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What Rupert Hath Wrought!

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Arthur Edwards/AP Images
Rupert Murdoch with a copy of the Sun, the tabloid he acquired in 1969, at the presses in Broxbourne, England, February 25, 2012

Sir Keith, as he became, went on to a successful career in newspapers, and ended by owning the Adelaide News. Rupert was born in 1931 and brought up in Australia, although he finished his education at Oxford, where he kept a bust of Lenin in his room. He was only twenty-one when his father died and he took over the paper rather like the youthful Charles Foster Kane took over the Inquirer. Soon displaying a business flair of his own, Murdoch rapidly expanded to acquire more papers across Australia. Then London hove into view. In 1968 Murdoch pinched what Dwight Macdonald had once called “that malformed colossus of the British press, The News of the World” from under the nose of the shady and sinister Robert Maxwell, and then the next year outwitted him again to buy the Sun.

This was the relic of the Daily Herald, a paper that had originally belonged to the Labour Party and the unions. For a time in the 1930s the Herald engaged in a vigorous circulation war with the Daily Express and Daily Mail and sold more than two million copies a day, but it was a shadow of itself by 1964, when it was downmarketed again and relaunched as the Sun, without success. So Murdoch bought it, promising that it would continue to support Labour, although later remarking that “I am constantly amazed at the ease with which I entered British newspapers.” One of the best sources for this story is the biography of Murdoch by William Shawcross originally published in 1992. A sometime scourge of the abuse of power by Nixon and Kissinger, Shawcross seems to have become infatuated by Murdoch, and now, for reasons best known to himself, defends him tirelessly.1

And yet the curious thing about his admiring biography, apart from the fact that it is better written than Dial M for Murdoch, is that if you read it attentively you learn the truth about a seemingly endless catalog of broken promises and undertakings. The Sun became shriller and more vulgar, introducing the topless “Page Three girls,” and by 1979 it shouted “VOTE TORY THIS TIME.” That election was won by Mrs. Thatcher and her party, and from then on she and Murdoch sang in harmony. In 1981, Murdoch acquired the Times and Sunday Times. The sale should have been referred to the body regulating monopolies, but this was waived on a legal fiction by the responsible minister, the late John Biffen, who was on the whole one of the more likable and decent Tories of his time. Only recently have we learned that Murdoch privately lunched with Mrs. Thatcher before Biffen issued his waiver.

In the following year the Falklands war allowed the Sun to display a character not seen before in British journalism. The sinking of an Argentine warship with heavy loss of life produced the headline “GOTCHA,” and the BBC’s objective reporting was denounced with the words, “There are traitors in our midst.”

Murdoch’s own attitude toward journalistic standards and factual accuracy was highlighted by the farcical episode of the forged “Hitler diaries” in 1983. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, by now Lord Dacre, had remained a director of Times Newspapers, although he deplored Murdoch. He was instructed to examine the “diaries” and, in a foolish moment he ever after regretted, pronounced them authentic. He had second thoughts and said so to the editor of the Sunday Times just as it was going to press with the “diaries.” When the scholar’s misgivings were relayed to the proprietor, Murdoch immortally replied, “Fuck Dacre. Publish.” He was impenitent when the grotesque imposture was exposed: “We are in the entertainment business,” he said.

So far this may sound like a conventional bill of indictment against Murdoch, but there is more to it. In 1986 came the Wapping putsch. For years the Fleet Street printers had run a kind of protection racket, which had made rational and profitable newspaper production impossible. After fruitless attempts to find compromise ended in a strike, Murdoch’s papers were moved bodily at dead of night to a new plant at Wapping (a hideous building erected after the Thatcher government had, with characteristic philistinism, given permission for the demolition of handsome Georgian warehouses on the site) and they were produced there without unionized printers. We have just been told by Andrew Neil, who was then editor of the Sunday Times, that Thatcher privately promised Murdoch sufficient police protection to keep the papers coming out in the face of sometimes violent picketing, which helped ensure Murdoch a total victory.

At the time I worked daily, and amicably, with the printers at the Evening Standard. I thought then and think now that Murdoch was right. So did others. The London correspondent of The New York Times was then Joseph Lelyveld, later editor. He gave an evenhanded account, saying that Murdoch had acted with extreme ruthlessness but correctly reported the prevailing opinion that the printers had it coming. And the effects of Wapping were beneficial for the whole London press, freed from antiquated production methods and gross overmanning. What newspapers did with their new freedom was another matter.

The Sun went on its way, with front-page headlines such as “UP YOURS DELORS” (Jacques Delors was then president of the European Commission). General elections brought out something special. On election day in 1983, the Sun had published a photograph of Michael Foot, the Labour leader, and the headline “Do You Really Want This Old Fool To Run Britain?” Nine years later the Labour leader was Neil Kinnock, and the Sun’s election day headline in 1992 read: “If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Out the Lights.

When Murdoch gave evidence to the Leveson hearing in April, he said that he had been delighted by that Kinnock headline, but enraged by another front page heading shortly afterward: “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT.” Amid general surprise at the ease with which, during the recession of 1992, the fractious Tories led by the much-derided John Major had won a clear victory at that election, Alistair McAlpine, a genial businessman who had been a fund-raiser for Mrs. Thatcher, said off the cuff that they owed their victory to the support of the tabloids. Hence that headline, and hence Murdoch’s annoyance. If he is going to exercise the kind of influence he does, it must be discreet, and not a matter for boasting.

3.

At least there was no bad faith in Murdoch’s connection with Thatcher, since they were on the same side: his union-busting at Wapping was a microcosm of “Thatcherism.” Tony Blair was another matter. In 1995, the year after his election as leader of a party whose very name betokens its origin as the politicized voice of organized labor, he went to address Murdoch’s corporate meeting in Australia, giving a speech that made it clear that he stood well to the right of any previous Labour leader. The Sun duly supported Blair through three general elections, and the Times became a veritable mouthpiece for Downing Street. Alastair Campbell, formerly Blair’s communications director, has told the Leveson inquiry that no deals were ever cut between Blair and Murdoch, but then Campbell—who stage-managed Blair’s claims that Saddam Hussein had WMDs—is a man who was described many years ago by a High Court judge as “less than completely open and frank.”

To the contrary, there were quite obviously many informal deals. Not least, Blair spoke regularly before the Iraq invasion to Murdoch, who enthusiastically supported the war. Murdoch owns scores of newspapers on four different continents, all but one of which appear to have endorsed the invasion; a place of honor should always be kept for the dissenting Murdoch paper, the Post-Courier of Papua New Guinea.

Then in the summer of 2004 Blair performed a bewildering volte-face when he suddenly announced, to the horror of his supporters, that there would be a referendum on the European Constitution. This was a sop to the Europhobe Murdoch, to ensure the Sun’s continuing support at the election due the next spring. Murdoch told Leveson that he had never once asked a favor of any prime minister. Outrageous as that sounds, it might be true. As Orwell said, a dog can be trained to jump at the crack of a whip, but the really well-trained dog jumps without the whip. Murdoch did not have to beseech politicians; they came to him, desperate for his support.

So it was with Cameron. However sordid much of the hacking story has been, the single most breathtaking episode remains his appointment of Coulson after he resigned from the News of the World, following the conviction of his reporter for hacking. Cameron was encouraged in this by George Osborne, now chancellor of the exchequer, and applauded in newspapers not owned by Murdoch. “Over the past fortnight, Mr Cameron’s share price has wobbled in the markets,” wrote Matthew d’Ancona—a former editor of the Spectator, not to say a former fellow of All Souls—in the Sunday Telegraph,

but it recovered strongly on Thursday as the party announced the hiring of Andy Coulson…. This is an unalloyed coup for the Tories, as Mr Coulson is one of the most formidable journalists of his generation, combining a sharp tabloid eye with a keen political intellect.”2

Who was this “formidable journalist”? Having earlier written the Sun showbiz column “Andy Coulson’s Bizarre,” he had made a specialty of asking people, including Tony and Cherie Blair, about their sex lives, and he had just been forced to resign as editor of a semipornographic tabloid. Cameron and Osborne, conscious of their own moneyed background and expensive education, may well have thought they could use a media adviser who understood the common people; but there was a strong suspicion that they also wanted a direct liaison officer with Murdoch.

A puzzle remains. Why did the News of the World editors and the News International executives persist in a denial they knew to be false when it was obvious that, the longer they persisted, the more damaging the effect would be if the truth emerged? The answer must be that long experience had conditioned them to think that News International enjoyed special immunity, conferred by politicians and also by the police, and that they could get away with it. After all, they had got away with everything else for so long, thanks to Murdoch’s aura of invincibility and the way that successive governments had been hypnotized by him.

We have learned one truly revealing intimation of this aura and hypnotic effect. When Cameron became prime minister in May 2010, he received private warnings, from Rusbridger and from Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, about the shadows hanging over Coulson, beyond the hacking scandal, but he still brought him into Downing Street—without, we now know, having him immediately subjected to the highest level of security vetting.

  1. 1

    See, for example, “Murdoch Has Been the Bravest Media Owner in Britain in the Last 40 Years,” Guardian, May 3, 2012. 

  2. 2

    “Tories Back to School with Clever Mr Coulson,” Sunday Telegraph, June 3, 2007. 

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