Chris Walker: climate protestors are blockading newspapers, but investors need to investigate cinema’s worrying censorship

Beware who owns ‘the Dream Machine” as Hollywood increasingly bends to propaganda

Who controls what we read was brought into sharp focus for Londoners last week as Extinction Rebellion deprived them of their morning newspaper. This was decried as a sad act against a dying industry, but this misses the point. In this increasingly digitalised age, content is actually more valuable than ever. Opinions are formed on the basis of it. At least who controls our news is openly discussed. Much more worrying is who controls our leisure. There’s an Asian Hornet in the Hollywood hive.

The protestors said they had blocked the printing of various British newspapers, because of “their failure to report accurately on climate change” and “their consistent manipulation of the truth to suit their…political agendas.”

Such censorship is never welcome. One person’s truth is another’s lie. It was also self-defeating as the Sun, the Murdoch family’s mass circulation UK newspaper, was actually carrying a major Op-Ed  that day by David Attenborough fighting climate change.

However, the protest did at least draw attention to who owns the press and forms public opinion. 

The Independent (who I wrote for) ran an intriguing poster campaign during the 2010 UK election – “Rupert Murdoch won’t decide this election. You will.” Good stuff, if sadly debateable. James Murdoch felt entitled enough to come into the office and berate the Editor in person.

His father, Rupert Murdoch famously told shareholders “there are no climate change deniers” in our company. He maybe needs to tell this to his outspoken Australian commentator Andrew Bolt who attacked politicians for saying carbon emissions needed to be cut “as if that would stop a fire. You’d have to be a child like Greta Thunberg to believe that fairy-tale.”

Frustration with this kind of coverage is what reportedly led James Murdoch to resign his directorship with News Corp last month. And it is true his Quadrivium Foundation, helped along by the $2 billion he netted from the sale of 21st Century Fox, seeks to combat climate change – while also doing quite a lot to decide the next US election (supporting Biden).

Critics of James Murdoch claim he’s no angel. When in charge of News Corp’s Asian operations according to The Conversation, a comment website, he is “remembered for his determination to gain access to the Chinese market by currying favour with the government.”  They say he accused Western media “of painting a falsely negative portrayal of China” and apparently he did tell Hong Kong’s democracy movement to “accept the reality of life under a strong-willed absolutist regime.”

This contrasts sharply with what Quadrivium is saying now: “There’s been a bet for a long time that economic liberalization would inevitably lead to political liberalization but it didn’t work out that way.“ Authoritarian regimes are using digital disinformation tactics and other high-tech weapons to undermine democracies.

How true. But I fear this is happening right at the centre not so much of media conglomerates’ newsrooms as in their movie studios. Disney (who have joined 21st Century Fox to their own brand) competes with Comcast (owners of Universal Pictures) AT & T (parent of Warner Brothers) and Sony (Sony Pictures). How is ESG good practice surviving this struggle?

Hollywood recently announced a new quota system for the Oscars aimed at addressing a lack of racial diversity. It is as convoluted and muddled as any set of covid-19 lockdown rules. By 2024 to be considered for best picture any movie must have at least one minority lead, and 30% of actors and production crew must come from ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community or the disabled. 

Quite how this will apply to historical movies is going to be interesting. As Deroy Murdock (note the K), who is himself black, asked in one of the Murdoch outlets – will a future movie about the Nazi elite be able to avoid casting a black Hitler or at least “a black Rudolf Hess?” Murdock argues that instead of a quota maybe “the best way to get (minorities) …more and better work…is to encourage studios to produce more movies that tell (their) stories.” Indeed.

At least there’s one US minority who need not fear their future job prospects. The movie houses are falling over themselves to cast Chinese actors in an effort to court the Chinese market. It used to be that the US market was the only one that really mattered, but in the first quarter of 2018 China surpassed the US in quarterly box office revenue for the first time. One (pre-pandemic) estimate suggests by 2023 the Chinese market will be worth $15.5 billion (nearly 40% more than the US last year). 

This is how Disney got into trouble a few days ago. As the credits rolled on its new blockbuster Mulan (which rewrites a Mongolian heroine as Chinese) sharp-eyed observers noticed the producers offering “special” thanks to the authorities in Xinjiang – that is the keepers of the notorious “re-education” camps for one million Muslims.

This is not a lone example. “Made in Hollywood censored in Beijing”, a report by Pen America should be read by every responsible investor in media stocks. It outlines a situation where Hollywood are “increasingly making decisions about their films….to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials who control whether their films gain access to the booming Chinese market.” They want a sanitized and positive image of China and its leaders carefully presented.

On the one hand this means censoring scenes for the Chinese market, or adding new ones in. Thus for example scenes in which Chinese characters are killed were cut completely from Mission Impossible III and the bond movie Skyfall.  While in Iron Man III a scene was added in where Chinese doctors heroically save Iron Man’s life. Fortunately, Quentin Tarantino had in his contract the right to refuse to cut scenes, so when China wanted the gentle ridiculing of Bruce Lee cut from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood they, for once, they didn’t get their way.

But this censorship goes further. According to Pen, the infamous North Korean hack of Sony executives’ emails in 2014, after The Interview, had the side effect of showing how normal self-censorship has become. A scene showing the destruction of the Great Wall of China was therefore deleted from the 2015 movie Pixels. One Sony executive reportedly said “if we only change the China version, we set ourselves up for the press to call us out.” You do indeed. Marvel studios (Disney) allegedly changed a major character in Dr Strange from being Tibetan to Celtic just to avoid Chinese anger.

Where might self-censorship end up? The Oscars new code would seem to be in direct contradiction with China’s wishes on LGBTQ equality for example. New Chinese guidelines issued in 2016 implore producers not to “exaggerate the dark side of society” which they seem to think includes gay relationships. Thus any gay scenes were cut from hit movie Bohemian Rhapsody in China. Will we soon get to a situation where they won’t be put in in the first place?

As Pen argue: “this level of influence over the world’s most significant storytelling industry is a problem.” 

In 2018 all censorship in China was centralized in the Central Propaganda Department CPD under Huang Kumming. 

Maybe in future he should concern us more than Rupert Murdoch.

Christopher Walker is a writer on business and politics. He sat for several years on the asset allocation committee of a major asset manager.