“Most humble day”: the Murdoch empire on the defensive

Issue: 134
Posted: 27 March 12

John Newsinger

Rupert Murdoch’s enforced appearance before the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport on 19 July 2011 was an unprecedented humiliation. It signified the eclipse, at least temporarily, of his political influence in Britain. And this was at a time when his power seemed to have become greater than ever. While both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had willingly subordinated themselves to Murdoch and tailored their policies to fit his business agenda, under David Cameron it looked as if his influence was about to climax. The coalition government was all set to wave through his takeover of BSkyB, savage cuts had been imposed on the BBC at Murdoch’s request and he was to be given entry into the potentially extremely lucrative area of state education with a planned academy (hilariously specialising in “journalism”) in Newham. And, of course, at Cameron’s elbow was his Director of Communications, the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Even Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, not someone exactly renowned for standing up to the government, felt driven to publicly warn of the danger of “a concentration of media power in the UK that’s unheard of in British history and unheard of anywhere else in Europe…extraordinary power”.1 Britain seemed well on the way to becoming a fully-fledged “Murdochracy” on the Australian model.2 The hacking scandal has wrecked all of this and put the Murdoch empire on the defensive.

As the criminal activities of Murdoch’s newspapers were exposed to the light of day, politicians who had once courted the man ran for cover. They either condemned his influence (although without ever acknowledging its full extent) or, more usually, remained silent and refused to come to his aid. David Cameron, for example, actually sent an emissary to apologise to his good friend, Rebekah Brooks, for his inability to stand by her. Even David Blunkett, who had always found Murdoch “very reasonable”, failed to come to the defence of his benefactor. When Blunkett was forced to resign from Blair’s cabinet in November 2005, he went straight to a meeting with Murdoch for “a pleasant drink”. Murdoch offered him a consolatory column in the Sun worth £150,000 a year!3

Indeed, Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, seems to have been the only senior politician prepared to speak up for Murdoch in public. At a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference in early October 2011 Gove enthusiastically declared his admiration for Murdoch, who was “a force of nature, a phenomenon; he’s a great man.” Of course, Gove is generally regarded as an idiot, a political lightweight, someone not to be taken too seriously, so his endorsement was not particularly useful. It had as much political weight as his later call for the Queen to be given a new £60 million royal yacht as part of the Jubilee celebrations!4 More privately, Tony Blair is believed to have interceded on behalf of his good friend Rupert, urging the Labour Party to restrain Tom Watson, the MP most responsible for Murdoch’s humbling. Such manoeuvring was too late, however. The crisis had escaped out of control.

Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch started out on the left, according to his biographer, William Shawcross. When he was at school, Geelong Grammar, Australia’s Eton, he had attacked big business, defended trade unionism and advocated socialism and later when he was a student at Oxford joined the Labour Club. The young Rupert had a bust of Lenin in his room. Indeed, at the time, his father, Keith, an Australian newspaper magnate, was actually worried about his son’s politics.5 This leftism was only temporary, of course, but Murdoch’s trajectory to the right was a gradual affair. When he bought the Sun newspaper from the TUC in 1969, he kept it on the left politically, supporting Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, indeed sometimes appearing to the left of Wilson. In his first issue Murdoch famously promised readers that “the new Sun will still be the paper that CARES”. It was to be a paper “that cares—passionately—about truth and beauty and justice…that cares about people. About the kind of world we live in. And about the kind of world we would like our children to live in.”

The new paper continued to support Labour, endorsing Wilson in the 1970 general election, and it even supported the miners in the great strike of 1972. The paper opposed hanging, racism and the Vietnam War, and condemned the honours system. As late as October 1974 it still described itself as “a radical newspaper. All our instincts are Left rather than Right”.6 This stance seems to have reflected Murdoch’s own views at the time: that the Labour Party’s modernising reformism was compatible with, indeed, actually furthered the interests of big business, particularly his own interests. And he had established friendly relations with Harold Wilson, although at this time his power was not such as to be able to dictate to politicians. The Daily Mirror still outsold the Sun. Although some commentators argue that Murdoch has always supported whoever is in power, this is not true. He never gave his support to the 1970-4 Tory government under Ted Heath.

Murdoch’s support for Labour in Britain was mirrored in Australia where he threw his newspapers behind the Labor Party leader, Gough Whitlam. According to David McKnight in his recent political biography of Murdoch, in the 1972 general election Murdoch “was in almost daily touch with the Labor campaign team and Whitlam’s office. He wrote draft speeches for Whitlam, gave public relations advice and played a major role in planning the last week of Labor’s television advertising blitz… On the night of Whitlam’s final campaign speech, Murdoch dined with him”.7 He donated $75,000 to the Labor campaign fund and helped rally business support for Whitlam.

What changed Murdoch’s political allegiance was the state of the class struggle. The 1974 miners’ strike and the subsequent failure of the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments successfully to curb the trade unions led to his embrace of Margaret Thatcher in Britain. In Australia, by 1975, his newspapers were campaigning vigorously against the Whitlam government that he had helped bring to power. The one-sided viciousness of the assault on the Australian Labor Party provoked protest strikes by both journalists and printers and, for a while, dockers in Perth refused to handle his newsprint supplies.8 The Murdoch press called on the governor-general, Sir Hugh Kerr, to dismiss Whitlam and it is widely believed, although never proven, that Murdoch personally intervened to urge this course of action. The overthrow of Gough Whitlam was described by Victor Marchetti, a former CIA officer, as “a Chile, but a much more sophisticated and subtle form”.9

And in the US, Murdoch found that he had a great deal in common with Richard Nixon. He regarded press exposure of the Watergate scandal as “adversarial journalism” at its worst. The “liberal media” might well have succeeded in “crucifying Nixon, but the last laugh would be on them. See how they liked it when the Commies took over the West”.10 It is interesting to note that his crucifying of Whitlam, which was based on lies, smears and fabrications (one Labor MP described him with admirable restraint as “a lying perjuring pimp”),11 was perfectly acceptable whereas the truths that brought down Nixon were absolutely out of order and would presumably have never been touched by the Murdoch press.

Andrew Neil has characterised Murdoch’s politics in this period as “a combination of right wing Republicanism from America mixed with undiluted Thatcherism from Britain… The resulting potage is a radical-right dose of free market economics, the social agenda of the Christian Moral Majority and hardline conservative views on subjects like drugs, abortion, law and order and defence.” He is, Neil insists, “much more right wing than is generally thought”.12 Murdoch was a fervent supporter of Ronald Reagan, even siding with Reagan against Thatcher on the few occasions they disagreed. He was much less enamoured of George Bush Senior, who he regarded as too moderate by far. In 1988 Murdoch supported the radical right wing populist Pat Robertson against Bush in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination and in the 1992 presidential election he did not vote for the incumbent Bush, but for the right wing hardliner Ross Perot. Murdoch’s key role on the neoconservative
right in the US in the 1990s and 2000s has been admirably charted by David McKnight.13

The phantom prime minister

Murdoch enthusiastically supported Thatcher in the 1979 general election with the Sun campaigning for her within the working class. Thatcher personally attended Sun editorial meetings and the paper’s editor, Larry Lamb (he was subsequently knighted for services rendered), was actively involved in helping run the Tories’ election campaign. Once she was installed in power, Murdoch gave her his full unstinting support. In return, he was rewarded with favours that advanced his business interests and further increased his political influence. In 1981 Murdoch was allowed to take over the Times and the Sunday Times without reference to the Monopolies Commission, one of the most blatant political favours in modern British history. This favour was to be repeated in 1990 when he took over British Satellite Broadcasting, creating BSkyB, once again without any reference to the Monopolies Commission. Murdoch’s political influence was worth billions to him.

The Murdoch press wholeheartedly supported the Falklands War, with the Sun, in particular, revelling in its own brand of murderous jingoism. Indeed, its bloodthirsty excesses were such that on a number of occasions disgusted servicemen ritually burned the paper or threw it overboard. The paper’s much vaunted “support for our boys” was completely bogus, a way of selling papers and an opportunity to attack the left. Indeed, its attack on anyone to the left of Thatcher would, in Simon Jenkins’ words, “have made Senator McCarthy blush”. The depths of the particular gutter the paper inhabited were shown when it faked an interview with the widow of Victoria Cross recipient Sergeant Ian McKay. All this time the Sun’s eulogising of Thatcher was every bit as fulsome as might be expected from the state-controlled press of a petty dictatorship. Thatcher, the Sun proclaimed, “has proved herself far more than the Iron Lady. She has been Britannia come to life”.14 The man behind the Sun’s ultra-Thatcherite incarnation was Kelvin MacKenzie, to whom we will return.15

Inevitably, the Murdoch press enthusiastically supported the government during the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. For Murdoch, this was not just news, but a crucial battle in the attempt to break the power of the British trade union movement, a battle in which he was very much a participant. On two occasions Sun attacks on the miners provoked action by the print workers, who exercised what Sean Tunney has described as “the industrial right of reply”.16 When the paper carried front pages headlined “Mine Fuhrer” and “Scum of the Earth” (aimed at, respectively, miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and the strikers), the printers blacked the copy and in the instance of the “Scum of the Earth” shut the paper down for four days. The National Union of Journalists chapel at the Sun overwhelmingly supported Murdoch’s right to slander the miners. The print workers insisted they did not wish to censor the paper but only to obtain the right of reply for the trade union movement.17 In the course of the miners’ strike trade unionists in Fleet Street donated over £1 million to their cause. There was a widespread belief that if the miners lost, the print workers would be next.18

Without any doubt, for Murdoch defeating the miners was absolutely vital. While the Times urged the ruling class to carry the fight through to complete victory, the Sun played the role of a “scab” newspaper within the working class, opposing solidarity and celebrating the “heroism” of men crossing the picket line. Indeed, “Sun reader” became a popular taunt flung at scabs. But did Murdoch’s role go beyond this? Eric Hammond, the right wing general secretary of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU), was actively involved in helping Thatcher fight the miners by assisting the scab Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM). He was already helping Murdoch get ready to take on the print unions, and approached him for funds for the UDM. In his memoirs Hammond, who positively relishes his role as the biggest scab in British trade union history, remembers:

having lunch in London at Maxim’s with Roy Lynk, general secretary of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, and Joe Godson, now dead, who was a shadowy and influential figure between the British and American trade unions. I could never prove it, of course, but Joe always seemed to me to be some kind of spook. Joe wanted me to ask Murdoch for £250,000 for the UDM to bolster its recruitment campaign… I passed on the request to Murdoch.19

Hammond did not think anything came of the request, but David McKnight’s account of Murdoch’s activities suggests that this needs further investigation. David Hart, the right wing businessman behind the UDM, “had used his credentials as a Times correspondent to gain access to mining districts, politically organising dissident miners and reporting personally to Thatcher. Travelling in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes, he overcame the non-striking miners’ initial suspicions ‘with cash and force of personality’.” And in his Times column he urged the government to stand firm: “The miners’ union must be crushed ruthlessly: ‘Nothing short of victory’ said one column.” After the miners’ strike Murdoch was to continue to fund Hart’s activities on the far right of the Conservative Party. As McKnight insists, “his secret financing of ultra-Thatcherite activists” clearly demonstrates that for Murdoch “politics is equally as important as business”. Indeed, it also suggests “that Murdoch’s role in British politics has been far more extensive than his biographers and even his critics have acknowledged”.20

Throughout this period Murdoch and Thatcher had a “special relationship…which symbolised the cooperation of powerful political actors with economic and cultural actors in order to encourage and nurture a mutually beneficial social order”.21 So close was this relationship, so dependent did Thatcher become on Murdoch’s support, that the editor of the Times, Charles Douglas Home, himself the nephew of a former Conservative prime minister, could claim without fear of contradiction that “Rupert and Mrs Thatcher consult regularly on every important matter of policy”; this was especially true “as they relate to his economic and political interests”. Indeed, Douglas Home went on: “Around here he is often jokingly referred to as ‘Mr Prime Minister’. Except that it’s all no longer all that much of a joke. In many respects he is the phantom prime minister of the country.” At the anniversary party celebrating her decade in power Murdoch was one of the five people seated at her table, a symbolic acknowledgement of his importance to the Thatcherite project.22 Sometimes Murdoch’s views were even too extreme for her to stomach. He was strongly in favour of Britain holding on to Hong Kong and suggested telling “the Chinese that there’s a Trident submarine off their coast: if the Red Army moves into Hong Kong they should be left in no doubt that we’ll nuke Beijing”.23

Wapping

This is not the place for a history of the Wapping strike.24 What is useful, however, is to consider what it tells us about Murdoch’s influence in Britain and his relations with the police. One crucial concern that Murdoch had about taking on the print unions was policing. According to Andrew Neil, the only reason Murdoch did not do a “Wapping” at his prize US newspaper, the New York Post, was his fear that “he could not count on the New York police in a violent dispute”. There were no such fears regarding the readiness of the Metropolitan Police to play the role of strikebreaker for as long as it took. Indeed, “before the dispute began Rupert Murdoch had personally visited Margaret Thatcher to seek assurances that enough police would be available… She assured him there would be”.25

Murdoch’s go-between with Thatcher was a particularly contemptible ex Labour MP, Woodrow Wyatt, a man who turned sycophancy into something approaching an art form. Wyatt’s diaries provide dramatic evidence of the extent of police collusion with Murdoch’s plan to sack his workforce and replace them with scabs courtesy of the EETPU. On 18 January 1986 he recorded that Murdoch was in “great spirits”. The Wapping plant was ready and the police were prepared: “They had their riot shields stored in a warehouse nearby and every now and again a police helicopter came over to see that there was no trouble.” The strike, however, did not begin until 24 January. There could not be a better demonstration of the extent to which the police were a party to the deliberate provoking of a strike in order to provide an opportunity for mass sackings. In many countries this would have been some sort of scandal. Wyatt assured him that the unions would soon admit defeat.26

The strike was to last 54 weeks. The policing operation, Operation Gold, was to cost £14 million with an average of 300 police on duty at the plant every day rising to over 1,000 on 12 occasions. For the duration of the strike Wapping was the most heavily policed area in the country with local residents having their freedom of movement curtailed so that Murdoch’s scabs could come and go. The police had plastic bullets ready if necessary. By the time the strike ended there had been 1,500 arrests and numerous episodes of police violence and brutality. Murdoch has always had a close relationship with his friends in the police. The Met’s reputation as, in Jonathan Freedland’s words, “the outsourced security department of News International”, goes back a long way.27 Along with the provision of police, the Thatcher government’s anti trade union legislation played a vital part in the defeat of the print unions, something that Murdoch never forgot.

Wyatt was not just useful as an intermediary with Thatcher; he also introduced Murdoch to the leadership of the EETPU. The man Murdoch brought in to manage the Wapping operation, Christopher Pole Carew, had wanted to recruit non-union scabs, but Murdoch was persuaded by Wyatt that there was something to be gained bringing the EETPU on board. This created the appalling spectacle of a trade union recruiting men to work at Wapping and as part of the interview procedure seeking assurances that they would be prepared to cross picket lines! What Hammond hoped for was recognition of the EETPU, but once the print workers had been defeated, he got the scabs’ reward. Wapping was to be non-union. In Andrew Neil’s words, “Hammond had outlived his usefulness”.28

But, according to Hammond, Murdoch was not altogether without a conscience, at least “with regard to one of our members”. Tom Rice, the EETPU official who had been in charge of the scab operation, was feeling the strain and so Hammond asked Murdoch to do something for him. Once he had taken early retirement from his union job, he “was put in charge of Murdoch’s Irish operations”.29 As for the journalists employed on Murdoch’s papers, they were offered a £2,000 pay rise to cross the picket lines and with the Sun’s journalists leading the way, the great majority proceeded to scab. As it happens, Murdoch had been prepared to go as high as £6,000, so they were not just scabs; they were cheap scabs.

In many ways the defeat of the print unions was a life and death matter for Murdoch. He had already committed the increased profits he hoped to realise through the move to Wapping to expansion in the US. Failure would have left News International dangerously exposed. Instead he successfully cut his wage bill by some £45 million with an accompanying dramatic increase in profits from £39.1 million in 1985 to £98.3 million in 1987 and £165 million in 1988.

The politics of the Sun

While the Times carries Murdoch’s views to the British political elite (this is why he subsides its losses), the Sun has always been the key to his political influence in Britain. Quite correctly, much of the left has been sceptical of the Sun’s claim to have won the 1992 general election for John Major, but it will not do to ignore the paper’s influence. The Sun has been regularly used as a means of character assassination and reputation destruction. This was certainly Neil Kinnock’s fate in 1992, when he was the victim of one of the most sustained campaigns of vilification in modern political history. This victimisation has, of course, also been the fate of many “celebrities” and also, it is worth remembering, many ordinary people.

The callous, insensitive, gratuitous cruelty of the Sun and its journalists is often quite staggering. Two examples from hundreds: in 1989 the Sun branded a five year old disabled boy “THE WORST BRAT IN BRITAIN” with a story that was a complete fabrication but that led to his mother being spat at in the street and to death threats. Her complaints led to her being threatened by the Sun’s lawyers.30 And earlier that year the Sun had libelled the people of Liverpool as its response to the Hillsborough disaster, when police incompetence cost the lives of 95 Liverpool fans. The claim that fans urinated on the police and robbed the dead and dying were, as Chippindale and Horrie put it, “a classic smear”. Sun sales in the Merseyside region fell by 38 percent. Incredibly, the paper’s editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, kept his job. It was widely believed at Wapping that “Murdoch affectionately referred to MacKenzie as ‘My Little Hitler’.”31

One other aspect of the Sun’s influence is too often neglected, however. This is the extent to which it sets out to empower the backward sections of the working class, the scabs, the racists, the homophobes, all those most opposed to the working class taking on the bosses. Since the miners’ strike, but reaching a crescendo at the time of the Wapping strike, the Sun celebrated the scab as a working class hero, as the man who stood up to the union bullies and dared to cross the picket line. Indeed, for a while after the Wapping strike, if you wanted to get into the Sun all you had to do was strikebreak in order to find yourself publicly lionised. The militant opposition to the current government’s attack on public sector pensions has actually led to an attempted revival of this tradition. In the run-up to the 30 November 2011 strike the Sun celebrated a brave headteacher, Rachel de Souza, who was going to stand up to the “union bully boys” and keep Ormiston Victory Academy open. The paper boasted that former soldiers were being sent in to break the strike (accompanied by a picture of an armed soldier in combat gear!) and that local police were helping out along with a number of West End stars.32

The architect of the Sun’s ideological offensive within the working class was the former public schoolboy Kelvin MacKenzie. In his biography of Murdoch, William Shawcross, who has great admiration for the man, nevertheless finds MacKenzie a bit difficult to stomach. In fact, he makes it pretty clear that he regards MacKenzie as something you would wipe off your shoe. He quotes a former senior Sun journalist on MacKenzie’s “violently right wing views and hatred for what he called ‘fucking foreigners’.” His own judgement is that MacKenzie’s “natural bullying instinct gave him a sure grasp of those groups in society which could be abused with relative impunity. These groups constituted what was known as his ‘scum agenda’.” The list was quite extensive: students, trade unionists, most black people, homosexuals, peace campaigners, protesters, social security claimants, Gypsies, most foreigners, drug addicts, criminals, especially sex offenders, and so on. On one occasion, MacKenzie provided a revealing description of the reader the Sun was targeting: “He’s the bloke you see down the pub—a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he’s afraid of the unions, he’s afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and weirdos”.33 Of course, not all Sun readers fit this stereotype, far from it; rather these were the people the paper hoped to empower. And, contrary to Shawcross’s estimation, MacKenzie sometimes got it spectacularly wrong. The Sun’s attempt to destroy Elton John, waging an absolutely relentless campaign of lies and slander against the man because of his sexuality, backfired. It cost the paper £1 million in an out of court settlement.

While MacKenzie’s homophobia seems beyond dispute, he has denied being a racist. This, as Chippindale and Horrie point out, would have brought “a wry smile from execs” who had heard him dismiss the film Gandhi as “a lot of fucking bollocks about an emaciated coon”.34 This particular opinion is worth remembering next time you see MacKenzie on Question Time, Would I Lie To You? or Newsnight.

Ken Livingstone wittily captured something of the Murdoch-MacKenzie project when he compared the situation in Britain in the 1980s with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Big Brother was attempting “to maintain power by constantly falsifying the news and reducing the number of words in use so that ordinary people could not even begin to articulate anger at their oppression. In a much more subtle way that is precisely what Murdoch has done with papers such as the Sun, in which the English language is in danger of being reduced to bum, boobs, bingo, Argie, Frog and poofta.” Murdoch, he observed, was “by far and away the most degrading influence on life in Britain”. Livingstone had been offered a column in the Sun, but had turned it down first because “Murdoch sacked thousands of his own staff” and second because “they want to use a left wing name to try to legitimise the way they abuse the power that press ownership gives them”. This was published in 1989.35 Livingstone’s first Sun column appeared on 3 October 1991. In his memoirs he assures his readers that he “agonised” over the decision and “there were some rumblings on the left, but Kelvin also got flak from Sun readers”. Presumably that made it alright. The Murdoch embrace was all but irresistible.36

New Labour

Why did Murdoch turn against the Conservatives after the fall of Thatcher? This is usually put down to his always wanting to back the winner but, in fact, there were more important reasons. In 1992 Kinnock had looked a winner and yet the Murdoch press had gone after him with unprecedented ferocity. What made Kinnock unacceptable was that he was seen as too sympathetic to the unions and as committed to rolling back the frontiers of Murdoch’s media empire. Once John Major was elected, however, Murdoch found himself dealing with a Conservative government that not only did not regard him as a partner, but also wanted to curb his power. The deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine, was particularly hostile. As relations with Murdoch deteriorated, Major became determined to break up his empire.

Woodrow Wyatt noted in his diary on 19 January 1993 that Major had confided in him that the government was considering “a law that foreigners, non-British residents, should not be allowed to own newspapers”. Wyatt warned him that “the Sun has been spending thousands renting an apartment opposite a house where they think you have a girlfriend” in the hope of seeing “if you go in or out”. This was pretty dramatic: a media baron trying to get dirt on a prime minister to protect his business interests. Later Wyatt tried to warn Murdoch that he should proceed carefully because there “are people in this country who actually have power to do things to you, Rupert”. Murdoch began “shouting away telling me how important he was and how he had a great media empire…he had more power than the government”. When the Sun went after his son James, Major told Wyatt, “If I had a majority of 150, I would crush Rupert Murdoch and make sure he had no newspapers at all”.37 The size of the majority Major felt he would need is, in itself, a useful testimony to Murdoch’s influence. But, of course, Major never had the political strength for such a fight.

What the Conservatives hoped was that, in the end, Murdoch would have to back them because the alternative was a Labour government. What they failed to grasp was that Tony Blair had succeeded in convincing Murdoch that a New Labour government would, in fact, be a Thatcherite not a Labour government, and would be more sympathetic to Murdoch’s business interests than the Conservatives, not less. The key figure in selling Blair to Murdoch was one of Murdoch’s closest advisers, Irwin Stelzer. He convinced Murdoch “that Blair should be seen as Thatcher’s natural heir”. In the run-up to the 1997 general election Stelzer and Blair “had regular meetings to discuss Labour policy. They became so close that the Guardian speculated that Stelzer had become a paid consultant to the Labour Party”.38 Blair and Murdoch met for the first time with dinner in a private room at Mosimann’s restaurant on 15 September 1994 where Blair made it clear that “media ownership rules would not be onerous under Labour”.39 And in July 1995 Blair made his famous pilgrimage to the Cayman Islands to pledge fealty to Murdoch’s business interests.

New Labour made it clear to Murdoch that they hoped to reinstate the partnership that he had with Thatcher, that they would do almost anything to keep him onside. To be fair, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and co actually were Thatcherites, certainly when it came to economic policy, so they were, by and large, agreeing to things they already agreed with anyway. Murdoch was assured that there would be nothing more than a token relaxation of Thatcher’s anti-union laws. His bottom line was that there should be nothing that meant he would have to recognise the unions at Wapping. Blair, who had no time whatever for the trade union movement (he had told Andrew Neil, “I hate the print unions even more than you do”40), had no problem with this.

Most accounts of the Blair-Murdoch relationship do not give enough attention to how important the union question was to Murdoch. In fact, as Greg Palast insists, New Labour agreed to “trim” its “union recognition bill…in return for Murdoch’s muzzling his papers”.41 Murdoch also insisted on being involved in the government’s European policy. And, most important, New Labour would not put any obstacles in the way of the expansion of his media empire.

The New Labour years saw Murdoch become a de facto member of the cabinet. According to Lance Price, Murdoch “seemed like the twenty-fourth member of the cabinet…no big decision could ever be made inside Number Ten without taking account of the likely reaction of three men—Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch”.42 It was not just that Murdoch had complete access to Blair and Brown whenever he wished, but that the two men actively courted him, competing with each other for his favour. These were the happy days when an unsuspecting editor of Tribune, Mark Seddon, could be invited to Downing Street for a meeting, only to be confronted with the spectacle of “Tony Blair’s long-time adviser Anji Hunter walking down the corridor arm-in-arm with…Rupert Murdoch”.43

The spectacle of the leadership of the Labour Party in thrall to a reactionary union-busting business oligarch really tells us all we need to know about New Labour. Indeed, a good case can be made that it was in the New Labour years that Murdoch’s influence peaked with politicians from all parties courting him. His newspapers and journalists came to believe that they were above the law with some sort of carte blanche to do what they pleased to who they pleased. Any problems and Rupert would sort it out. Murdoch inspired real fear.44 And, of course, Cameron promised more of the same. With Andy Coulson installed as Cameron’s right hand man and one of Murdoch’s former employees, Michael Gove, as secretary of state for education, and with Rebekah Brooks going riding with the prime minister, Britain must have looked completely sown up. The BSkyB deal was going to be waved through and Gove was promising to open up British schools to for-profit providers, an area Murdoch had identified as the next big business opportunity after satellite television. Alas, it was not to be.

Downfall?

The “hackgate” scandal has dealt Murdoch’s British interests and influence a tremendous blow. While the hacking of the phones of “celebrities” and even of politicians did not excite much interest, the revelation that the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked by the News of the World created such a degree of public revulsion as to sweep the newspaper away. In these circumstances, not even having the Metropolitan Police on the payroll was enough to save Murdoch from an unprecedented savaging. The scandal threatened to engulf David Cameron, who had famously given his good friend Andy Coulson a “second chance”. Cameron was, as Peter Oborne put it, “in the sewer”. He was “a profoundly damaged figure” as a “series of disgusting revelations concerning his friends and associates from Rupert Murdoch’s News International has permanently and irrevocably damaged his reputation”. Oborne ferociously condemned Cameron’s “Chipping Norton set” (Rebekah Brooks, Elisabeth Murdoch, Matthew Freud and others) as “an incestuous collection of louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral Londoners”, and as “a social coterie in which no respectable person, let alone a British prime minister, should be seen dead”. Indeed, Cameron’s association with “the shattering depravity of Mr Murdoch’s newspaper empire” might well be his equivalent of Tony Blair’s “Iraq” moment, the moment everyone saw through him. But Oborne seriously underestimated Cameron’s slipperiness, his ability to distance himself from his erstwhile friends.45

The abandoning of the BSkyB deal, the closure of the News of the World the putting on hold of a planned Murdoch Academy school in Newham, the arrest of a growing number of News International executives and journalists, the massive payouts to the Sun’s and the News of the World’s victims, and the resignation of James Murdoch as chairman of News International and his subsequent “flight” to New York, have all dealt the Murdoch empire a massive blow. And the situation is likely to get still worse. Many Murdoch journalists, once they realise that they are being thrown overboard and face prison time, are going to insist that senior management be called to account as well. Already, at the time of writing, it looks as if the ranks are beginning to split at Fortress Wapping. We can expect a lot more damaging revelations regarding the conduct of the Murdoch press before this is all over.

Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the evidence is that Murdoch is fighting back, with the launch of the Sun on Sunday. His empire still disposes of immense resources and there can be little doubt that, while many politicians would welcome his downfall, there are many others who would come out in support of him if the tide seemed to be turning. News Corporation, it is worth remembering, has seen its profits rise from $624 million in 2010 to $1.06 billion in 2011. It is the Murdoch empire’s political influence that has been damaged, not its financial success. This profit comes overwhelmingly from his global film and TV interests, however, and while Murdoch regards his newspapers as essential tools in maintaining a favourable business environment in Britain, the evidence is that many of New Corporation’s shareholders don’t share this view. Indeed, even his sons seem singularly unimpressed by the newspaper arm of his empire. Nevertheless, the reality is that Murdoch’s political influence in Britain might well recover while he keeps control of the Sun. Does anyone seriously believe that Ed Miliband will still be criticising Murdoch if he has control of the Sun at the next general election? Of course not. The Sun has got to go down. Murdoch’s empire has to be broken up.


Notes

1: Bakewell, 2011, p27.

2: As John Pilger points out, “Australia has the distinction of the most concentrated press ownership and the least independent newspapers of any Western country”-Pilger, 1989, p258.

3: See Newsinger, 2007.

4: Newsinger, 2012.

5: Shawcross, 1992, pp60-72.

6: Shawcross, 1993, p210.

7: McKnight, 2012, p64.

8: McKnight, 2012, p66.

9: Pilger, 1989, p179.

10: McKnight, 2012, p69.

11: Belfield, Hird and Kelly, 1994, p30.

12: Neil, 1996, pp165-166.

13: See McKnight, 2012, pp141-163.

14: Greenslade, 2003, pp430, 445-447. Greenslade blames the “Gotcha!” headline that celebrated the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War on a journalists’ strike at the time. He suggests that had they been working the headline would have been questioned, but this seems just so much special pleading. He was one of the editorial team that brought the paper out during the strike.

15: Writing in the Daily Mirror, Joe Haines described the Sun as having “fallen from the gutter to the sewer… The Sun today is to journalism what Dr Joseph Goebbels was to truth”-Greenslade, 2003, p446.

16: Tunney, 2006, pp67-68.

17: For the British press and the Great Miners’ Strike see the classic account in Hollingsworth, 1986, pp242-285.

18: Melvern, 1986, p38.

19: Hammond, 1992, pp99-100. Of course, the involvement of an American intelligence agent, a CIA asset, in the miners’ strike did not cause Hammond the slightest concern.

20: McKnight, 2012 , pp111-117.

21: Khabaz, 2006, p109.

22: Littleton, 1992, p51.

23: Neil, 1996, p169.

24: For the Wapping strike see most recently Lang and Dodkins, 2011. See also Bain, 1998.

25: Neil, 1996, p137.

26: Curtis, 1998, pp59, 65.

27: Freedland, 2011.

28: Neil, 1996, p187.

29: Hammond, 1992, p111.

30: Chippindale and Horrie, 2005, pp387-389.

31: Chippindale and Horrie, 2005, pp280, 344-345, 351.

32: Schofield, 2011.

33: Shawcross, 1992, pp256, 410.

34: Chippindale and Horrie, 2005, p214.

35: Livingstone, 1989, pp86-87.

36: Livingstone, 2011, p334.

37: Curtis, 2000, pp162-163, 176-177, 481. When Murdoch decided to back Blair and New Labour in 1997, Wyatt thought the main reason “was because Rupert was so angry with the government for referring the digital box to OFTEL”-p722.

38: Chenoweth, 2001, p276. Chenoweth has an interesting discussion of Murdoch success at tax avoidance: “By a strange alchemy, each year hundreds of millions of News Corporation earnings bounced around some of the most exotic parts of the world, touring the archipelagos of offshore tax havens… In the course of this alchemy, most of News Corp’s tax bill disappeared.” According to Chenoweth, it “was 1986 when News Corporation stopped paying tax in any meaningful way”-p290.

39: Neil, 1996, p171.

40: Neil, 1996, p131.

41: Palast, 2003, p298. He is worth quoting at length on this: “Trade unions won the right to recognition with a majority vote of workers, but Blair added a killer codicil: the ‘majority’ would have to exceed 40 percent of the number of workers in an employer drawn ‘bargaining’ unit. In another undercover investigation, one partner in the notorious American union busting law firm of Jackson Lewis explained that by manipulating which workers are in or out of a bargaining unit, employers could stop almost any union organising drive.”

42: Oborne, 2007, pp261-262. Oborne notes New Labour’s readiness “to act as the media tycoon’s personal leg-men on business deals”, a readiness he finds “startling”-p263. Chenoweth (2001) recounts one of the most astonishing episodes of New Labour coming to the aid of Murdoch’s business interests: in November 1999 the government referred “big media deals which threatened Rupert Murdoch’s position in BSkyB” to the Mergers and Monopolies Commission. This got no publicity outside of the business pages-p331.

43: Seddon, 2011, p189.

44: Any politician with aspirations to high office was vulnerable to Murdoch. Others like the Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews, with no such ambitions, were not so easily intimidated. In his memoirs he tells how, when he opposed New Labour’s attempt to introduce 90-day detention, the Sun condemned him and printed his phone number so readers could tell him what they thought of him. This exercise produced three calls, two supporting him and the third about something else! See Marshall-Andrews, 2011, p87.

45: Oborne, 2011.


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