Dial M for Murdoch: the book to sink an empire?

Rupert Murdoch has returned for his second day before the UK state inquiry into the British press. While we tune into his defence, a sharp counter-point is the book Dial M for Murdoch with its uncompromising, up-to-date account of the global media empire's poisonous inner workings.

Rupert Murdoch is facing his second day before the Leveson Inquiry. Yesterday the media mogul was questioned on his intimate relationships with successive heads of state, and claimed he had 'never asked a Prime Minister for anything'. Today, he is being pressed on the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World and accusations of a failure of governance. While we tune into his defence, a sharp counter-point is the book Dial M for Murdoch, published last week to usher in this next stage of the inquiry with an uncompromising account of the global media empire's poisonous inner workings. Bruce Page, author of The Murdoch Archipelago, reviews the book.

Dial M for Murdoch. Tom Watson and Martin Hickman. Allen Lane, £20.

Dial M for Murdoch is not a pretty book — but then, it has ugly tales to tell. Its co-authors, Tom Watson MP and Martin Hickman of the Independent, are concerned to dissect Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and to expose its reeking heart.

They produce grim evidence of amorality — important detail of events familiar to most of us in outline, if we care about democracy at all. But their picture also contains something often overlooked in accounts of Newscorp. Namely, the nitwit ineptitude which is operationally routine in almost if not quite every manifestation of Rupert Murdoch’s corporate will.

Dial is our best-to-date account of the snoopers, bully-boys, bully-girls and pseudo-hacks sicced lavishly by Newscorp onto anyone whose alleged turpitude might somehow advance its ambitions. And so they are found chasing — as illicit lovers —  a couple actually established as man and wife; assuming that an MI5 officer’s tip has bared orgiastic Nazism to their censorious gaze; discovering rent boys, but without transactional evidence; and generally barking up factitious trees, or ones long since chopped down.

Though not, of course, always missing-out. A hammer swung without discrimination must hit a nail fairly often. The question is to what effect.

Newscorp has consistently presented itself as an unselfish social service cleansing the world of fraud and crime. But here some cost-benefit analysis is needed. Characteristically the Murdoch operation has targeted minor criminality and celebrity misconduct: nothing it has exposed and terminated approaches in scale the harm it has itself done to democratic institutions by breaking and circumventing media law in America, Britain, and nations besides.

Serious enemies of society are quite outside its competence. But didn’t Fleet Street always say that dog don’t eat dog?

Not, of course, that incompetence makes Newscorp any less pestilent. Authoritarian societies and their institutions are known usually to be incompetent — Rupert Murdoch’s unusual position is that they ‘can work’, and overwhelming testimony indicates that he runs his personal empire on that basis. What Murdoch and Hickman describe is a sleazy corporate KGB.

The real KGB, when I examined its activities some decades ago, was clearly a syndicate of clowns — a murderous one, and so distinct from the Newscorp’s current pastiche. However it worked in a society where nothing limited its power. Newscorp is subject to the rules of the democratic West: it has surely done more to erode them than any other publicly-quoted enterprise, but their force remains substantial when exercised.

The issue, of course, is exercise. There have been and still are people in legitimate authority who see no harm in giving Murdoch laissez-aller. And find it convenient to do so. All of them need a copy of Dial M For Murdoch. All of them need to pull themselves together before it’s too late.

It was curious to read Watson/Hickman’s stuff — particularly its account of Newscorp’s symbiotic, sinister Scotland Yard relationship— while James Murdoch was making out at the Leveson witness-desk like Sir Lancelot du Lac just graduated from a master’s in corporate PR.

How could any observer connect him with the grubby brutality Dial M describes?

Both James and Rupert project an unearthly innocence when confronted with obvious facts of any political boondoggle: resembling the pseudo-Islamic fanatic Elijah Muhammed who claimed to be a total abstainer. Swigging malt scotch, he said the stuff turned to water on his lips.

Perhaps, due to the work of such as Watson and Hickman, enough people have realised that the Murdochs are phonies in equivalent degree.

Note: In today's evidence, Rupert said he had no plans to read Dial M for Murdoch. Tom Watson tweeted an understandably cross response. 

About the author

Bruce Page is an investigative journalist and a former member of the Sunday Times' renowned Insight team.