BBC inquiry dismisses Rupert Murdoch complaints about documentary series

Rupert Murdoch has largely lost a year-long dispute with the BBC after he objected to a documentary series that “implied he posed a threat to liberal democracy”.

Murdoch’s News UK business complained that a BBC Two documentary unfairly suggested the Australian-born media mogul “exercised malign political influence” through his ownership of news outlets. It said the BBC programme was biased and failed to give enough weight to more positive appraisals of Murdoch’s career.

In particular, News UK objected to the lack of coverage of Murdoch’s financial successes in the world of business, which might have led viewers to reach a different conclusion about the relative success of his career.

Although criticisms of Murdoch’s impact on the media industry around the world are common, it is rare for him to pursue an objection to such coverage through a complaints process.

The three-part series, entitled The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, was first broadcast in July 2020 but the BBC’s internal editorial complaints unit has only just ruled on whether its content met the public broadcaster’s standards.

It dismissed most of News UK’s objections that the documentary was unfair because it gave too much weight to Murdoch’s opponents, gave too much credence to the views of people associated with the press regulation campaign Hacked Off, or that the programmes substantially misrepresented the scandal that led to the closure of the News of the World.

“Some contributors did express concern about the nature of Mr Murdoch’s influence, but it was a matter of personal opinion, which individual contributors were entitled to express, and not a basis for inferring an editorial line on the part of the programme makers,” the BBC investigation concluded.

However, the complaints unit did find in Murdoch’s favour on one aspect. They accepted that the documentary went too far in implying that a series of tabloid “sleaze” stories in the Murdoch-owned Sun and News of the World, exposing the private lives of Conservative MPs in the run up to the 1997 general election, were related to Murdoch’s decision to back Tony Blair’s New Labour. The version of the documentary that is still available on the BBC iPlayer service has been re-edited to remove this section.

The three-part documentary focused heavily on Murdoch’s private life and the internal family rows involving his wives and children, including archive footage of him with his young family. Although many of the individuals interviewed were critical of Murdoch, it also included commentary from some former his former editors and executives.

The series also had repercussions elsewhere in the world. The BBC’s own Australian channel, which is broadcast on the Murdoch-owned Foxtel network, chose not to air the programme but denied this was due to its relationship with Murdoch’s business.

Instead, the rights to show the programme in Murdoch’s home country were bought by the public broadcaster ABC, which, like the BBC, is a frequent target of Murdoch-owned news outlets.

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