The end of the Murdoch Archipelago

This week, the media mogul once unquestioningly known as 'the kingmaker' appears before the UK state inquiry into the British press - a day after his son and would-be heir. To mark this moment, we publish the new introduction to the defining account of the 113-year-old Murdoch dynasty, asking the question: how did we come to this?

Bruce Page
22 April 2012

This week first James then Rupert Murdoch face the Leveson Inquiry  into the "culture, practice and ethics" of the British press. The media mogul and his global conglomerate News Corps will face intense scrutiny in this next phase of the inquiry, looking into the relationship between the UK's media and her politicians. 

No better time, then, to revisit Bruce Page's The Murdoch Archipelago, the definitive account of the 113-year-old dynasty, its power and influence. First published in 2003, the book was re-worked in October 2011 to encompass the unfolding scandal. Here is a shortened version of its new opening chapter.

"We know the right thing to do, and we always do the right thing."

- Rupert Murdoch

" . . . . Foul deeds will rise

Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes"

- Hamlet: Act 1, scene II

In London on 20 July 2011 Rupert Murdoch appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport committee of the House of Commons. Its members wished to know how criminal snooping could have become routine editorial practice at the News of the World.

Mr Murdoch accepted that the thing had happened. It was utterly disgraceful. But he couldn’t give the Members of Parliament much help. He knew nothing of it until others exposed the facts, and he suggested such ignorance was quite natural. To be sure the News of the World was part of News Corporation, his global empire. But its editorial antics scarcely constituted ‘one percent of my business’.Without his stating it, everyone present knew that BSkyB — British Sky Broadcasting — was what counted as substantial.

For now let us pass on the notion that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t know how tabloid newspapers operate — his grasp of journalism is indeed less than usually fancied, but not in truth vestigial. A much greater fantasy is involved here: one promoted by the whole News Corporation interest with aid from battalion-strength spin-mavens, legal sages, media gurus and investment analysts; joining in because the vast, prospective, BSkyB monopoly will (if somehow resuscitated), spatter cash over everyone alongside, as a mighty waterfall drenches all nearby.

And this fantasy’s enabling essence is that the News of the World (suddenly exposed as feral, and justly terminated) was never linked to BSkyB by anything more than some Newscorp equity and the presence in both outfits — at different times, and in different extent — of leadership by Rupert Murdoch. Really, these are entities distinct in character.

The reason is well-known. Laws of physics stipulate that broadcasters cannot operate without regulation, and by regulating — by distributing monopolies and powers — governments acquire responsibility. The rule in Britain (and elsewhere, usually) says that television companies can’t be run by persons lacking ‘fit and proper’ character.

Such unsuitability is not easy to define, but even simple people detect it by inspection. Hardly anyone would measure the team which ran the News of the World as fit to take charge of broadcasting. Nor, mostly, of a newspaper — but in free society the depravity or otherwise of print journalism is not within the government’s call.

Still, in broadcasting, duties do exist, and under some pressure David Cameron’s government has taken action. The issue of whether News Corporation, controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his family, is fit and proper to exercise control of BSkyB — which has an effective monopoly of the British satellite television market, and is close to matching the BBC as Britain’s largest broadcaster — has been referred for decision to Ofcom, the national communications regulator. Should Ofcom’s finding be adverse, it can simply amputate Newscorp’s right to enjoy any of BSkyB’s profits, now running at a billion pounds annually. The damage caused to Newscorp by so drastic an outcome would obviously be grievous, and possibly — in the present state of world media industries — fatal.

And this threat has Damoclean qualities. First, because any present Ofcom judgment can be altered or reversed in consequence of findings from the other inquiries focused on News Corporation activities: Operation Weeting; Operation Elveden (supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission), investigating improper payments to police; and Lord Justice Leveson’s broad examination of the ethical standards of the British media. All are expected to run well into the future — but will at some point reach an end, leaving tensions perhaps reduced, or more likely intensified. Second, under Ofcom’s present constitution questions of fitness have no terminus: so long as a broadcaster operates, its licence to do so remains in issue.

As it happens neither Ofcom nor any of its regulatory ancestors has before this been made to ask whether a British broadcaster should be dumped on grounds of character. There is, officials anxiously say, a lack of ‘case law’. But having now been asked — and prompted by undeniable concerns — the question is unlikely to lose its currency. Whatever laundering can be done, Newscorp will be on probation for many years ahead.

The vision of James Murdoch

As we know, there’s been a remarkable turnaround —  as recently as this March last year the media trade assumed that Rupert Murdoch had utterly persuaded the Government to leave Newscorp free to turn its 38% share of a UK satellite monopoly into 100% of an effective 100%. And James Murdoch — dining partner of ministers — was regaling his circle with visions of British media law essentially liquidated, and of the BBC losing many of its richest assets as compulsory bargains for BSkyB.

The difference has been made by a feat of skilful and determined reporting not surpassed in British journalism’s post-WWII record (suggesting that the old watchdog still musters some independent energy).

Sky’s bid for hegemony was a long-laid Murdoch project — perhaps not yet sunk hopelessly. But throughout its gestation years Nick Davies and the Guardian drilled steadily into the cover-up maintained by Fleet Street and Scotland Yard: their mutual corruption shrouded in institutional cynicism and obstruction.

‘Fleet Street’ is the apt collective, both in justice to Newscorp — its tabloids not being alone as users of criminal surveillance — and in recognition of professional realities. After four decades of Murdoch dominance a great proportion of British journalists have fed from his payroll: many exclusively so. Doubtless this helps a trade peculiarly rich in scolds to find virtues in Rupert which lay observers fail to see.

A comparison of the Guardian’s campaign with the Washington Post’s Watergate must in the end be made, but it is delicate and complex —except for one plain thing to be stated immediately. This is the matter of loneliness.

Until Richard Nixon’s crimes became altogether egregious and his facade of power derelict, the Post faced quite clear prospects of commercial destruction at the government’s determined hands — and did so without any notable interest being expressed by other media concerns. (Rupert Murdoch, not yet a top-level player, was one who saw Nixon as hard-done-by.)

For years the Guardian’s hacking story evoked no attention and no competition from any other paper except the New York Times (ranging outside its own home-turf). During 2009 the ineffable Press Complaints Commission cleared the News of the Screws on eavesdropping, but reprimanded the Guardian for excessive investigative ambition.

Perhaps it is only journalists — reporters, particularly — for whom competition provides a special but astringent reassurance. This is no relation to the ‘boys-in-the-bus’ syndrome, and the comfort of the hunting pack, which most useful reporters avoid. Competition may come to mind when ‘exclusive’ is crudely over-applied — for what is the use of possessing something  which is valued by nobody else? But the main significance appears when the story involves some likely conflict with power and authority: ‘exclusive’ then indicates that an approaching peril is one which must be confronted alone.

Competition rarely tastes altogether sweet, but isolation may be worse: The Murdoch Archipelago provides case-studies. and to these the phone-hacking saga attaches as a climactic. After long and lonely work, Nick Davies made a sequence of breakthroughs which brought many allies — some very reluctant ones — over to the Guardian’s side.

Perhaps the paper was never at such direct risk of commercial destruction as was the Post during Watergate, but the going was sufficiently tough (and nowadays most newspapers are in more commercial peril than just a minority were in those days).

The Guardian’s experience utterly demolished — even as it was asserted — the Coalition notion of a British media system so competitive and diversified that a vast inflation of Newscorp market-share could carry no implications for democracy. Common sense now rates this level with the axioms of flat-earth geometry.

But here there is also an immediate and positive statement to make.

The Post and Watergate is a fine story, and so is the Guardian and the eavesdroppers; also the Telegraph group’s meticulous account of faked expenses at the Palace of Westminster. (Notably, in the first phone-hacking debate more than one MP acknowledged a salutary effect of the Telegraph work.)

And such stories are not found only in the records of famous newspapers and broadcasters. Trawling in the Pulitzer archives will bring up many cases of small-town American media firms taking courageous issue with corrupt or incompetent officials: matters involving risk to careers and financial prospects; often the more daunting for being fought out far from the national limelight.

Some reviewers of  Archipelagos first edition complained that its catalogue of Newscorp’s negative qualities was not ‘balanced’ by a ledger of positive instances. Dealing with such complaint involves checking over the trade’s notion of ‘balance’.

Luxuriating in truculence

The real justification of newspapers and the electronic descendants we hope they will have is generated by serious (often extended) conflicts between their editorial teams and close contingent powers — political or corporate — undertaken with no prospect of a direct business reward, and in the absence of any firm calculation of success. Every genuine instance is a potential folly. And that potential, naturally, is quite often fulfilled.

This is what justifies the formal and informal advantages society may allow to media organisations, and it can’t be established by regular distribution of plain vanilla news and entertainment. That actually can be left to well-run government agencies, or to the advertising and public-relations apparatus which the corporate world maintains (often decently enough). What matters is the news that no government or corporation (or despotic individual)  will uncover by free will: revelation made in spite of determined suppression or distortion.

Let’s note that revelation doesn’t typically confer power on its authors. On the contrary, it surrenders power to a wide community, whose responses the authors may estimate but can’t command.

So lacking these elements of folly and courage, editorial freedoms lack justification — though trainee investigators should learn that there is more than simple daring involved. ‘Courage’, wrote Flann O’Brien, can never be enough.

One trouble about it is that its possessor is hardly ever out of trouble and requires other qualities for self-extraction.

It’s not surprising, then, to look back and find that media institutions with major records of folly and self-extraction (so far) are not very numerous. An Anglophone list might read: New York Times; Washington Post; Guardian; Sunday Times (pre-Murdoch); Observer; Independent (for a brief, brilliant period); The Times (in far retrospect); recently (and most welcome) the Daily Telegraph; sometimes the Daily Mail; once upon a time the Daily Mirror and (intermittently) CBS, the BBC and Channel 4 News.

The greater part of the world’s media try to get through life peaceably, without presenting any challenging face to major beasts of state or corporation. If honour makes altruistic folly sometimes unavoidable they do the best they can, and may generate some disclosure — though rarely enough to give clear warning of Grendel’s Mother sneaking up on the mead-hall.

Newscorp is a different and special case. Surely no other media outfit has so luxuriated in truculence, or unleashed such furious broadsides of abuse. Yet its record — and the whole 113-year record of the Murdoch dynasty —  is almost totally free from the quixotic follies and brave revelations which represent most of the real value journalism has brought to the world. Newscorp doesn’t do risky altruism, unless you count certain vigilante episodes — and even these come with a bitter twist, as in the case of Sarah Payne and the doctored cellphone.

The fact, if seemingly paradoxical, is that Newscorp is the rare — perhaps unique — case of a media business trying to operate on a strictly rational philosophy.

In controversy, the default Murdoch position is clamorous alliance with the ascendant power of the day — or the one which Rupert expects shortly will achieve that state. Once or twice history finds Murdoch embroiled with a forlorn hope — but it only in consequence of miscalculation.

The hunters of tethered game

Particularly while the News of the World remained afloat, Newscorp distinguished itself by frantic boasting about its devastating scoops, and pitiless skills in criminal investigation. For the most part this was just bar-room hype, rarely involving engagement with targets showing a damaging capacity to shoot back. Many of these scoops involved hunting members of the Royal Family: a sport best practiced by the kind of people who shoot at tethered game. Many more involved stings and entrapments against minor criminals: the sting is a technique which has almost no prospect of effect against an organisation possessing serious capacity to inflict social harm (an oil multinational, say, or a hedge-fund) and afterward take measures to immunise itself .

This is not to say that no journalism of any interest has come from organisations folded into the News empire. But the subject here is balance, and overall balance Murdoch has collaborated with the major powers amongst which he finds himself. ‘Let somebody else annoy them’, he said when submitting to Beijing’s demand for censorship of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Doubtless this axiom is well-rehearsed among Newscorp’s editorial executives, whose well-honed skill, as Andrew Neil has said — from personal experience — consists in anticipating the chieftain’s desires.

That task isn’t quite simple. It appears that the explosive Parliamentary expenses material was offered first to Newscorp, and was rejected. Amid his wider travails the Chairman and Chief Executive has found time to be furious, and seemingly the irony escapes him. But if investigative journalism is conducted on the principle of avoiding offence to any but those the boss certainly wishes to offend, a database containing 2,000 potential bombshells will drench the heart of any loyal henchman with foreboding.

Operation of a balance depends on the coinage in use: weight mattering far above profusion. In assessing media outfits, we find some having massive items on the dark side, with Newscorp a prominent instance. Well, this applies to the New York Times and the Guardian: also to the Telegraph and Mail (perhaps more so for a writer who does not vote Tory). But in those cases I can find some quite enduring balance items. For Newscorp there is only piles of ephemera, and some pieces of good work by outfits Murdoch assimilated.

Complaints about media dishonesty often centre on false assertion: something which certainly occurs, and has done under Murdoch’s command. Consider the grotesque concotions the Australian used to support allegations that the Federal treasurer was under the influence of a ‘Japanese agent’, or the Sunday Times’ wild claim that Michael Foot, Leader of the Opposition at Westminster, was a KGB agent.

But fabrication often fails by autodestruction. Silence is more reliably lethal. When C P Scott said that every newspaper was something of a monopoly (when media ownership more diverse than ours), and that comment was free but facts quite sacred, he also said abuse of monopoly was as much a negative as a positive action —

Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give . . . must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. [emphasis added]

Or in Rupert Murdoch’s words:

The basic premise of the democracy we live in must be the citizen’s right to know, and if we do not publish what we know if we know the facts that are in the public interest and are of importance and do not publish them, then we do not deserve our freedom.

The great newsman's empty record

Well put — and on the record, thoroughly specious. Murdoch’s  commitment to disclosure has been intermittent always, though not randomly so. It long blended into the Newscorp business model, and when the Fox network suppressed Strange Justice — giving a break to Clarence Thomas, furthest right on the Supreme Court bench and a US political heavyweight — it ran counterpoint to the redtop treatment of British actors with large celebrity but no political clout.

The evidence for Justice Thomas’ sexual eccentricity was well above the standard needed for showbiz exposés in the News of the Screws or the Bizarre section of the Sun. And a similar pattern is visible in The Times’ interludes of silence about Chinese repression when Murdoch was the Communist Party’s loyal, much-flattered friend.

Newscorp acts as if a sheen of CEO ruthlessness enhances the corporate image. And it often obscures the fact that Rupert Murdoch has never exclusively, personally brought home a significant revelation for his public (a ‘scoop’, as reporters still call it, thinking presently of the Guardian’s Davies). Though not unique among the corporate-media elite, it remains a striking negative achievement after sixty years’ engaging with page-proofs and rushes, while being celebrated by financial masterminds as a ‘great newsman’ with ‘ink in his veins’.

Like his father Sir Keith Murdoch, Rupert has always been eager for stories. But as in Keith’s case, stories as material for secret leverage and private alliances, rather than disclosure. At critical stages in Newscorp history — the fall of the Australian government in 1975; the narrow survival of the British government in 1986 — suppressio veri has been decisive, and suggestio falsi counter-productive or irrelevant.

In order to decide whether News Corporation is ‘fit and proper’ to direct the operations of a television company able to enter every home and workplace in the British Isles, Ofcom must come to grips with a business altogether unlike its contemporaries in advanced-world broadcasting, which as a general habit cultivate neutrality, in appearance at least. Partisanship is usually of a kind which has been displayed for some years past without much substantial change.

Newscorp is not similarly desinvolte — or not consistently so. Among its many constituent parts vivid, sometimes startling passions are found: the Sun’s distaste for the European Union is such that anyone favouring it may be labelled a ‘traitor’ to Britain. The Fox network carried in 2010 a two-part series by Glenn Beck which accused the financier George Soros of subverting the US Constitution, and included so many tropes from classic anti-semitism that few if any major publishers would consider it legitimate exercise in free speech. As head of Newscorp Rupert Murdoch has generated editorial support for a diverse sequence of political candidates: often polarised, essentially Manichaean.

Yet these affiliations are volatile as well as polarised (Tony Blair, for instance, having been a traitor as well as a national hero). As we’ve said, Rupert’s elective affinity is for the apparent power of the day.

The unrebellious rebel

And this Newscorp idiosyncrasy adds a paradox to the Ofcom role: they are officials, with authority delegated from an official source, the government. But they will have to ask whether Newscorp can be reliably insubordinate to official pressure — classically, from the government in office. To be ‘fit and proper’, in the public’s eye anyway, a broadcaster must score something for disobedience, and the BBC enjoys a measurably high level of trust because the record still shows it having done so. Acting as gamekeeper, Ofcom must ask whether any licence-holder will make an effective poacher when the larger public interest makes it fit and proper to do so. And here Newscorp’s record is plainly alarming.

To be sure Newscorp organs sometimes resist official orthodoxy. But in critical times this has often collapsed into docile, but intemperate endorsement, as in the Falklands War and the Iraq invasion — when Newscorp media assets, said the Independent columnist Stephen Glover, become ‘an arm of the British state’. That may even underestimate, since Newscorp denunciation of rivals who sustain proper independence can be more hysterical than anything pleaded by the state itself in its own cause.

During assorted crises, assortments of British politicians have claimed that independent reporting of the government’s actions equals criminal perfidy. The general public has never accepted this, and isn’t likely to think broadcasters who exemplify the idea have much that is ‘fit and proper’ about them. (And few politicians support it when they take a long-term view.) It is a position seemingly congenial to Murdoch.

Some technicalities, definitions and identities should be clarified. News International is the UK-registered company which holds 39.1 per cent of the stock in British Sky Broadcasting plc. This is considered as a controlling interest because the majority of Sky shares are in smaller packets widely-held. Sky is managed by News International which also manages the the Sun, The Times, the Sunday Times and some lesser assets like the Times supplements (plus website titles which might come in handy one day). News International is controlled by News Corporation, registered in Delaware and listed on the NASDAQ exchange with secondary listing in Sydney and Adelaide.

Newscorp has a complex biography reflecting Rupert Murdoch’s desire at crucial times to organise it as a public US company but one under his personal direction (as a naturalised American) according to Australian law. It owes its present media ascendancy to being a chimera, in the old Greek sense of a beast incorporating the body parts from quite different animals. But through all its transmutations it has always been Rupert Murdoch in corporate form: although his powers at 80 appear somewhat diminished, he still controls the mechanism throughout. To repeat, in no sense does News International have a real, distinct existence: it is an essential limb of Newscorp, one without which the main body would be much diminished and quite likely moribund.

The Murdoch imperium has few if any equivalents among global enterprises (a family patriarch serving as chairman and chief executive is unusual now on any scale), and this adds another special dimension to the ‘fit and proper’ judgment. A candidate accustomed to checks and balances may be very different from a long-serving emperor.

There is Whitehall rubric used to assess prospective wielders of authority, and it asks

whether, in the past, the person has been candid and truthful in all his dealings with any regulatory body and whether the person demonstrates a readiness and willingness to comply with the requirements and standards of the regulatory system and with other legal, regulatory and professional requirements and standards.

Something like this, clearly, is expected of any company director or executive. But governments and regulators have usually suggested licensed broadcasters should be particularly scrupulous. This presumably is because broadcasters are given control of public assets (spectrum) which once in practical operation might be used to manipulate and reshape public opinion: something able to be done quite swiftly in present conditions.

James Murdoch, as chairman (under Rupert’s command) of BSkyB delivered last year at the Edinburgh Festival a lecture arguing crudely that pursuit of profit is the only useful guide to television operations. Whatever the virtue of that position, it goes far beyond the view of most experienced practitioners — who think television’s aims should continue to be pluralistic. (Economists, incidentally, don’t yet have a non-subjective definition of ‘profit’.)

Should someone commanding a major television company move it towards being a platform for some special ideological outlook, it would not be quite simple for regulators to take action. (James anyway suggested that regulation should largely be abolished.)

Unfit and grossly improper

Having to condemn particular items is a form of censorship only slightly less attractive than specifying in advance what may and may not be said. Ofcom’s predecessors have thought it best to licence people who undertake to run pluralistic, unbiased services and who seem likely, on their record, to follow through. The task of supervision then becomes tolerable: a matter of regular small corrections rather than explosive confrontation at extended intervals. (Rupert’s first contemptuous response to this approach is recorded in The Murdoch Archipelago.) Such regulation has never worked perfectly, but the polling evidence is that people regard British news and current-affairs programming as reasonably trustworthy. (This trust includes Sky News, the only Newscorp organ to gain a reputation for objectivity: its staff privately attribute their success to the regulatory system’s protection.)

But it is an approach which depends totally on the winner of any major broadcasting licence — corporate or individual — coming close to the description of a ‘fit and proper’ person given above. The history of News Corporation, recounted in this book, shows that Rupert Murdoch does not make even the loosest kind of match.

The company’s advance has hewn through nearly every Anglophone culture — and some others besides — a trail of expansive, inoperative promises; of undertakings given with appearance of solemnity, but withdrawn or forgotten without visible compunction; of simple misrepresentations, and complex ones; of libertarian swagger segueing into shameless toadyism; of cruelty justified in terms fit to alarm Seth Pecksniff; and, in counterpoint to the broken public promises, clandestine deals to gain business advantage by remaking democratic politics as a marionette-show.

Significant evidence suggests that Murdoch’s word is worth nothing if he can gain by trashing it. Regulators might expect strict legal form to restrain him, but such is not reliably the case. His record shows a keen grasp of King Lear’s bitter rule: through ragged dress ‘small vices do appear’, but

Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.

Apposite, for Murdoch’s operations have classically involved gaining control of media assets by issuing promises about their performance, and initial estimates are inevitably subjective. Passage of time will reduce that ambiguity — demolishing, for instance, the promise that in Murdoch hands The Times would retain its political non-alignment. (Five years on opportunist Tory bias was so gross that its best staff walked out to found the Independent.) But time also bloats costs of legal recourse, and settles gold-plate in place. Newscorp practice from the Times to the Wall Street Journal and beyond is one of guns expertly jumped and feet sagaciously dragged.

Please clear the way for Mozart

The record shows that the chief steps in Newscorp’s growth have involved, with few exceptions, circumventing American, Australian and British laws designed to resist monopoly and to sustain honest, independent news reporting.

Also the record is replete with injured counterparties, defeated rivals, ex-employees and straightforward victims who say they would have acted differently had they understood Murdoch’s real intentions, or realised the peril they were in.

He has, to be sure, defenders. There are present employees and beneficiaries: many, though not multitudinous considering Newscorp’s scale and extent. Pre-eminent among these is Kelvin McKenzie, once editor of the Sun, who holds that restraining Murdoch’s appetite for media assets would be like holding back Mozart.

Then there’s an important group — often enough media sophisticates — who blame the victim: the deceived above the deceiver. This illuminates Murdoch’s adroitness in addressing the sectional resentments of current society: a defender may come to a profound general distrust of Murdoch but subsume that in loathing of some special enemy lacerated by Newscorp for reasons of its own. Murdoch’s crucial ally Woodrow (Lord) Wyatt was an example: he realised by degrees that Murdoch’s attachment to the Thatcherite faith was cynical, but collaborated nonetheless in outrageous deception of the Newscorp workforce. The unions he considered so delinquent that they had no right to fair dealing.

The Bancroft family who sold the Wall Street Journal to Murdoch three decades afterward might be called upper-class boobies, just as the London print unions were called oafish pirates — that is, not altogether unfairly. But that doesn’t make it right that they were tricked-up, and the process of representing it otherwise is what elected people call ‘wedge politics’ (‘hot-button issues’): actually the thing our moral instructors condemned as using ends to justify means. (We must eventually come back to ends, as the Journal, The Times and the Sunday Times, ‘rescued’ by Murdoch, are in deep difficulties today.)

The Bancrofts were turned into fair game by a reversed action of simple class-prejudice: the ‘Establishment’ kitsch-ideology insistently deployed by Newscorp and its friends. Once identified as ruling-class individuals, the Bancrofts have no right to fair treatment from Murdoch henchpersons.

Of course simple observers will notice that Rupert has by birth, education and wealth every attribute of the ruling-class as it is normally understood. But according to Newsthink that category is replaced by the ‘Establishment’, a vast, secret — anyway, hazily-defined — syndicate of powerful figures devoted to selfish preservation of their own status, by blocking the ambitions of vigorous friends of the common people. It turns out that one of their principal targets is Rupert Murdoch, who has been in combat with them ever since he left Oxford. That anyone should swallow such crap —  the ‘Establishment’ is actually a left-over fragment of McCarthyism — is staggering. But it’s commonplace among Newscorp people with radical youth behind them and current unease about doing journalism under Murdoch, supposedly the dark genius of populist sales. Fantasing the man as a revolutionary seems to afford them comfort.

However, it should not. In the Wall Street Journal matter this was just peripheral horseplay. But in the Sunday Times’ shameful AIDS-denial campaign, it was very far from being a bit of fun.

And mainly they should free themselves from the myth of Murdoch the journalistic master-mind. In editorial history his role is chief wrecker of the ‘commercial-professional’ newspaper.

That concept took shape in the early years of the 20th century, as one in which a newspaper’s gathering of advertisement revenue was operationally distinct from news-gathering — though both were supposed to create value for each other. The 18th and early 19th centuries, with some important — developing — exceptions, expected there to be payment for ‘insertions’ in newspapers, without thinking much about whether advertisements and articles should become distinct products and care taken to exclude anything in the nature of bribery.

The ‘commercial-professional’ term was invented fairly recently in America by the sociologist Michael Schudson, but titles like the Guardian, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Sydney Morning Herald were giving it practical expression well before the First World War.

There is a complex literature about whether an ideal form really existed and how closely actual papers stuck to the practice of reporting the news without paying attention to whether or not it might improve the joint bottom-line. There is no space here to settle the grand arguments raging around it: broadly, the left says the model cannot work, and the right that it should not: certainly instances of failure were sufficient to gratify both sides. My own short view is that it has sometimes worked fairly well some of the time, and had it not done so we would not possess even the battered democracy that exists today.

But in this context the central matter is that the commercial-professional concept does not and never did exist within the empire of Rupert Murdoch — and that his career has been devoted, with no small progress, to its destruction. And this devotion has been the factor raising Newscorp to its present eminence among global media concerns — enabling him to trade propaganda-journalism for political influence, exchanged in turn for major broadcasting assets with a large element of monopoly.

If it should then turn out that a quite fatal blow to his creation has been struck by the Guardian — a surviving classic of the Schudson model — we may think that Sophocles has finally been outdone in irony.

Tabloid decline and desperation

Murdoch the circulation mastermind is another fantasy (or bogey for innumerate politicians), and like the Establishment myth it contains obnoxious motivation. There is a branch of liberal opinion which unreasonably despises the lower orders as much as it (reasonably) despises tabloidism: assuming that because it’s nasty it has a fascination for the proletariat which Rupert exploits with gruesome skill. Dotty self-denigration is often attached, suggesting that we (well, ‘they’) share the  guilt for Newscorp excess because the stuff is gobbled-up so eagerly.

Actually the British, proletarians and all, were already running-down their tabloid habit when Murdoch bought the News of the World in 1969. Its then six million sale (down from a eight million circa 1950) had dropped well below three million when it was put out of its misery this year: nor is the ‘Soaraway’ Sun essentially better-off, in spite of a grand 1970s raid against the Daily Mirror.  Remorseless decline of the tabloid audience surely contributed to the desperation which drove the News of the Screws into reckless criminality. (It was due to mild but worthwhile improvements in British civilisation: a better-educated society, and one less oppressed by Grundy legislation making sexual nonconformists into easy tabloid fodder).

But more particularly, Murdoch’s epoch-making success as a political entrepreneur and mogul of broadcasting was the direct product of his journalistic incapacity: the characteristic enabling him to produce newspapers uniquely well-fitted for delivery of blackmail or blandishment. Most newspapers have been largely useless for either purpose — utility varying inversely with their editorial quality. While they exist at all this is unlikely to change.

The point about a blackmailing threat is that there must be no uncertainty. And an obliging toady, the blackmailer’s vital doppelganger, must also be predictable. (Instances of both are clearly visible in the Sun’s Murdoch-moderated relationship with the latter Blair.)

But in journalism being predictable is a serious crime, perhaps the only capital one. To borrow from the jazz critic Whitney Balliett, journalism is ‘the sound of surprise’. Uncertainty is not dispensable.

No inspired editor can tell the chairman and chief executive what he will really do next because s/he doesn’t have that knowledge herself, and nor does his or her staff. Rupert was eager to appoint Harold Evans as a saviour-editor of The Times, but as it emerged that Evans couldn’t be trusted with failing to discover things certain to enrage Margaret Thatcher, the relationship broke down and Evans had to go — even though the paper’s sales were turning seriously around.

However when Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell made their rapprochement with Murdoch in 1995 they were confident that John Major would be dumped. And so he was.

Newscorp has generally stuck with uninspired editors who knew quite well what they would do next — as in the case of Rebekah Brooks starting a vigilante operation against paedophiles — and it has been agreeable to Murdoch. Firing editors is not something he enjoys, and so long as the sound of surprise is rare, incumbencies may be extended. Some have been mildly distinguished, like that of Simon Jenkins, who refurbished The Times after some down-market experiments which even Murdoch recognised as disastrous. Jenkins having the outlook of the classical Stoics under the mad Julio-Claudian emperors — no events should be supposed significant — never sought urgently for troublesome stories, and so found Murdoch amenable. Andrew Neil at the Sunday Times did claim to look for trouble. There were some horrible cock-ups like AIDS denial, but just one genuine success was enough to induce termination.

There are of course complexities about selling journalism, and web potential is adding rapidly to them. Mathematical economists have shown that a reliably profitable newspaper audience may be built on giving readers news in a form appealing exactly to their existing prejudices. (Probably such a mechanism underlies the rise of Fox News and other far-right broadcasters in the US.) But this is no help to anyone needing to switch products in the political market-place: when an audience nourished on one rigid viewpoint is fed an equally rigid alternative the sure result is catastrophe. Still less is it useful to anyone trying to create a new and broad-based audience, or rebuild a derelict one. There is evidence suggesting that surprise may break through prejudice, but little to suggest that the consequences may be foreseen.

Very good reporters — quite a small minority among journalists — actually enjoy this uncertainty. But authoritarians — and Murdoch is classically authoritarian — find it distressful. Nor, generally, do they share the natural reporter’s urge to publish. The authoritarian has a narrow form of curiosity, centred on collecting stuff (mainly gossip) to squirrel-away for tactical advantage.

This is far from suggesting that Newscorp’s drear mediocrity results from any cunning scheme. Examination of the New York Post — Murdoch’s one personal creation suggests it represents his earnest best.

Undoubtedly Murdoch, during some three decades, has parlayed control over these dim and failing newspapers into the possibility of control over assets of vastly greater wealth and significance. Those who grasp this point often confine explanation to radical character-defects in the political elite, but this over-simplifies.

Contemporary societies present intricate problems for their rulers, called-on to address triumphs and disasters their predecessors were scarcely expected to notice. They suffer consequently a chronic and often acute fear about their legitimacy. It is not an ailment the Murdochs invented, but their own gullibility and authoritarianism make them natural providers of remedy. The first business  of quacks is to persuade themselves about the cure on offer.

For many bedornered politicians tabloid allegiance — however volatile — is more tempting than a regime of strict, rational accountability. But this is as strenuous to supply as it is to receive: are the hacks who offer it any less corrupt than the consuming addicts?

After the talk of innovation and technology, the Murdochs are in fact a throwback: a dark survival from the past, seeking to project itself into the future. Journalism in the 18th century was essentially a servant of factional politics: when Jefferson said newspapers were essential to politics he did not suppose any of them would be independent; only that there would be a great diversity of allegiances.

Much diligence and sacrifice during the years 1880-1960 went into separating politics and journalism sufficiently for them to have an abrasive but salutary relationship with each other. Murdoch’s achievement has been re-creating symbiosis: mutual exploitation, but with monopolistic ambitions quite beyond Jefferson’s vision.

For this he probably had to start at the top (viz, proprietor), since his original abilities seem unlikely to have permitted ascent from below. Gullibility, natural to the authoritarian, lays many fatal traps for the junior reporter, and the mature Rupert has featured in some spectacular examples: the man who bought the Hitler Diaries bought the idea of oil falling to $20 after victory in Iraq. There are family parallels: Sir Keith Murdoch in 1918 could not see true military genius in General John Monash (only a Jew who didn’t represent the true Anzac type). Rupert in 2003 failed to see through the pseudo-warrior George Bush. History has not been kind to either of those Murdoch forays into high policy.

How serious is the matter of freedom and independence to news-media?

One of the little problems of interpreting Newscorp is that it takes itself very seriously — until it finds itself in a tight corner. Then it typically asks everyone to lighten up, and remember that, hey, we’re only entertainers. (The entertainment may damage individuals caught in its glare, but Rupert Murdoch accepts no responsibility for that. ‘I don’t destroy people,’ he says. ‘They destroy themselves by acting badly’.)

In reality, the condition of the news and entertainment media is a matter of life and death: something which becomes sharply apparent whenever any state chooses or claims a need to use deadly force against its own people, or those of other states.

If you want a principled, open media please act now: join and support openDemocracy, it's up to you to decide the amount. You'll get the short weekly email summary for supporters, and help spread the word. Thank you.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData