• Rupert and the Rioters

    Rupert Murdoch and his News International have good reason to be grateful to the rioters. They were able to drop out of the headlines themselves, for a time at least, and to report on others making the news for a change.

    But their respite was short-lived. The apparently incontrovertible and growing evidence of cover-up and dishonesty has compounded the outrage felt at the phone-hacking revelations. They now find themselves – with the publication of Clive Goodman’s letter – back in centre stage.

    It is perhaps appropriate that they should share double billing at this point with the rioters. Perhaps the one issue is linked with the other? The search is on, after all, for an explanation of what may otherwise seem inexplicable – how could young people act with such an absence of any decent impulse? Without any thought for damage they were doing to the society in which they lived?

    The Prime Minister, no less, opines that parts of English society are “broken” and has declared a social “fightback”; but fighting back will be ineffective if the enemy remains unidentified. Punishing individual rioters may be necessary and unavoidable, but that in itself will do little to drill down into the real causes of social breakdown.

    At this point, step forward Rupert Murdoch and News international. Here, after all, are those who –through their power in the media – have arguably done more than any others to shape our society over recent decades.

    We now have a fairly accurate idea of the values and principles they have brought to that task – the evidence provided by what we now know about their own disreputable business practices. We know that they have little regard for legality or honesty, that they feel contempt for those they report on, and that they will use their power to threaten or cajole when challenged.

    They purport to hold up a mirror to society, to show people how they and others – their neighbours, their workmates – actually behave. But the mirror has been distorted. They have, in an effort to shock and titillate so as to sell more of their product, pushed back the boundaries of what is regarded as acceptable. They show, not what most people think or do, but what those at margins of society get up to – and the more outrageous the better.

    Underpinning this distortion of what is normal and responsible is the cult of celebrity. The constantly repeated and largely subliminal message is that, however despicable the behaviour, it is to be excused and even celebrated if the perpetrator is featured in the headlines. Celebrity cures all. Fame and money are all that matter.

    The result is that young people in particular are left without a moral compass. Sexuality is a commodity and selling agent. Money is the greatest desideratum, however it is acquired. Those who deserve to be admired and emulated are those whose success is measured by how much they have been able to grab, even – and especially – when it is at the expense of others. In all of this, the personal mantra of the News International proprietors is faithfully reflected.

    The Murdoch media have been major influences in creating a debased popular culture. The old social virtues of mutual support, helping one’s neighbour, have been supplanted. Little wonder that young people, with little life experience and nothing much by way of role-models to emulate or moral guidance to follow, have been especially susceptible to the message delivered to them unremittingly by the Murdoch media.

    There are of course other contenders to shoulder the major responsibility for social breakdown. Among the leading candidates would have to be the development in a recessionary climate of an economy in which unskilled labour no longer has a part to play.

    Give or take the odd millionaire’s daughter who popped up like manna from heaven for the headline writers, the young people who took their chance in the riots (manipulated no doubt by social media-savvy fomenters of trouble) saw no future for themselves because they knew they had been dismissed as worthless by the rest of society. They reasoned that grabbing what they could when the moment arrived was just the kind of behaviour that would be rewarded not just with material gain but with a brief and local celebrity.

    So, when David Cameron launches his fightback, why not look for starters at the role of Murdoch media which have been allowed – by exploiting their power with the benevolent connivance of successive governments – to exercise a disproportionate and malign influence on our young people?

    Bryan Gould

    18 August 2011

  • 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.