Rupert Murdoch Lecture: The 21st century: Comforting the Afflicted And Afflicting the Comfortable

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Lecture 6: The 21st century: comforting the afflicted. And afflicting the comfortable

The Oxford of Rupert Murdoch’s youth was one of the most privileged places on earth. But freedom and information have changed the order of things. On a global scale more people than ever are taking advantage of the revolution. And that’s how it should be.


Rupert Murdoch: For the last few weeks I have shared with you my thoughts about some of the important trends and currents crashing up against our world. I have spoken of the challenging but ultimately liberating impact of technology. I’ve spoken about my own industry’s need to adapt to an internet age by turning newspapers into news brands that have what all great papers have, the trust and confidence of their readers.

I have spoken about the urgent imperative of education reform, so that those without riches or connections can rise in society and build a better life for themselves and their families. And I’ve spoken about the tremendous competition generated by the entry into the global marketplace of billions of workers who have previously been isolated or cut off.

But these lectures are not about technology or newspapers or education or globalisation. These lectures are about people and what happens when human talent, ingenuity and ambition is given free rein. Over the past six decades, the unleashing of these creative energies has raised the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people, and I believe that the opportunities before us today are even greater and bringing us to a new golden age for humankind.

Across the world, poor societies are becoming rich, and rich societies are slipping. Nations from Russia and China to Venezuela and Iran are showing the world that they resent the global status quo, and as we are seeing they are challenging that status quo. Sometimes the choices these countries make leave the world more prosperous and stable, as in China’s decision to join the international marketplace. Sometimes the choices these countries make leave the world a little more dangerous, as in Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

In all these cases we are talking about big changes, and the cold truth is this; Australia is not preparing itself adequately for the challenges ahead. The reason for this is also clear; we are too comfortable, and when we are comfortable we are often willing to settle for less, so long as we don’t have to change how we do things. Some people who look at the changes going on elsewhere in the world will tell you that if Australia doesn’t do this or doesn’t do that, the consequences will be dire. I have a different message. In fact I am reasonably sure that the consequences will probably not be dire. In my mind, that’s the problem.

Today instant flows of information, the advance of trade and the rise of economies that reward risk and enterprise are all combining to create a world where the opportunities ahead would be greater than anything we’ve seen in human history. Will Australia take its place in this golden age, or will we settle for the bronze, just getting by? At this time in our history, the gravest threat to Australia’s freedom and prosperity does not come from war or terrorism, it comes from the comfort that can make us content.

Here is how I see it. In the 21st century, Australia’s open economy, free society and strategic location give us many advantages. They also give us a clear choice; Australia can be a model for the world, or we can be a land of squandered opportunity. That is the challenge we face. It is especially true for younger Australians.

As the chief executive of a media company that is engaged all over this world, I have some definite opinions about where the world is heading. My view of the world owes something to my upbringing in Melbourne. I was raised in a newspaper family by a father who believed that the newspaper was among the most important instruments of human freedom. In 1947 my father said that the press must be more than merely free, it must be fact-finding and truth-seeking to the limit of human capacity and enterprise.

My father also instilled in me some guiding principles that remain with me today. These principles and the experiences I have lived through continue to shape the way I look at the world. I was born into an Australia that was a firm part of a British empire on which the sun had not yet set. I lived in a Pacific where hundreds of millions suffered from terrible poverty and cruel dictators, and European colonialism, from Fiji to Malaya, was taken for granted. And I’m old enough to remember when sophisticated society held that these people were not fit for the democratic freedoms that we in Australia enjoyed; incidentally, a patronising idea not altogether dead yet in certain Western elites.

That old world may seem very far from the one you and I know today, but the truth is, the majority of the most profound changes that have taken place are relatively recent, and Australia’s own history attests to the dramatic change we are seeing, as borders diminish, as people claim their freedom and as technology allows people to communicate more cheaply and efficiently than ever before.

For younger listeners it must be hard to imagine what life was like just a few short decades back. You’ve grown up in a world where you can sit on a beach and ring a friend in Pakistan. With a click of a mouse you can send information to a mate on the other side of the world, and so long as you have access to the internet you can read about last night’s footy match before you go to bed in Los Angeles.

My experience had been very different. I grew up in an Australia that did not have a national newspaper until my company, with meagre resources, started one. Remember, this was not the Dark Ages, this was 1964. Yet even allowing for these problems, Australia was coming into her own. The turning point probably started with WWII. Those of you who lived through those days know what I am talking about. When Singapore fell I was ten years old. I remember how worried we all were for the Australians who were taken prisoner.

I also remember when General Macarthur arrived in Australia and made his famous vow to return to the Philippines. Partly I remember it because we moved out of our home in Melbourne so Macarthur’s staff could use it. As a child I saw the fear Australian’s experienced when the Japanese struck Darwin. More bombs were dropped there than at Pearl Harbour. At school we read about the exploits of the ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’, the ordinary people of New Guinea who risked their lives to help injured Australian troops down the Kokoda Trail.

I also remember some of the more politically incorrect moments. For example, in June 1942 the Japanese sent their midget submarines to attack Sydney. They did not accomplish much, sinking one unarmed ship, and I recall some people in Melbourne seemed amused by the thought of all those wealthy Sydneysiders seeing the value of their beachfront property plummet. Our intercity rivalry was even stronger in those days.

The war dragged on until the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. But the relief would be short-lived. In the 1950s we had the war in Korea. In the 1960s and 70s it was in Vietnam. In the 1980s, the Cold War still seemed to be going strong until President Reagan faced the Russians down. Now we have a war against radical Islamic terrorists that has been going on for years. Whatever the merits of these conflicts, Australia has been involved in all of them, and it still troubles me that our citizens do not seem to appreciate the sacrifices of those who serve in our armed forces, at least not the way they do in America. That too is another legacy we would do well to change.

But my larger point is that war is not unique to our time. What is unique is the expansion of freedom. In no other age has freedom advanced as far or as fast or in such unexpected places. Nowhere has freedom changed a neighbourhood as dramatically as it has ours. Before WWII the only other real democracy in our region was New Zealand, and many people thought that’s how it would always be. Even though Australia was geographically situated in the Pacific, back then we were never really part of the region. Instead, we were linked to Britain politically, economically and culturally.

Today all this has changed for the better. Japan went from a militaristic empire that threatened to invade us to a successful democracy that is a partner for peace. Up and down the Pacific, mothers and fathers who once knew only dictatorship and misery now have children who are growing up in freedom and prosperity. Businessmen who started out with small companies have made their brands globally known for quality and value. It’s easy to take these developments for granted, but back in the 1940s, anyone who dared predict this kind of future for the Asia Pacific region would have been dismissed as barking mad.

WWII was in many ways the transition point. Before that war, the imperial British Empire dominated the world, and when the British competed it was with other imperial European powers who had their own colonies in the region. After the war, America came to dominate the world by American power and might, yes, but more importantly by American ideals and the opportunity and optimism that America is associated with.

To my mind, Singapore is one of the more striking examples of this change. Before the war, Singapore was thought to be impregnable, an island fortress. Then the Japanese army came down the Malaya peninsula on bicycles. The loss of Singapore was devastating strategically to the allied war effort. But it was even more devastating psychologically for the whole idea of European colonialism.

British colonialism was in many ways successful. The British ruled with a light touch and they helped bring prosperity and the rule of law to those under its dominion. Still, at bottom, British colonialism was doomed, and it was doomed because it rested on an unsustainable proposition. This was the proposed superiority of the white man. In the long run that was untenable on its own, but when Singapore fell to Japan, the British lost more than an outpost, they lost their reigning myth, and the other European powers in Asia fared no better. This wasn’t obvious at first. Immediately after the war, the Europeans came back to Asia and resumed control in their former colonies. But independence movements were growing. Some were communists, some were nationalists, and all were eager to take their place in the world, and they believed that history had turned.

I was given an early taste of this in 1949 when my parents and I visited Singapore. We were on our way to Britain where I was to begin university. During the war, all Australians had known shortages and deprivation, but what I saw as a young man in Singapore then was my first introduction to real, gripping poverty. You could not guess this from looking at Singapore today. But even when I see the gleaming skyscrapers and shiny cars and well built housing, my mind turns back to the desperation and horror that was Singapore after the war. There was filth everywhere, mothers carrying their babies begged for food, thousands of people lived on the streets, not knowing where their next meal would come from. Then we went up to Malaya to visit the British Commissioner General for Southeast Asia, only to find him living in a virtual palace.

At the time I was too young to appreciate the tremendous changes on the horizon. Singapore, for example, has been successful in feeding their poor, housing their homeless and brilliantly educating the new generations. The irony is that its modern leaders seem to have some of the same worries for their city state that I do for Australia.

In the years after the war, America played a great role in ensuring that the great ferment in the Pacific would be channelled in a mostly peaceful direction. Unlike the British, they had no territorial ambitions. Unlike the British, the end of the war not exhausted but renewed, and unlike the British, the Americans were willing to put their democratic ideals into practice. That led to a wonderful paradox; the man who presided there with the defeat of imperial Japan, General Macarthur, would help midwife the rise of a democratic Japan.

And it worked. Within a few years, a newly democratic Japan was back on its feet and had become a global trading power. Japan’s success was soon followed by Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. Later Malaysia, Indonesia and others began to expand too. Even communist China, which suffered through starvation and chaos, began to open up. Then in the late 1970s their leader, a very practical man, was heard to say, ‘To get rich is glorious.’

It’s true that at different times some of these countries were led by home-grown dictators who treated their own people as bad as or worse than any colonial oppressors. But they opened up their economies for a practical reason. They understood that to survive, their nations had to be competitive on global markets. This was the first real hint of globalisation.

And as people in these countries moved from poverty into the middle class, they began demanding other freedoms as well. In places like Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines they succeeded. In other parts of Asia they are still working for it.

I was a very young man when the changes that transformed our world began, and I learned some important lessons from these changes. The first is that the greatest asset a nation has is not her natural resources. The greatest asset is her people. If a nation wants to advance, the most important thing is to unlock its human potential. The only way to do that is by giving your people the freedom they need to develop their talents and abilities.

If you look around the world, you see a stark truth; free countries prosper and unfree countries do not. It’s no coincidence that while the Soviet Union had some of the world’s best scientists, in a society where information did not flow freely they could never realise their potential. It is also not a coincidence that when people suffering under dictatorship began to see how others lived and then compared their lot with those people in free lands, they began to demand their own freedom, and in so doing they expanded the boundaries of the possible for their compatriots and neighbours.

The Oxford of my youth was one of the most privileged places in the world, yet it was a place that had many limits. When I wrote to my parents it would take a full week for the letter to arrive in Australia. Most people there, students as well as teachers, were white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males. For all our education, the prevailing outlook was narrow and provincial. Class distinctions still elevated the well-born at the expense of the talented. Above all, it was a culture that thought profit grubby and looked down on the world of business.

Across our world, millions of people are now entering university each year and enjoying things once limited to the very rich and well connected. Class distinctions are yielding to merit. Modern businesses are lining up with good jobs and good salaries for the talented. And far from looking down on business, many of today’s students dream of starting their own. That is what freedom and information do, they democratise privilege, taking what was once something enjoyed only by the elite and making it available to more and more people.

That is the reason why even the poorest student at a school in a poor country probably has access to email and can communicate with those far away more cheaply and more efficiently than I could ever to at Oxford. That is the reason that the son of a poor farmer in Vietnam decides he needs to learn English and does, and that is the reason the daughter of a shop owner in New Delhi sets about going to graduate school abroad and achieves her goal. Some people call this ambition, as if there’s something dirty about ambition. I think it’s a healthy thing.

In all societies, elites have a habit of trying to kick the ladder away from those trying to climb it. Now opportunity is almost universal, knowledge is everywhere, and a lot of it is free, and people who were once poor are taking advantage of these changes. One benefit of growing up poor and struggling to make good is that you are probably better prepared for the competition in a global economy, and you have a sense of optimism that you don’t lose when you suffer a setback or two.

For me, Australia will always be more than the land of my birth. It is the country that defined who I am, that gave me my first successes, and that still excites feelings of pride and gratitude in my heart. Today this land offers its people many more opportunities than it did when I was growing up. With so much talent, with so many advantages and with so much potential, I can think of no greater sadness for this century than an Australia that was willing to settle for just getting by.

There was something about this country and its people and its potential that Philip Gibbs, the British war correspondent, noticed when he came across Australian troops in France, where I had three uncles in the trenches. I would have loved to think that we have remained faithful to the qualities and quirks Gibbs described. This is how he put it: ‘They had no conceit of themselves in a little, vain way, but they reckoned themselves the only fighting-men, simply, and without boasting. I liked the look of them, dusty up to the eyes in summer, muddy up to their eyes in winter—these gipsy fellows, scornful of discipline for discipline’s sake, but desperate fighters, looking at life with frank, curious eyes, and a kind of humorous contempt for death and disease, and ‘the whole damned show’, as they called it.’

‘The whole damned show’ … we are all writing our own scripts for that show, and we should all, every woman and every man, look at life with frank, curious eyes and a kind of humorous contempt, and we should all take advantage of the opportunities that so many of those young Australians were denied so far from home. Thank you for having me.

Mohandas Gandhi

“Only as high as I reach can I grow, only as far as I seek can I go, only as deep as I look can I see, only as much as I dream can I be.”