(*With apologies to John Le Carre) A bill to expel the massively popular TikTok from the United States unless it cuts its ties to its Chinese owner, ByteDance, has gained unprecedented political momentum. Shrill arguments in favor of the legislation trumpet a need for national security. Foreign ownership of this social media site, they exclaim, is an urgent threat. However, the national security claim obfuscates the real reason behind the campaign against TikTok. A brief historical review of how the US has deployed foreign ownership strictures in communications helps clarify the situation.

The 1934 Communications Act carried over and cemented provisions in place to cover broadcast media, telecommunications and aeronautical media licensees.[1] Foreigners were barred from owning more than a minority interest 25% – in US radio licensees.[2]  These strictures have endured, though with a notorious exception. 

This departure came under Republican President Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The beneficiary was Rupert Murdoch. In 1985, the FCC allowed Murdoch – on the verge of exchanging Australian for US citizenship – and his Australian News Corporation to purchase seven large US broadcast stations.[3]

Murdoch’s track-record was already plain. He had attacked journalists’ and printers’ unions and -infamously – intervened strongly in his newspaper’s supposedly independent editorial decisions to help ensure that Labor Party Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was not re-elected in 1975.[4] His newspapers had contributed mightily to the rise of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, actively pushing both journalism and politics to the right. And his representation before the FCC was deceptive.[5] Nevertheless, citing a need for “competition,” Reagan’s FCC granted Murdoch a right to enter US major-market broadcasting. This paved the way for him to establish the Fox Broadcasting Network (1986) and, with the aid of the vicious right-winger Roger Ailes, to roll out Fox News a decade later. In 1995, its original decision under challenge from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Murdoch meanwhile having covertly built up his stake in these broadcast properties to 99 percent, a now-Democratic FCC reaffirmed its earlier decision and permitted him to continue owning them.[6] Murdoch is our kind of villain.