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Maestro, monster, saviour, sinner . . .

Volume 34 Number 4 December 2023

A few weeks ago, a rumour came out of New York that Rupert Murdoch was dead. Like several others, I was put on stand-by to write an appreciation. Then came the news that the 92-year-old media tycoon was not only still breathing but greatly enjoying life. Some days later, I read that the irrepressible old buzzard was throwing his hat into an already crowded ring to buy the Telegraph, having already made clear his desire to acquire its sister publication, The Spectator.

Murdoch’s near-death rumour set me musing. What did I really think of him? (I’ve never worked for him, by the way.) Like many people, I have conflicting feelings, but the positive ones in the end prevail. While thinking him dead, I imagined myself a hundred years ago watching the progress of an old battleship to its final resting place. True, it has been involved in some aggressive, even punitive actions. It has instilled fear and loathing in some quarters. But one has to acknowledge its magnificence and the scope of its ambitions. I raised my hat.

The debit side of the ledger is not short. There was the price war of the early 90s, when Murdoch slashed the cover price of The Times to injure The Daily Telegraph and finish off the Independent. I felt especially aggrieved about the last because I had helped start the paper. Some suggested that his actions were illegal because The Times was then heavily loss-making, and he was cross-subsidising the title in order to hobble its rivals. Nothing came of these complaints.

To a list of his malefactions could be added phone-hacking on the Murdoch-owned News of the World and The Sun, as well as his founding of Fox News and erstwhile support for Donald Trump. Include his manipulation of political leaders, especially in Australia and – though reasonable people might disagree about this – his uncritical support of the disastrous Bushand-Blair escapade in Iraq.

And yet which human being with so much power could fail to make mistakes? On the positive side, there was the launch of Sky TV (on which he bet, and nearly lost, his company), as well as the stand-off against rapacious print unions in 1986, which led to the revitalisation of all national newspapers. Refined souls might deprecate The Sun as it was in its pomp, but in so doing, they write off the 12million people who, at its height, read the paper every day.

Somewhat ironically, Murdoch’s greatest achievement may have been the salvation of The Times. Having cost him several hundred million pounds since he bought it in 1981, the paper is now strong and makes money (more than £70million a year at the last count). When others were announcing that digital newspapers should be free, Murdoch had the good sense to put The Times and The Sunday Times behind a paywall, where they have thrived. Rupert Murdoch entered Fleet Street as a brash Australian – the “Dirty Digger” to Private Eye – but leaves it as an almost elevated figure. The News of the World is dead and The Sun, though successful enough online, has retreated to the margins of our national life, as has its old rival, the Daily Mirror. Murdoch the progenitor of red-top tabloids is now the owner not only of The Times and Sunday Times but of the Wall Street Journal. And he is casting envious eyes towards the The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator.

It’s quite a transformation. Admittedly, he still owns Fox News, so the gentrification of the Dirty Digger isn’t complete, though it has gone a long way. His media empire, not as vast as it once was, is in good shape. But will it survive his eventual demise intact? Even Murdoch will discover that he can’t direct events from beyond the grave.

Happily, he hasn’t yet been put to the test. There will be rumours and more rumours until he is. Meanwhile, apart from the likes of Polly Toynbee and other implacable critics, who can fail to doff a cap as this formidable old battleship passes by?”

Stephen Glover was one of the founders of The Independent, a media columnist for The Spectator and currently writes for the Daily Mail.

 

“Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that he was giving up the chairs of Fox and News Corp reminded me of Charlton Heston’s notorious rejection of gun control: “From my cold, dead hands.” At last, power had been prised from the hands of the 92-year-old media tycoon. But was it true? Neither cold nor dead, the old tycoon could yet pull the strings of his anointed elder son and heir. After all, he has been playing the role of media and political puppeteer for more than half a century.

Murdoch’s philosophy was one of blinding simplicity. Money generates power; power generates money; each one serving the other. Call it the Murdoch dialectic. No car manufacturer, aircraft magnate or fast foods merchant could hope to exercise the special power bestowed by the ownership of newspapers, television and movie studios. Media is power. What made Murdoch unique was that he used that power on an international scale.

Now, ahead of his obituarists, let’s take stock of his remarkable record. The achievements first. He spent untold millions to support two of Britain’s iconic newspapers, The Times and The Sunday Times. He risked his company to transform newspaper production in Britain from antiquated practices to computer nirvana. He pioneered the introduction of satellite TV, thereby creating the excellent Sky News. Allowing for the fact that none of these accomplishments have been without their detractors, it is surely fair to place them in the credit column. They are, however, outweighed on the debit side.

We could begin with The Sun and its lengthy editorial record of mythmaking, misogyny and malevolence. Bad as that was, and remains, it pales beside the phone-hacking perpetrated by that paper’s former Sunday stablemate, the News of the World. Damages and legal costs have already cost Murdoch’s company almost £100million. More will be paid out in the coming year or so because many more victims are suing.

That impropriety, which illustrated the immorality Murdoch allowed to reign within his empire, was surpassed by scandals at Fox News. First, was the revelation of sexual harassment by Murdoch’s appointee as chairman and chief executive, Roger Ailes. His exposure was followed by claims of sexual misconduct involving other executives. Millions of dollars were paid out in compensation and legal fees following a failed cover-up.

Then came the killer blow. Fox News was obliged to pay out £634 million ($787.5 million) to Dominion Voting Systems after falsely claiming that the firm had doctored its machines to foil Donald Trump’s chances of winning the 2020 presidential election. Fox’s internal documents, showed that the channel had knowingly misled its viewers.

Murdoch apologists have argued that he was ignorant of the misbehaviour in every case. He said so himself when questioned in public about hacking. This, he told MPs, “is the most humble day of my life”. But this man knew nothing of humility. Rule-breaking and rule-bending were part of the Murdoch business ethos ever since he assumed control of the Australian publishing company bequeathed him by his father. Within Murdoch’s organisation, few questions were asked of executives and editors as long as they provided readers, viewers, advertisers… and profits.

From his beginning as a media businessman, Murdoch has promulgated two overlapping fantasies. First, he cast himself as an outsider, an anti-establishment rebel, a champion of the people, fighting in the name of “freedom” against all forms of monopoly. In reality, he strove to crush all competition while pursuing the creation of his own monopoly.

Second was his recurring mantra: “I do not prescribe what they should read in my papers and what they should see on my TV channels. I simply give the people what they want.” Again, reality points to the truth. His media outlets have been transparently prescriptive: think pro-Iraq invasion, pro-Thatcher, pro-Brexit, pro-Reagan, pro-Bush, pro-Trump, not to mention lashings of titillating sex along the way. And the antis have been clear too: trade unions, the Labour Party (except for Tony “I can do business with him” Blair), and the BBC.

Although impossible to prove that he persuaded the electorates of Britain, Australia and the US to vote as he wished, overwhelming circumstantial evidence suggests he had disproportionate influence on political decision-making. For example, in 2003 I recorded how 175 Murdoch newspapers across the globe advocated the invasion of Iraq in the face of widespread opposition. So much for giving the people what they want.

What has always counted with Murdoch is making people think they want what he wants them to want an undeniably beneficial enterprise for him. He has made money. Billions of it, in every currency you care to name. But the profiteering must not obscure the deeper truth. His unremitting right-wing agenda has made a major contribution to the political mayhem that has divided both Britain and the US. It means that those cold, dead hands could well have a grip on the throat of the generations to come.”

Roy Greenslade is a former editor of the Daily Mirror and was a Guardian media columnist and professor of journalism at City, University of London. He is a member of the BJR editorial board.

@GreensladeR

 

“Murdoch lines up bid for The Telegraph.” The October 20 headline leapt out of the business pages as fresh and exciting as so many similar publishing coups over a long and illustrious lifetime. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch might have announced his plan to step aside as chairman of the NewsCorp publishing giant he created in his twenties. But at 92, this news-breaker and mega-dealmaker has not gone away. Nor in this digital age has Murdoch’s love affair with printed news.

“I am a journalist at heart,” he said recently. “I like to be involved in these things.” On behalf of the tens of thousands of journalists around the world who have thrived and prospered thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s love of newspapers, I say thank heavens for that. Nobody in the history of news publishing has sustained so many journalistic careers or so many newspapers, with up to 50,000 on NewsCorp’s global payroll at one time. “At any tick of the clock, a journalist somewhere in the world is having lunch at my expense,” he joked. I count myself lucky to be one of them.

The real Murdoch story, parlaying a small-circulation daily in 1950s Adelaide into an information colossus straddling the planet, eclipses the fantasies of HBO’s Succession. It is the tale of the irresistible force meeting – and beating – the immovable object. There have been calamities along the way – including the closure of the News of the World over phone hacking. But what we have witnessed over seven exhilarating decades is a unique one-off, a

lone wolf with the vision to spot an opportunity – and the courage to bet the farm on it. In the Swinging Sixties, he transformed a cast-off Mirror Group rag into the Super Soaraway Sun, the biggest-selling newspaper in the English-speaking world. In the Seventies, he invaded America, buying The New York Post. He was greeted on the cover of Time magazine as King Kong marauding across the city skyline and the headline “EXTRA!!! AUSSIE PRESS LORD TERRIFIES GOTHAM”. The stellar rise of Sky TV, the Titanic triumph of 20th Century Fox and the stupendously successful – and controversial – Fox TV are major chapters in this remarkable life story.

And as the Telegraph bid demonstrates, that story is far from over. This is no bluff. Hard-copy newspapers might be going out of fashion, but the information industry is booming as never before. The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph are a financial success and a good fit with The Times and The Sunday Times. Murdoch admires their stablemate, the lively and respected Spectator, and would keep editor Fraser Nelson. Nor is he short of cash. His

2019 sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney netted $71.3billion (£54billion). Lachlan Murdoch, his elder son and anointed successor as NewsCorp chairman, loves newspapers as much as his father.

Murdoch Snr will step back at the end of the year to become chairman emeritus. But as he told NewsCorp staff in September: “In my new role, I can guarantee you that I will be involved every day in the contest of ideas. Our companies are communities, and I will be an active member of our community. I will be watching our broadcasts with a critical eye, reading our newspapers and websites and books with much interest, and reaching out to you with thoughts, ideas, and advice. When I visit your countries and companies, you can expect to see me in the office late on a Friday afternoon.” Nobody who knows the man should be surprised if, in the next few weeks, Telegraph newspapers become the latest jewel in the Murdoch crown.”

Trevor Kavanagh was political editor of The Sun, for which he continues to write a column.

@trevor_kavanagh

 

“On July 19, 2011, I sat three rows behind Rupert Murdoch at the select committee hearing where he had been summoned to give evidence after the shocking revelations about murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked by News of the World journalists. I watched as he delivered his carefully rehearsed line that this was “the most humble day of my life”. Staring at the back of his head, I found the stench of hypocrisy almost overwhelming. Clearly, money couldn’t buy acting talent.

The man was about as capable of humility as he was of taking responsibility for the wretched practices of his newsrooms. It wasn’t one rogue reporter, or one rogue editor, or one rogue newspaper. Murdoch has built a rogue publishing empire, dedicated to a culture of bullying, deceit, misogyny, homophobia and racism. Worst of all, it is a culture that cares little for the basic principles of accurate, honest, ethical journalism. It has long been fashionable in journalism circles to praise Murdoch for his devotion to, and investment in, newspapers. But journalism for him has been little more than a very successful conduit to power and personal wealth.

In the UK, prime ministers have fought to kiss the Murdoch ring and indulge his political agenda – whether it be queer-bashing in the 80s, EU mudslinging in the 90s, warmongering in the 2000s, Islamophobia in the 2010s, or shameless disinformation in the 20s. Donald Trump, perhaps the most dangerous narcissist ever elected to power in the West, was a Murdoch creation. The lies about a “stolen election” in 2020 were fuelled by Murdoch’s Fox News and its headbanging hosts who insisted that the voting machines had lied. News Corp’s $787.5million payout to Dominion Voting Systems to settle its libel claim add to the many millions so far lost through phone hacking in the UK.

There are those who attempt to dismiss the damage he has inflicted either as “harmless fun” or as misguided criticism from a “metropolitan elite”. They should go back to the 2012 Leveson Report and read his damning conclusions about a press “that wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained”. That was the Murdoch culture.

We should be thankful that, every now and then, brave souls have emerged to call out the malice and blatant lies. Not our politicians, who genuflect and fling open the door to Downing Street (always, of course, the back door). But individuals like The Guardian’s Nick Davies, who saw off furious denials, personal insults and legal threats to expose the phone hacking scandal. Or Andy Burnham, who doggedly pursued his fight to call out the Hillsborough lies on behalf of a city that still has nothing but contempt for a newspaper that, in the aftermath of that awful day in 1989, was more intent on libelling bereaved football supporters and pursuing its political agenda than checking basic facts.

As someone who has taught aspiring journalists for the best part of 30 years and been a member of the NUJ for more than 40 years, it has been painful to see bright, young, idealistic reporters – inspired by some of the great journalistic exploits and names of the past – being swallowed up and spat out by a publishing empire for whom journalistic ethics are collateral damage, along with the victims of its papers’ lies and intrusions.

Murdoch has done more to poison the well of decent, ethical journalism than any other individual in the English-speaking world. He has exploited reactionary populism rooted in fear and division, and in doing so has helped to undermine liberal democracy. He hasn’t invested in journalism. He has abused it for his own self-enrichment, and in the process brutalised it. It is a miserably legacy, and I very much doubt that Lachlan will be an improvement.”

Steven Barnett is professor of communications at the University of Westminster and is on the editorial board of the BJR.

@stevenjbarnett

 

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