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Dopo Murdoch


A pharaoh who cast his shadow over us for 30 years has fallen. His empire still functions. A grovelling PR apology of crocodile proportions may restore some of his influence. But the kind of power Rupert Murdoch exercised has been broken. We breathe a freer air in Britain. It is so surprising, it is hard to believe.

Here are some reflections on the culture Murdoch personified and the system of power he helped shape and has left behind in the UK.


Personally, Murdoch deserves his humiliation given the way he has treated others. Politically, to see the most powerful figure in British politics (a man able to enter Downing Street by the back door for secret meetings at will for over thirty years) lose his power is great for democracy and liberty. Economically, a ruthless advocate of the market system, an opponent of regulation and the welfare state, Rupert’s son James, sees his pivotal position being whisked from under him.


My delight in all this is tempered by a question. Is the speed of the Murdoch’s disgrace evidence of the strength, vitality and health of democracy in Britain or is it a confirmation of its crumbling weakness and accompanying hysteria? If the answer is a combination of both how do we ensure that the former predominates over the latter?




Murdoch traded on fear. He and his papers always sensed a weak point and were unscrupulous in exploiting it for the worse. He favoured war, polarisation, division, greed and sexism because they sold papers and gave him leverage.


We all knew about his hacking of celebrities, paying the police and intimidating MPs, threatening to work over their private lives if they tried to hold News International to account. We knew this especially thanks to the Guardian, its editor Alan Rusbridger who supported the investigations and Nick Davies, its key reporter, whose book Flat Earth News maps the wider degeneration of contemporary journalism. Yet many continued to buy News International papers - while those who spoke out against them were ghettoised. From the police to the BBC, critical stories were scorned, dismissed as merely the Guardian/Observer trying to ‘get at’ a man whose power represented the accepted status quo. Indeed, the prime minister has just told us that he was not in fact explicitly warned against taking his Director of Communications into Downing Street - a man who oversaw “a flourishing criminal conspiracy” when he was Editor of the News of the World - because, as he told the House of Commons, the information had already “been published in the Guardian”. So that doesn’t count then. Why, it might equally have appeared in that organ of truthfulness Private Eye!


I am compressing things here, which I’ll unpack when we come to the Prime Minister who should clearly resign. One of the reasons for David Cameron finally throwing the book at Murdoch is an attempt to save his own skin.


Cameron knew. We all knew. And yet much of the public and the political class continued to buy his papers and take them seriously. Murdoch and his employees took this for public as well as official support - or at least active permission for the way they behaved. It turns out to have been cowed acceptance.


Was it as simple as that? This is the interpretation offered by Tim Garton Ash in his Guardian column. He describes the appalling influence of News International on politicians of all parties and the shocking spinelessness of the police and concludes “the most plausible explanation boils down to fear”. Now, he continues, we are putting the “putrid quagmire” behind us and “the future looks brighter”. Out of this, “one of the most important crises in the British political system”, we can put in place a new settlement between politics and the media.


The problem with this analysis is that it turns all those who were running the state, the political parties, the police, the civil service, almost all MPs and the governments of the day, into the intimidated victims of News International. Murdoch’s dark empire frightened and suborned them into submission.


While I agree we are witnessing a crisis and a welcome democratic opportunity, this isn’t a plausible explanation of what has happened.


Murdoch’s dynamic hypocrisy


Murdoch is a warmonger. He is a man who sells wars. He learnt the profits of war in the Falkland conflict in 1982 and this bonded him to Margaret Thatcher. He applied this at a world level after 9/11. Not one of his 130 odd editors around the globe opposed the invasion of Iraq. He formed a triumvirate with Bush and Blair to back the invasion. Had his media been genuinely investigative (as is now claimed for News of the World) they’d have exposed the lies and disinformation in the lead up to Iraq. Instead, at Fox News especially, he helped create and disseminate them.


One of the profits of wartime alliance with leaders is their gratitude and access to official license. Although a leading advocate of market fundamentalism and hostility to state regulation, Murdoch was a welfare monopolist. His greatest skill was fixing deals with government, permitting him a market advantage.


This was the malevolent dishonesty at the heart of Murdochism. He was a close ally of state power who advocated hostility towards it. Worse, he was an ally of the most baleful and threatening aspects of state power, its police and security and the database state, while he attacked its best aspects, regulation, welfare, investment in and defence of the public interest.


His close relationship to power allowed his media to help ‘create reality’. This reinforced a belief that he was above the law. Being above the law is worse – more frightening and lethal – than being merely criminal. It means your crimes do not need to be secret and you can get away with them (see also Tony Blair). Armed criminals do not threaten the state’s monopoly of coercion. A mafia does.


Buying police was an aspect of this and police corruption is a huge part of the story in London. It is unlikely that the details will come out as much as they should. The British way of dealing with police corruption, if it can, is to retire the officers concerned and move on. The relationship of News International to the employment of criminals and ex-criminals was actively connived in by the police (and apparently also elements in the secret service). This is another example of News International double-standards. When it supported ‘our boys in blue’ its readers did not think this meant they were corrupting them.


Page three in the Sun is a daily example of Murdoch’s double standards. The supposed advocate of family values he was undermining them in the name of “good, clean fun” – ironically, what he hid behind the frankness of topless nudity was a use of women that was anything but honest.


In none of this, however, can it be said that he acted alone. His empire was not that of a tyrant built by conquest. In Britain he was more the agent of an Anglo-American elite than its master. In the UK in the 1970s they wanted to secure the newly oil-rich archipelago for finance-dominated globalisation and this meant breaking Britain’s post-war welfare state and its consensus politics. Murdoch was a crucial part of this. But he was a hired-hand, an energetic foreigner with few if any scruples, used to blast apart the ranks of a lazy, cosy elite and over-trade-unionised working classes.


Too much power


This influenced British opinion and its politics, including how people voted. I don’t agree with David Elstein that the influence of Murdoch’s papers didn’t have electoral outcomes. Murdoch’s press was a constant, shaping cultural pressure, direct and indirect. Even if mechanically assessing voting intentions is unable to measure this, priorities were set and political agendas shaped (just as I think the BBC influences voters).


Where I agree with Elstein is that the creation of satellite television was a creative move that increased plurality and quality competition. Opposition to the total takeover of BSkyB stemmed from fear that his monopolising this success would give his newspaper holdings an advantage, by combining a pay wall and cross-media integration into the BSkyB charging system. Probably, Murdoch was more interested in taking a wholly owned BSkyB out of the UK’s tax jurisdiction. And, of course, there was its potential Foxisation.


The battle over this became a symbol of a larger fightback over Murdoch’s influence within the oppressive, dehumanisation project of commercial media. He came to personify this. Ironically, the celebrity culture that he encouraged made him the bogyman for those who scorned it. Yet given his power and his son’s beliefs, the precautionary principle seemed more than reasonable to me. I opposed the BSkyB takeover as a citizen, which is why I argued, as soon as the Dowler revelation broke, that it was the Murdochs themselves, not their editors, who should be removed. Henry Porter put it simply and rightly on the Today programme. Murdoch had too much power and ought to have less, not more.


There is a kind of Masonic expertise amongst those who understand the intricacies of broadcasting law and its oversight and regulation, what this permits and doesn’t, which suggested a more nuanced view. But for all his brilliance and daring as a media mogul, Murdoch was a man who stood for bad things. That was the basis for my opposition to him. The feeling is strongly reinforced by James Murdoch. Thirty years of Rupert expanding his influence was bad enough. The prospect of a successful dynastic transition, with James in the saddle riding $2billion plus profits a year and shaping his media to his agenda was intolerable.


It feels strange, as if it is a hostage to fortune, to write about their power in the past tense.


The source of Murdoch’s power over Britain


Though hardly original or limited to him, Murdoch’s populism and celebration of the market were popular. They provided a genuine political attraction in a snobbish country without an honest constitution, where access to political power was an establishment game that relied on norms of paternalism and gentlemen’s rules.


Those who trade in fear live off the weakness of others. In the UK this informal, elitist constitution of ours while lauded as strong because flexible is in fact a weakness. Murdoch joined with Thatcher in exploiting its informality to expand their power and in the process further hollowed out its self-belief. They began to dismantle the old regime without any desire to replace it by anything other than themselves, the less regulated the better. The process continued under Tony Blair.


In 1945 the ‘absolute sovereignty of parliament’ meant the sovereignty of a genuine system: a politically interested monarch, a wealthy landed aristocracy in the House of Lords, a Commons that believed in itself that was voted in by mass-based parties, an independent civil service (without special advisors), the Church of England, and the last of empire. It was financially bust and had to be propped up by Marshall aid. But it had been re-forged by wartime Churchillism into a powerful system of consent.


Today it is easy for us to see the closed and undemocratic nature of its elitism and forget how deeply support for it penetrated the population, thanks to trade unions, a shared wartime experience and commitment to the creation of a welfare state and improving living standards. When this political edifice tottered in the crisis years of the seventies it needed an honest constitutional democracy to replace its closed shops with open associations that could have preserved its social democratic dynamism.


Instead, we had Thatcher. She shattered the closed shops, it should not be forgotten, of both the City of London and the union, with a free market ideology for which Murdoch was the foremost media propagandist (he had bought the News of the World in 1969 and the Sun in 1970, she enabled him to acquire the Times and Sunday Times in 1981). Their successful assault was permitted by the lack of constitutional safeguards, a lack they then preserved. This is why his papers are ferocious opponents of constitutional reform. The high point of the process came in 2003 when the absolute sovereignty of parliament became the absolute sovereignty of Tony Blair. Except that Blair needed Murdoch to achieve it.


The importance of this for the UK’s political culture may be hard to grasp, so here is an example to illustrate the wider point. In his sycophantic biography of Murdoch, William Shawcross asks the media mogul, known to be privately a republican, about the monarchy. Murdoch’s answer is revealing. He says, I am summarising from memory: “if you want to preserve such an obvious weakness that is fine by me”. It was like a bully praising an opponent for his cowardice. “Please keep your elitist, indefensible system as this means you will find it all the harder to regulate and govern me!” (Only he didn’t say “please”.)


From the eighties onwards the clash between Murdoch-Thatcher-and-Blair and the traditional British Establishment was a conflict between two non-democratic forces. The mandarin elite of the old regime was undermined by the grasping opportunism of the global capitalism Murdoch represented. A decisive section of the ambitious middle and upper classes preferred the modernisation Murdoch offered to the restrictions of the old regime. Together the rising, media-savvy politicians, policy advisors, PR consultants along with editors and proprietors formed a ‘political class’ that pushed aside the old establishment. But there was a refreshing aspect to this. It did raise people’s game. It did bring wealth and growth with it, however unbalanced and unequal. Britain was in a crisis in the 1970s. It badly did (and still does) need to change (but not in the way Murdoch advocated). It remains appallingly elitist.


It is not the case that a good, honourable system was tyrannised over by an incoming authoritarian. A decayed, elite system that refused to democratise itself embraced modernisation from outside to preserve its privilege.