ourBeeb: Opinion

Rupert Murdoch is not an evil genius, whatever BBC’s ‘Dynasty’ doc says

The BBC is supposed to be impartial. ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’, its recent epic documentary, fails that test.

David Elstein
15 September 2020, 4.55pm
Murdoch after meeting the Dowler family in 2011
Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

I was the head of programming at the British satellite broadcaster BSkyB for four years, and sat in on several meetings with Rupert Murdoch, its boss at the time. But I have only ever had a single face-to-face one-on-one conversation with him.

It lasted about 30 seconds and I have no recollection of what was said. A good lip-reader might be able to work it out by looking at the film of the encounter, which was included – somewhat mortifyingly, as visual wallpaper – in the recent BBC three-part documentary series, ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’.

Much of the first part of the first episode was devoted to the famous appearance by Tony Blair at a conference for senior executives of Murdoch’s company, News Corporation, held on Hayman Island, off the coast of Queensland. This event in 1995 became famous (or, depending on your viewpoint, notorious) as part of Blair’s attempt to cosy up to Murdoch in the hope of weaning his newspapers from supporting the then Tory prime minister, John Major.

This was a series with a lavish budget, which seemingly managed to locate every piece of professional and amateur footage of Rupert and his family, including my own 30 seconds of incidental presence. It made good use of moody music and slow motion, and had the confidence not to fill every film sequence with wall-to-wall commentary. It was stylish and quite inventive, with three film editors being given front credits on every episode. Yet what they chose to put on screen was not always quite what it seemed.

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What was surprising was what was missing

I could not help noticing the repeated use of shots of the Murdochs at play in their home swimming pool. Panorama producer Elwyn Parry-Jones acquired the footage nearly forty years ago. (Oddly, this is not credited, even while an ABC series, ‘Dynasties’, also multiply ransacked for footage, was repeatedly acknowledged.) Elwyn’s ground-breaking programme was a bona fide BBC production, straight down the middle. If he had lived to see this heavily slanted effort, he would have wondered what the BBC editorial overseers had been smoking.

What was missing

In terms of content this series had almost nothing new to say, simply recycling the views of a range of journalists, mostly from the anti-Murdoch camp. None of the Murdochs agreed to participate. There were a few former Murdoch employees, ranging from the veteran executive Les Hinton (whose own reasons for appearing eventually emerged) to former editors David Yelland, Neil Wallis, Andrew Neil and Piers Morgan.

Alan Sugar offered a heartfelt endorsement of Murdoch’s business skills, with the same brief clip used at the start and end of the series (there’s balance for you). Nigel Farage provided his two-pennyworth (in fact, worth rather less than that). But most of the interviewees were Murdoch’s enemies and critics, who formed what episode two called ‘the rebel alliance’, supported by many of the journalists who have covered the Murdoch family saga and, in particular, the so-called phone-hacking scandal.

What was surprising was what was missing. There was no reference whatsoever to Murdoch’s extraordinary business successes: buying The Sun for a pittance and then turning it into the UK’s top-selling title; rescuing – even if only for a couple of decades – the UK newspaper industry from the iron grip of the print unions by signing up the electricians to enable his papers to adopt new production and printing technology at a site in Wapping; breaking the three-channel stranglehold of ABC/CBS/NBC that had dominated the US broadcast industry for five decades; building from scratch Fox, the largest TV filmed entertainment company in the US (think ‘The Simpsons’, ‘24’ and ‘The X-Files’); and launching a satellite TV service which transformed the UK television industry by vastly enlarging the choice available to viewers.

All these undertakings were huge gambles: the losses at Sky were at one point so great that they threatened to derail a crucial bank debt refinancing for News Corp that could have sunk the company. The producers may have assumed – though they should not have – that everyone watching their series would know all that; or perhaps they regarded it as unimportant; either way, it all went unmentioned.

But why talk about any of it when you can re-run, in great detail (but with no context) the phone-hacking story, tell the tale (but misunderstand it) of Rupert’s involvement in British politics, and offer a real-life version of ‘Succession’ in the shape of a supposed (but equally misunderstood) dynastic struggle for control of the Murdoch empire?

Heir time

Given the huge amount of time, speculation, graphics and moody music devoted to the succession issue, it must have come as something of a disappointment to the production team that the matter had been settled at least a year beforehand, when Murdoch sold most of his entertainment assets to Disney, without securing a position there for either of his sons.

As James had long signalled his lack of support for one of the few retained assets, Fox News, and his marred tenure at the UK newspapers had made his control of another enterprise, the Dow Jones publishing business, a non-starter, it was inevitable that he would leave News Corp, as he indeed has. Given that all four of Rupert’s daughters are too young or have never had any inclination to run large corporations, there was only one possible successor: the oldest son, Lachlan. Not much tension there, let alone enough to sustain three hours of television.

This was largely a waste of viewers’ time: the only Murdoch who has notably risen is Rupert himself

Yet long stretches of the three hours – and many complicated graphics – were devoted to raking over speculation as to the supposed jockeying for power between the siblings over the decades: rather like watching an elaborate analysis of a horse race whose result was already known.

As it happens, James proved a surprisingly effective CEO when inserted into the top slot at Sky: having a direct line to the main man perhaps gave him more leeway to take bold steps in expanding and upgrading the business. Likewise, his sister, Elisabeth, has also proved a smart businesswoman, building a production company, Shine, from scratch, even if the sale price – when News Corp bought Shine – was vastly inflated, leading to a shareholder lawsuit, hefty damages, and abject apologies from the News Corp non-executives who nodded the deal through.

Indeed, even with his father in his ninetieth year, it is not by any means certain that Lachlan will ever be given full autonomy at the top of the enterprise. As a long-winded account of “the rise of the Murdoch dynasty”, this was largely a waste of viewers’ time: the only Murdoch who has notably risen is Rupert himself, rebuilding and vastly expanding his father’s modest Australian newspaper holdings.

Did Thatcher owe him?

The other main conceit of the first programme was the Blair/Murdoch romance, presented as an example of Murdoch’s serial kingmaking that repeated his relationship with Margaret Thatcher and was repeated with David Cameron. Each time, it was suggested, Murdoch’s support in The Sun was the decisive element in installing those three prime ministers, as well as in dislodging another two, John Major and Gordon Brown. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

Although The Sun came out for Thatcher in 1979, late in the day, subsequent analysis showed that this made almost no difference to the views of its readers. Blair was well ahead of Prime Minister Major long before The Sun climbed on board his winning cavalcade. And Cameron failed to gain a majority in 2010, despite the newspaper’s endorsement. Overall, there is very little evidence that newspaper recommendations make much difference to voting behaviour. The skill of Murdoch’s editors at The Sun, most notably Kelvin MacKenzie, was to sense and express their readers’ existing feelings, not to direct them.

Thatcher was indeed grateful to Murdoch, who grew to admire her, especially after she held firm in ensuring police protection – as Murdoch had requested – during the long, bitter and sometimes violent picketing of the Wapping print works where Murdoch’s papers were being produced, deploying modern technology, colour and unlimited pagination, all of which the print unions had long opposed.

The switch from Major to Blair was scarcely an inspired gamble

The programme inaccurately implied that Thatcher had allowed Murdoch to buy The Times and The Sunday Times, as if that were a sordid and improper favour for a man who already owned The Sun and the News of the World. This is certainly the line taken by Harold Evans, distinguished editor of The Sunday Times, who had his own bid for that paper rejected in Murdoch’s favour.

But another distinguished BBC producer, the late Steve Hewlett, debunked this version of events a few years ago by interviewing the head of Thomson Newspapers, the previous owner of The Times and The Sunday Times, He insisted that he would only have sold the two titles together, for fear that otherwise the loss-making daily would close.

Evans could not raise the finance to cover the losses at The Times and there was therefore no question of accepting the Evans bid just for the profitable title. If Thatcher’s minister in charge of overseeing mergers, John Biffen, had referred the transaction to the Monopolies Commission, The Times would have folded – so Hewlett concluded. Subsequently, Murdoch has sunk at least £500 million into covering the losses at The Times, proving correct those approached by Evans who declined to finance a bid for both papers.

The programme was equally in error in saying that Thatcher “allowed” Murdoch to take a large stake in BSkyB when two loss-making satellite television companies, Sky and BSB, merged in a desperate mutual salvage. Thatcher could not have blocked the merger, and the competition authorities realised that any prohibition would have led to two bankruptcies, with major disadvantage to consumers.

Oddly, the graphics and the commentary showed Murdoch owning 39.1% of BSkyB at the time of the merger: News Corp actually held 50%. It was only during the flotation of BSkyB two years later, after decisive action by Murdoch’s managers had turned the combined business to profit, that the banks handling the float persuaded Murdoch to sell down his stake in order to assure new investors that they would not be trapped in a company with only a small free float. It appears that a graphic from a subsequent episode in the series – where the shareholding was correctly displayed – had been mistakenly inserted.

Tony’s crony?

The switch from Thatcher’s successor, Major, to Blair was scarcely an inspired gamble. Major’s Broadcasting Act of 1996 had decisively alienated Murdoch. This was less because of cross-media ownership rules (he actually had no interest in owning ITV) than the “listed events” clause of the legislation. Major – a cricket lover – had been well and truly suckered by the BBC into promulgating a list of sporting events that could be broadcast on terrestrial channels only, no doubt assuming that domestic Test cricket would thereby be ‘protected’ from Sky.

The England and Wales Cricket Board had never wanted such ‘protection’, and managed to avoid being put on the main list; but they were ever after nervous of being financially trapped by any expansion of the list. In reality, the BBC – which had never televised the whole of any single domestic Test Match, let alone a single minute of any overseas Test – soon let Channel 4 take over the domestic contract; and when Channel 4 could no longer afford to continue (it actually asked the cricket authorities to pay for the privilege of being televised) Sky duly took up the challenge, offering a service light years ahead of the BBC’s.

Major told The Leveson Inquiry – which in 2011 and 2012 investigated newspapers’ bad behaviour – that Murdoch had informed him over a private dinner in 1997 that The Sun could no longer support him unless he changed his European policies. Maybe Major even believed that. Yet Blair’s European policies were barely distinguishable from his. In that first programme, Neil Wallis claims that Blair promised a referendum before joining the euro, but this was no more than Major had been suggesting. In any event, when, as prime minister, some years later, Blair continued to hint at such a referendum on the single currency, he knew perfectly well that Gordon Brown’s hostility to joining would pre-empt any such vote.

When John Prescott or David Blunkett were caught in flagrante, no amount of nominal loyalty to Labour got in the way of publication

Murdoch, always keen to back a winner, had nowhere else to turn in 1997. Once Blair was in Downing Street, Murdoch, his editors and executives enjoyed privileged access, which cost Labour little other than self-respect – and nothing in the shape of any particular policy – but which in due course led Murdoch to suspend independent judgment in evaluating the Iraq ‘dodgy dossier’. The programme refers to Blair’s frequent calls to Murdoch as if it were Murdoch urging his own preferences on the prime minister, rather than the other way round.

The programme trotted out the familiar trope that “106 Murdoch editors” dutifully supported the Iraq war. In fact, News Corp owned more than 106 papers at the time of the Iraq invasion, but the vast majority of them were local or community titles which carried little or no editorial, least of all about national politics, let alone international politics. It is unlikely that purchasers or recipients of these papers (many being free-sheets) were waiting by their letterboxes on a Thursday afternoon for the weekly thoughts of the editors on Saddam Hussein.

Of course, Murdoch’s four national British titles, with various degrees of enthusiasm, and in the company of The Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer, the ultra-liberal New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (for which he had not at that point paid the exorbitant price that the Dow Jones shareholders later extracted from him) did buy into the Bush-Blair fairy tale about Saddam’s alleged WMD. But that was just further evidence of Blair capturing Murdoch, not the other way round.

The programme also made the simplistic observation that support for Blair from The Sun would deliver the added dividend of tabloid exposures of Tory misbehaviour during the 1997 election. Yet the first headline used to illustrate this actually came from five years earlier, in the run-up to the 1992 election, when The Sun was still supporting the Conservatives. A story was a story: when John Prescott or David Blunkett were caught in flagrante, no amount of nominal loyalty to Labour got in the way of publication.

This only emphasised the superficial nature of any top-level relationship. Even after Sarah Brown – once Blair had reluctantly conceded the premiership to her husband – had invited Murdoch editor Rebekah Wade to Chequers for a sleepover, Wade printed the news of the serious illness of Sarah’s oldest child, despite pleas not to when she observed the minimal courtesy of calling the Browns in advance.

Cameron no use either

In due course, the Murdoch team developed an even stronger intimacy with David Cameron and some of his senior allies. But this, too, was essentially a hollow marriage of convenience. Despite the claims of such as Peter Oborne and Anthony Barnett, it delivered no dividend for Murdoch’s business.

If anything, the ill-advised intimacy was counter-productive, with Murdoch’s executives fooling themselves into thinking that ministers might ease through their 2010 bid to take over the whole of BSkyB. They wasted valuable time in the deluded belief that a deluge of phone calls, emails and meetings might make a difference, when in practice the scope for ministerial involvement was minimal. If they had been more hard-headed, and embraced a reference to the Competition Commission as soon as possible, they might well have secured their objective long before the Milly Dowler revelation torpedoed the deal.

The other miscreants

That notorious example of the appalling level of illegality that prevailed within Murdoch’s tabloid papers forms the core of ‘The Rebel Alliance’, the second episode of the series. The story is told with great relish by the protagonists at the heart of the battle against Murdoch, his papers, his bid for BSkyB and his perceived influence on British politics. Phone hacking was a scandal that was compounded by the slowness of the process of its exposure: indeed, much of the detail of the colossal scale of the phenomenon remains undisclosed.

Why was Nick Davies so surprised? And why did he concentrate on the Murdoch titles?

However, the version in this series was inherently partisan and deceptive: effectively, a party political broadcast for the Hacked Off pressure group. The key people – Hugh Grant, Tom Watson, Max Mosley, Alan Rusbridger and, above all, The Guardian’s investigative reporter Nick Davies – were given free rein to tell their stories and voice their opinions, wholly unchallenged.

(“Tell me, Mr Watson, what made you so certain that Carl Beech was entirely credible and that Leon Brittan ‘was as close to evil as a human being can get’?” “Mr Mosley, why did you print and distribute racist literature in the 1960s?” “Mr Watson, is it true that Max Mosley provided you with more than half a million pounds?”)

The questions that most begged to be asked were of Nick Davies. In the programme, he said he was “amazed” to find widespread evidence of phone hacking and blagging after the fifteen months of investigation he said he did before he published his first article about hacking in 2009. Why was he so surprised? And why did he concentrate on the Murdoch titles?

After all, three years earlier, in 2006, the Information Commissioner had published a report entitled ‘What Price Privacy?’ (a follow-up later in the year was called ‘What Price Privacy Now?’) exposing the activities of private investigators, primarily working for newspapers.

As a result of a 2003 investigation, the entire filing system of private investigator Steve Whittamore had fallen into the hands of the Information Commissioner. The extensive records of JJ Information Limited, the company run by Whittamore and his wife Georgina, documented 13,353 lines of inquiry in a period of three years. The vast majority of them were either definitely or probably illegal under section 55 of the Data Protection Act of 1998, which had come into force in March 2000.

These investigations ranged from finding out ex-directory phone numbers, checking confidential health reports, blagging bank statements, using insiders at the DVLA, the Inland Revenue, HMRC and the Police National Computer to gain access to private records, undertaking surveillance and scouring filched telephone bills to locate ‘friends and family’.

Although some clients looked respectable – local authorities trying to track down defaulting tenants, lawyers pursuing evaders of court orders or banks trying to establish the financial status of potential borrowers – overwhelmingly the customer base came from newspapers and magazines. There were even price lists: £200 for a DVLA check, £500 for a PNC check, £750 for a mobile phone account bill (all with VAT on top).

Even so, JJ Information was quite small, so there was every reason to assume that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar set-ups could be found up and down the country.

The scale of this “pervasive and widespread industry” alarmed the Information Commissioner, as did the limited number of prosecutions under section 55, compounded by the modest penalties that could be imposed on those convicted under the law as it stood. Even the Whittamores, after offering guilty pleas, were given conditional discharges. The commissioner called for the law to be changed so as to provide for jail terms of up to two years for serious offences.

The Information Commissioner’s report calculated that the Whittamores numbered 305 different journalists amongst their clients. Nonetheless – or maybe for that reason – most newspapers, including The Guardian, rejected the call for custodial sentences. So did the BBC, arguing that such penalties might inhibit public interest journalism, even though the Information Commissioner’s Office patiently explained to the BBC that the law already included a public interest waiver. Unsurprisingly, ministers were reluctant to push the idea.

So the commissioner’s follow-up report went a step further, listing the newspapers which had paid the Whittamores to carry out their (mostly illegal) requests.

One hundred and forty-two of the Whittamores’ 305 journalist clients worked for the Mirror Group and 94 worked for Associated Newspapers (the publisher of the Daily Mail): between them they paid for nearly 3,000 jobs. Only twenty-nine worked for Murdoch papers, and had paid for 258 tasks. The Observer (Sunday sister paper of The Guardian) commissioned 103 inquiries.

Even this level of revelation left Fleet Street mostly indifferent. If Nick Davies read either report at the time, he wrote nothing about them. One of his colleagues on The Guardian, David Leigh, wrote that if he had ever used such methods and intermediaries, it was only to expose bribery and corruption. The irony seemed not to strike him that that was indeed what the ICO had exposed, in wholesale fashion: much of the Whittamores’ information came from insiders, like the officer at Tooting police station, Paul Marshall, with access to the Police National Computer.

It was only two years later that Davies – along with other journalists – found a way of filling in the detail of the ‘What Price Privacy Now?’ report: but he was interested only in the Murdoch papers, and effectively ignored all other miscreant publications, even those which had used the Whittamores far more extensively. The same was true of The New York Times, when The Guardian chose to share its investigative results with a rival that was also an ally: the NYT was as fixated on Murdoch then as it would later be on Brexit and Trump.

Listening in on the lives of others

By that time, a new opportunity to glean private information illicitly had emerged. Listening in to voicemail messages (usually but inaccurately described as ‘phone-hacking’, which implies listening in to phone calls) became an attractive option, as more and more people – especially prominent ones – adopted mobile phones but failed to change the factory settings for access to their messages.

It would cost Murdoch the best part of £7 billion in cash to complete the BSkyB deal, leaving News Corporation’s asset value unchanged

This version of privacy invasion offered much richer detail and much more immediate material for tabloid newspapers: so much so that they recruited in-house hackers, such as Glenn Mulcaire at the News of the World, who had previously worked for one of the private investigators caught up in the Whittamore affair.

The seeming indifference of politicians and newspaper managements to the Information Commissioner’s call for custodial sentences was interpreted as a green light for all forms of hacking and blagging. But what most of those engaged in the new form of intrusion did not realise was that phone-hacking would lead to much more severe punishment than the modest penalties for breaches of section 55 of the Data Protection Act. A different law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, governed listening to voicemail messages: it allowed no public interest defence, and included jail sentences as a potential penalty. This was an accidental legal distinction, and for a period the Metropolitan Police were under the impression that only intercepting messages, before the intended recipient had listened to them, was an offence.

But then Mulcaire and the royal correspondent of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, were caught listening in to the voicemails of members of the royal household, and both were jailed. Suddenly, the stakes for phone-hacking were much higher. Yet for another half decade, journalists and full-time hackers continued promiscuously to break the law, rarely hindered by admonition from above. On his release, Mulcaire resumed working for the News of the World, but as a freelance. True, the paper’s editor Andy Coulson, had been forced to resign, but he was swiftly hired by David Cameron as the Conservative Party’s communications director – a bizarre decision which duly led The Guardian and The New York Times to redouble their efforts.

Delusions of grandeur?

Cameron’s emergence as prime minister after the 2010 election was followed a few months later by Murdoch’s bid to buy out the 60.9% of BSkyB that News Corp did not already own. The Guardian led a determined opposition to the bid, supported by other media groups. Its editor, Alan Rusbridger, was convinced – then and, judging by the programme, now – that this would hugely enlarge News Corporation. Apparently he did not realise that it would cost Murdoch the best part of £7 billion in cash to complete the deal, thus leaving News Corporation’s asset value unchanged.

Nick Davies, too, then as now, was under the illusion that the deal would make Murdoch’s company the “biggest media corporation in the world”: actually, it would not have put News Corp in the top five, dominated as it was by the likes of Disney, Comcast, Time Warner and ATT. More recently, of course, the emergence as media players of Netflix, Apple and Amazon has pushed News Corp even further down the table. That the BBC series allowed these fact-free claims to be made uncorrected was worrying.

Equally disturbing was the failure to mention that the BBC at the time had itself joined the media alliance to block the deal. Its director-general, Mark Thompson, signed a secret joint letter to the secretary of state for business urging intervention. When the BBC governors found out about this clear breach of the BBC’s impartiality obligations, they reprimanded Thompson, but decided not to fire him.

Take a look in the Mirror

So closely did the BBC series track the blinkered views of its preferred protagonists that viewers must have been mystified by a caption 19 minutes into the second episode. It described Graham Johnson as “Reporter, News of the World. Convicted, voicemail interception, Sunday Mirror 2001”. Johnson tells of blackmail, fraud, deception and of enjoying ruining people’s lives, intercut with Paul McMullan, “Deputy Features Editor, News of the World 1994-2001”, talking about voicemail hacking.

Johnson was the Sunday Mirror’s investigations editor after leaving the News of the World, but beyond the caption his interview makes no mention of the Sunday Mirror. The BBC programme thereby implied he had been hacking phones at the News of the World too, but provided no grounds for such an allegation.

As we now know, phone hacking at the Mirror Group was much more extensive than at the Murdoch press, but it merited no mention by the series, even though one of its most prominent victims was senior BBC executive Alan Yentob, whose voice messages were hacked tens of thousands of times by Mirror journalists over a seven-year period.

Piers Morgan's denial of knowledge of the practice was dismissed by the Leveson inquiry as “utterly unpersuasive”

Even Max Mosley’s barrister, David Sherborne (highly visible in the BBC series), told the High Court in 2015 that the Mirror Group’s phone-hacking operation “makes News of the World look like a cottage industry and a small one at that”, with hundreds of victims during its thirteen-year span. One of them was Hugh Grant, who in 2018 publicly described the illegality at the Mirror Group as on an “industrial scale” – but was seemingly not invited to repeat that comment for the BBC series. Murdoch, however, he condemned as “a threat to liberal democracy”.

Piers Morgan, interviewed for the series, was not asked about hacking at the Daily Mirror during his many years as the newspaper’s editor: his denial of knowledge of the practice was dismissed by the Leveson inquiry as “utterly unpersuasive”. One journalist Morgan employed hacked his hundred-plus targets 250 times a day, every morning and evening, and sometimes in-between. As a High Court judge said at the end of one phone-hacking trial in 2015, the practice at the Mirror Group was “widespread, institutionalised and long-standing”.

But Mr Justice Mann’s 700-page judgment earned not a single mention in the BBC series: he was, incidentally, also the judge who in 2018 so harshly condemned the BBC for its gross invasion of Cliff Richard’s privacy. It seems that an editorial decision had been taken to exclude any mention of the deplorable and illegal activity of Murdoch’s rivals.

Ignoring Mirror Group criminality cannot have impressed one of the two consultants on the series. Roy Greenslade, in The Guardian in March this year, urged that it was “time to break the silence about Mirror phone hacking”. He said the story appears “to have passed under the mainstream media radar… Neither newspapers nor broadcasters are giving the matter anything like the kind of attention they once devoted to similar intrusions into privacy by the News of the World.” Perhaps the producers of the Murdoch series stopped reading The Guardian in 2011. Perhaps in the four months between writing his column and the series being broadcast, its consultant failed to mention his heartfelt plea to them. Or perhaps they just decided on a strategic omertà .

The Dowler voicemails

Inevitably, the climax of episode 2 of the series was The Guardian’s front page on 4 July 2011, revealing that the News of the World had hacked the phone of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler – whose murdered body was not found till months later. Remarkably, Les Hinton, the most senior of the former Murdoch executives interviewed for the series, was filmed holding up that front page, yet made no comment (or, at least, not one that was broadcast) on the false sub-headline highlighted with a red “exclusive” tag: “Paper deleted missing schoolgirl’s voicemail, giving the family false hope”.

Nick Davies has never explained how he came to write a story based on incorrect speculation

As we now know – because the Surrey police subsequently revealed it – the News of the World investigator Glenn Mulcaire did not hack Milly Dowler’s voicemail until after the girl’s mother discovered that it had suddenly become possible to leave a new message on her daughter’s phone. Sally Dowler thought that Milly must have deliberately created space for new messages, so she must have been alive, giving a what she called “moment of hope”.

The police later surmised that Milly’s voicemail probably automatically deleted messages after a fixed period, but The Guardian took months to acknowledge that its exclusive was wrong. Davies – who has described one Murdoch newspaper as “a source of repulsively dishonest journalism” – has never explained how he came to write a story based on incorrect speculation.

Fallout of falsehood

In practice, that front page had an instant and dramatic impact (Davies described his fake exclusive as having “a devastating effect” on the Dowlers). It led Murdoch to hang his head in shame in a meeting with Milly’s family, and pay them, along with charities they nominated, millions of pounds in compensation. He withdrew the BSkyB bid and closed the News of the World, with the loss of hundreds of jobs. His humiliating appearances before the Leveson inquiry and the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee were inevitably recycled on the BBC series.

The irony is that, of all the hacks his papers undertook, this was one of the few which might have been justified, at a stretch, as in the public interest. The News of the World wanted to help find a missing schoolgirl (no one knew Milly was dead at this point), and indeed repeatedly told the Surrey police what it had done, in case any information derived might be useful (the Surrey police made no attempt to prosecute this self-confessed illegality). Milly’s number was actually supplied to the News of the World by her school friends. Its sister paper, The Sun, offered a large reward for information leading to her being found.

Sadly, the Surrey police operation was flawed, and Milly’s killer, Levi Bellfield, successfully eluded them after they knocked on his door but failed to find him at home and then failed to return. He had time to attack three more young women, killing two of them, before he was finally caught. But Milly’s family focused their ire on the Murdoch press – presumably not realising that the Mirror Group reportedly not only also hacked Milly’s phone, but hired private investigators to keep the Dowlers under surveillance.

So the ‘rebel alliance’ achieved their aim with a piece of untrue supposition dressed up as fact. Cameron launched the Leveson inquiry into tabloid practices. The police were at last galvanised into action, aided by a huge cache of emails that News Corp released as it tried to fend off potential criminal inquiries in the US into concealment of wrongdoing, which might have led to massive fines. Many journalists and executives were subjected to mob-handed dawn arrests, dozens were prosecuted and some convicted. Coulson was jailed. Rebekah Wade and Neil Wallis were amongst those acquitted (not that viewers reliant on the BBC series would know that, even though Wallis was a contributor).

Astonishingly, ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’ did not tell its audience that the Davies story was false. Indeed, the producers treated it as truthful, even showing a clip from the press conference organised by the Dowler family lawyer, Mark Lewis, at which Sally Dowler described her “moment of hope”. That this escaped the watchful eyes of BBC editorial staff is deeply alarming.

An unregulated press?

If we did not already suspect that the second episode was a Hacked Off production, the final caption surely settled all doubt. It read: “The Leveson Inquiry recommended that all newspapers sign up to an independent press regulator. This is yet to happen.”

To broadcast this tendentious message without any context was highly disingenuous. Brian Leveson indeed sought outside regulation for newspapers – he suggested the media regulator, Ofcom. Fortunately, Ofcom itself rejected this terrible idea. Leveson made no mention of any legislation for a Royal Charter, or the creation of a Westminster-appointed body to ‘recognise’ any independent regulator. But in 2014 this is what we got.

The implication that press regulation is unreformed is simply a calumny

A state-appointed Press Recognition Panel was created by Parliament, but all national newspapers – including The Guardian and the Financial Times – have refused to have any dealings with it. The PRP has recognised the only organisation that has sought such recognition. It is called Impress, and most of its costs are met by a charity funded by Max Mosley.

Impress has attracted over 150 publications, most of them local, community or online-only: many no doubt worthy, but also mostly obscure. So far, in four years Impress has upheld six complaints, against The Skwawkbox (twice), Unity News Network, Evolve Politics, The Canary and Byline; and partly upheld five others (four against The Skwawkbox and one against The Canary).

Most national newspapers have agreed to be regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which has declined to seek PRP recognition. IPSO has imposed sanctions in scores of cases, and mediated outcomes that both parties accepted in scores of others. You can read through 84 pages of adjudications on its website.

The notion that IPSO is a reincarnation of the discredited Press Complaints Council is clearly well wide of the mark. The implication in the BBC caption that press regulation is unreformed is simply a calumny. That an organisation – the BBC – that for over eight decades vigorously rejected any idea of outside regulation should publish this disingenuous slur is beyond ironic.

Not much of a comeback

The third episode of the Murdoch series reverted to the notion of dynastic competition and attempted to impose a kind of structure on the three programmes by describing the period since the phone-hacking scandal as one of Rupert somehow making a comeback. This narrative was as strained as that in the first episode.

Murdoch was credited with having backed Brexit and Trump, with little acknowledgement that he was late on the scene in both cases (though the programme did remind us of his early off-hand dismissal of Trump). However much Nigel Farage might want to suck up to Murdoch (and Trump) by crediting their support as being crucial, the fact is that UKIP had already scored heavily in European elections before The Sun (let alone The Times and The Sunday Times) took it seriously.

Evidence of Murdochian “rise”, as trailed in the first episode of the BBC documentary, is hard to find

In fact, the largest opinion surveys before both the 2009 and 2014 EU parliamentary elections were commissioned by The Sun, and were almost exactly right in their projections of UKIP success, but the bandwagon rolled a long way further before The Sun climbed on board. By then, of course, the Daily Express, the Daily Star, the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph were firmly in the Brexit camp.

In the US, the eventual marriage of convenience between Murdoch’s Fox News and Trump certainly benefited both. But the Trump phenomenon has driven several media outlets – notably CNN and MSNBC – into becoming liberal mirror images of Fox News, challenging the Fox channel’s pro-Trump narrative day in and day out. This has strengthened their ratings more than Fox News’s loyalty to Trump has helped its own. As for Murdoch’s New York Post, that, too has seen its position in the city even further eclipsed by the resurgence of readers and digital revenues at The New York Times, its arch enemy. Evidence of Murdochian “rise”, as trailed in the first episode of the BBC documentary, is hard to find.

As for the UK, the decline of Murdoch’s media empire has been the most obvious development of the last decade. Newspaper circulation has collapsed yet further, with The Sun so far below its peak that it no longer publishes sales figures (and makes heavy losses). Murdoch’s 39.1% stake in BSkyB has been bought out by the much larger Comcast. His share of radio listening is trivial. The average British adult consumes about half a minute a day of news from Murdoch media, compared with over 12 minutes a day from the BBC.

In financial terms, the ‘rebel alliance’ did Murdoch a huge favour in blocking his initial bid for all of BSkyB . Instead of buying the majority stake for nearly £7 billion, he ended up selling his minority stake for rather more. Even that was dwarfed by Disney’s purchase of all his film and TV entertainment assets (including the Sky proceeds) for $71 billion.

Failing the test

What is left of the Murdoch empire? Newspapers, book publishing, Fox News and Fox Sports constitute a valuable package, but all the children are now billionaires from their shares in the family trusts, diminishing their need to express supposed dynastic genetic imperatives through competing to run the rump of News Corp. The conceit of the series has not survived the events it purported to describe.

‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’ was well received by some reviewers – which led veteran TV producer David Herman to write a scathing account, for The Article, of how terrible he thought broadsheet reviewers were. Stephen Glover, in the Daily Mail – no fan of Murdoch, but even less so of the BBC – was forensic in exposing some of the failings of the series.

Kelvin MacKenzie, the most well-known of Murdoch’s British editors, revealed in The Spectator how personally affected by the hacking scandal he had been. He lives a stone’s throw from Milly Dowler’s school and was hacked seven times. (Curiously, Coulson was hacked nineteen times and Rebekah Wade forty times just in 2006, both sometimes by Murdoch employees caught up in the rivalry between The Sun and the News of the World.) MacKenzie claimed that his former political editor at The Sun, Trevor Kavanagh, had been interviewed for the series, but the material had not been used. He himself was not approached.

MacKenzie assured his readers that Rupert Murdoch could have known nothing about the illegality at the News of the World, as he would have taken “draconian action” to extirpate it if he had found out. Certainly, some executives went to great lengths to keep details away from top management, which is why Les Hinton – asked to resign, despite claiming to know nothing about hacking – felt so aggrieved about being thrown under the bus (as he put it in the series) after sixty years’ service.

But it is also clear that for months and years after The Guardian started reporting on phone-hacking, Rupert and James Murdoch took no investigative action. In James’ case, he is wide open to the charge of having turned a blind eye. Equally, successive management teams at the Mirror Group (now called Reach) have denied all knowledge, obfuscated, refused to investigate and to this day try their best to limit disclosures of industrial-scale illegality. In that effort, this blinkered BBC series has proved a willing ally.

In Tony Hall’s last media interview before leaving his job as BBC director-general, he said that the BBC’s job “was not to take sides, or pander to any particular group”. If he had issued an instruction to that effect to all BBC commissioning editors, perhaps ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’ would not have failed the test of impartiality so comprehensively.

Correction, 9 December 2020: We have edited this article to remove an inaccuracy about the Hayman Island gathering, which led to an erroneous criticism of the production company.

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