leads to more newspaper sales which leads to more advertising revenue — case closed. But does the “Murdoch is greedy for money” explanation really hold water. Many news outlets and even Murdoch himself have been quick to point out that The News of the World represented only a tiny fraction (less than 1% by most accounts) of the revenue stream for Murdoch’s News Corporation, so it seems unlikely that money alone can answer either of these questions.

I would suggest that the reason that such risky illegal and immoral behavior was tolerated by Murdoch and his underlings has to do with culture, not money. If you look at Murdoch’s business dealings it is clear that he is a shrewd businessman who knows how to make money in media. But is he in media to make money or does he make money to be in media? I think that it is the latter: Murdoch’s main goal is to exert a cultural influence, and being filthy rich is just a means to that end. Why else would Murdoch have paid a huge sum of money for MySpace, the once-culturally-influential social networking site that never managed to make any money? Why else would Murdoch have focused so heavily on being in media rather than other lucrative markets? And why would Murdoch tolerate such risk-taking at his papers?

The phone hacking scandal that caused The News of the World to implode underscores how intense the competition is to be the first to break news. The source that breaks the news is the one that gets public attention, and if breaking the law leads to a scoop it is worth the risk given the incredible cultural payoff that comes from being first. Interestingly, Murdoch’s newspapers have specialized in stories without a lot of global importance: bloody murders, personal tragedies, and the lives of the rich and famous. Murdoch seems to have hypothesized that gossip is of primary importance to human beings well before scholarship by the likes of Robin Dunbar [1, 2] lent empirical support to this hypothesis. And Murdoch’s good guess about what people want in their media has paid off culturally: while the readers and viewers flock to the salacious stories, Murdoch media outlets have adeptly inserted stories on more consequential topics like business and politics that reflect a very coherent and consistent cultural worldview. So while The News of the World may not have provided much in the way of monetary payoff, it provided unfathomable cultural influence. As further details emerged in this scandal, it has become increasingly clear that Murdoch’s control of the headlines allowed him to exert strong influence on politicians. News power yields a double cultural payoff, as it buys direct cultural influence on its audience and indirect cultural influence through its power over policy-makers. That Murdoch was willing to so abruptly cut the paper loose only reinforces this assessment of its importance: what had once been the cornerstone of his cultural influence became a supreme liability in the light of this scandal, so taking a financial loss on the closing of the paper was superior to allowing further bleeding out of Murdoch’s cultural credibility.

Murdoch is among a handful of ultra-powerful people who doggedly pursue cultural fitness. Whereas a rich and powerful man might have in the past prospered genetically by siring dozens or even hundreds of offspring, modern power is seated in the ability to control culture. The product of wealth today is cultural not biological success.

The last evolutionary insight that I can shed on the unraveling of The News of the World is that it is very hard — despite Murdoch’s best attempts — for any one person to control the cultural landscape. This is because culture, like biology, is arranged at many levels. A single human holds little cultural or biological sway, but large groups of humans exert major influence. A media conglomerate like News Corporation represents the pinnacle of this sort of influence, as tens of thousands of employees work together to produce worldwide news consumed by hundreds of millions of people. And while Murdoch has done his best to be the lone individual controlling that massive social entity, this recent scandal demonstrates how hard it is for even a very rich, very powerful, and very motivated individual to maintain control of a massive social group. Top-down management may not work all that well, and most of the processes that influence where culture — and thus our species — is going emerge not from the attempts of a few powerful people to control things at the top, but from the emergent properties of the many large groups to which we belong.

Cultural Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Memetic Fitness, Multilevel Selection

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