Friday, 4 September 2020

Book review: Rupert’s Adventures in China, Bruce Dover (2008)

I bought this book at an op shop in Fairy Meadow while out of town. My apartment was on the market and I wanted to avoid mussing up the place and making more work for myself in advance of buyer inspections.

I’m having trouble working out why the cover was made the way it was but it’s not a fatal flaw: the book is informative and entertaining, having been written by an executive in Rupert Murdoch’s employ during years when Murdoch was trying to gain entry to the Chinese pay-TV market. Dover was therefore, for much of the time in question, close to the source of the events that allowed him to produce material for his story.

It’s interesting for two reasons. On the one hand it provides an indication for the curious spectator of how Murdoch runs his businesses. On the other hand – and just as importantly – the book shows how the Chinese Communist Party worked with overseas businesses in the later part of last century and the first years of this one. Before the Great Firewall and the emergence of native social media sites. The situation has changed dramatically since the time covered by Dover, but reading the book at least you get some idea of how the mechanisms of governance in the Middle Kingdom work.

I won’t disclose the reason why Rupert Murdoch decided to pull out of the Chinese market other than to say it was about access. Murdoch is famous for his love of the media business, and he’s been successful in many global markets because of his ability to make the system work in his favour and by delivering a kind of content for which there was a market that wasn’t being filled. But in China he came up against a different set of principles, and this eventually did it for him.

Because the book is full of dramatic vignettes – bits of stories inserted into the larger narrative to illustrate salient points – you are able to get a feel for Murdoch’s business in a way that a report in a newspaper or on the home page of a stock exchange could not deliver. The different threads of the narrative – involving such issues as political freedom, China’s emergence as a major economy, the role of the media in a pluralistic democracy, and Murdoch’s own character – come together to form a rich tapestry full of primary and secondary significations. Dover’s book is more than just a documentary account of a business failure, it’s a mine of information about the Middle Kingdom.

While at times the writing can be a bit long-winded and continuity might have been improved – as if it were a feature article being written, rather than a book – it’s a lot of fun to read, and it’s informative on all counts mentioned earlier in this review. Highly recommended, though a bit more attention paid to proofs might’ve improved the final product.

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