• The Murdoch Monster

    The worst moment of the Falklands War, from a British viewpoint, was the sinking in April 1982 of HMS Sheffield by an Argentinian Exocet missile. I was at the time working as presenter and reporter on ITV’s nationally networked current affairs programme TV Eye. I was immediately despatched by the programme’s editor to travel to Portsmouth, the Sheffield’s home base, to interview the young families who had learned overnight that their husbands and fathers had been killed.

    I was required to walk up to their front doors at breakfast time, with a cameraman at my shoulder, and catch the newly grieving widows sobbing into the camera. I found that I could not do it. I returned to London without the requisite footage.

    As we watch the phone-hacking scandal engulf the Murdoch media empire, it is worth registering that there has long been – at least in some parts of the media – a journalistic culture that says that “getting the story” is everything. Some hardened hacks glory in their willingness to break the rules, of both law and decent behaviour, if that is what it takes.

    So the unpleasant truth about News International is in some senses nothing new. Yet there is a special significance to Murdoch’s travails. It is not just that his newspapers broke the rules (and we have yet to discover just how far-reaching those breaches were); it is the impunity with which News International thought it could be done, the power which it gave them, and the uses to which they thought it could be put that should worry us even more than the disregard shown for ordinary human decency.

    I know, or knew, Rupert Murdoch slightly. We had, I suppose, a couple of things in common – both Antipodeans and both members of Worcester College at Oxford where he had been a student and I, some years later, a don.

    But it was as a politician that I accepted a lunch invitation from him, and his then right-hand man, Andrew Neil, in the late 1980s. The three of us had a pleasant meal and an interesting conversation at News International’s Wapping headquarters, but – even to this day – I can only guess at what the purpose of the invitation might have been.

    But that guess is a fairly informed one. We now know that Murdoch was intent on using the power that he wielded through his newspapers and other media to cajole, threaten, and suborn the leading politicians of the day. He presumably concluded over our lunchtime conversation that I was unlikely to be malleable enough to be worth pursuing. Others, however, seem to have reacted differently.

    One of those who seem to have arrived quickly at a mutually advantageous modus vivendi with Rupert Murdoch was Tony Blair. Tony seems to have consulted Murdoch repeatedly about the policy stances he should take in order to win the support of the Sun newspaper, which was read by large numbers of working-class and potentially Labour voters.

    Murdoch had never been shy about claiming the political and electoral influence which he said that the Sun gave him. Indeed, on the morning after the Tory general election victory in 1992, the Sun’s famous headline was “It Was the Sun Wot Won It!”

    Blair went on to become one of Murdoch’s most faithful acolytes. It was Tony who was the guest speaker at the celebration of News Corp’s anniversary in California in 2006 and – standing shoulder to shoulder with Murdoch – who proclaimed that “we are all globalisers now.”

    Blair’s example – his success in apparently riding to three election victories on the back of Murdoch’s support – brought most other politicians into line. It became the accepted wisdom that electoral victory depended on Murdoch’s endorsement, and this allowed him to demand more and more by way of special treatment from government in pursuit of his business interests. It was said of Blair’s government that Murdoch was the nineteenth member of the cabinet – and one of the most powerful – and Murdoch has been assiduously courted since by politicians of all parties.

    Murdoch is of course also active and powerful in other countries, and particularly the United States, where his Fox News and ownership of the Wall Street Journal give him an influential platform. Only in Britain, however, has the cravenness of politicians allowed him to dictate to governments quite so blatantly.

    Does any of this matter to us, in New Zealand? Yes, it does. The power that Murdoch has, whether real or perceived, means that one man, with extreme views that would be rejected by all but a tiny minority, is able to shape the international political debate behind the scenes, and dictate terms to elected governments, whatever the views of the voters themselves.

    We have to live in the global economy that he has helped to shape. And, it is worth registering that no New Zealand government has dared to introduce the “anti-siphoning” legislation that would have prevented Sky Television from using their monopoly of sports broadcasting to develop a position of dominance that means the death knell of public service television.

    The real threat of Rupert Murdoch, in other words, is not just to the decent standards we should expect from our media. It is to the very substance of our democracy.

    Bryan Gould

    16 July 2011

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 19 July.