What makes Rupert run?

Ross McKibbin

  • BuyMurdoch’s Politics: How One Man’s Thirst for Wealth & Power Shapes Our World by David McKnight
    Pluto, 260 pp, £12.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 7453 3346 5

Rupert Murdoch has created perhaps the greatest media business in the history of the media business. It exceeds in scope any of the empires assembled by the Hearsts, the Harmsworths and the Thomsons. Murdoch himself seems driven by insatiable ambition. He is never satisfied. Nothing appears complete, and the old man shows no sign of abandoning the struggle – especially as his heirs (his children) now publicly quarrel over the patrimony. What makes Rupert run? Money, power, glory, the business itself?

Murdoch’s business supports, usually stridently, the predominant conservative political parties in the countries that harbour his empire. It can be argued that his politics are as much instrumental as ideological: that, in practice, his political beliefs are subordinate to the protection of his business. Under pressure from the Chinese government, he dropped the BBC from his Asian television services; on another occasion, for the same reason, Chris Patten’s memoirs were struck from the list at HarperCollins. And, the story goes, he abandons conservative parties whenever it looks as if the electorate has abandoned them too – hence his dumping of the Tories in 1997.

David McKnight sees all this differently. Murdoch knew that he could have no influence in China. There was no point in alienating its government and damaging his profits, so he ditched the promotion of democracy and with it the BBC and Patten. In 1997, Murdoch was more interested in wrecking John Major’s media legislation than anything else, and had procured from Tony Blair a promise that once in power he would dilute any such legislation. McKnight also argues – convincingly – that were Murdoch interested only in the opinion polls he would have supported Labour in 1992. Instead, his campaign against them was vicious even by his standards, and he claimed the credit when they lost: ‘It’s the Sun wot won it!’ And his support for Blair was always conditional. Labour, McKnight says, had to prove its reliability ‘repeatedly’, and when not supporting the Tories, Murdoch’s tone was always regretful. Blair didn’t need Murdoch to encourage him into Iraq, but he presumably knew that the Sun’s continuing support depended on Britain’s participation in the great adventure. McKnight argues that it really is ideology and ideas that drive Murdoch. He subsidises his loss-making newspapers because they are instruments of political persuasion, not because as an old newspaper man he loves newspapers. The point of his papers, especially in America, is to promote his political views; this is also the reason for his lavish support for conservative (often very conservative) think tanks and publications.

Murdoch’s formal politics weren’t always this way. As a young man reading PPE at Oxford he wrote admiring letters to the Australian Labor prime minister, Ben Chifley. In 1970 the Sun supported Harold Wilson and in 1972 Murdoch’s papers, notably the Australian (a national daily he had founded in 1964), supported Gough Whitlam. There is, though, a psychological and temperamental unity, a commitment to a ‘radicalism’ that forms a thread between his fitful youthful progressivism and his later, prolonged aggressive conservatism. Murdoch has always seen himself as an outsider, an anti-establishment figure, an opponent of the ‘elites’, an enemy of stuffiness and the English class system, a wild colonial boy who stands for the ‘ordinary’ man. There is a certain self-conscious filial piety here. His father, Keith Murdoch, was partly responsible for establishing the received view of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, in which thousands of heroic Australians and New Zealanders were sacrificed to the incompetence and snobbishness of British generals. This is as close to an official ideology as Australia is likely to have – and Murdoch has done his bit in furthering it. He and Robert Stigwood financed Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli (1981), which stands in this tradition.

A ‘radical’ rhetoric armed Murdoch for his invasion of the United States. In what McKnight calls a ‘deep political transformation’, America and a neoconservative view of the country became central to Murdoch’s worldview. McKnight suggests this might have begun when Murdoch fell out of love with the Whitlam government partly because of the hostile attitude its ministers took towards American policy in Vietnam. By 1975, Murdoch and his press were critical to the point of hysteria and created the atmosphere that allowed the upper house and the governor-general to remove the government in what was effectively a coup d’état. Whitlam’s was a moderate government that modelled itself on the social democratic parties of Western Europe. Yet according to Murdoch, Whitlam was attempting to introduce to Australia a ‘European type of socialism’ which had caused ‘ruin and misery’ elsewhere. The remark was so absurd you wonder whether he could really have believed it. Clearly, however, he did.

McKnight argues that Reagan and Reaganism meant more to him in the evolution of his conservatism than Thatcher and Thatcherism. He admired Thatcher and owed her favours – I’ll come to those – but he believed, as in a way he always had, that Britain’s moment was past. The dynamic of the West and of Western capitalism had migrated to the United States and Murdoch went with it, impelled by his obsessive anti-Communism. Not that Britain was neglected: the Sun, after all, was the cash cow of News International. Murdoch was closely involved with the Institute of Economic Affairs; he supported David Hart, Thatcher’s hatchet man, who did much to defeat the miners, and the Committee for a Free Britain of which Hart was a prominent member. Sherwood Press, the publishing house of Brian Crozier, a journalist of the extreme right, appears to have been financially rescued by Murdoch when it faced bankruptcy – he took a half-interest in the company and paid off its debts. The cranky anti-intellectualism that was to become Murdoch’s characteristic mode was demonstrated early on by the Sunday Times’s lengthy campaign against scientists who argued that HIV was the cause of Aids.

McKnight gives fascinating detail – much of it new to me – about the extent to which Murdoch funded and continues to fund conservative institutions and individuals in the United States. There are the usual suspects: William Kristol, Norman and John Podhoretz and the circle around them, Pat Robertson and Rick Santorum, whom Murdoch supported for the presidency. He employed and was friendly with Roy Cohn, Senator McCarthy’s unpleasant little helper. When anti-Communism ran out of steam, Murdoch found a new enemy in the ‘liberal media’, as did Kristol et al. The external battle had become an internal one. McKnight believes that the ideas promoted by these people really mattered to Murdoch; that his papers and TV networks – Fox News in particular – were much more organs of opinion than his British or Australian tabloids. I’m not sure how true that is. ‘Opinion’ comes in many forms and the opinions of the Sun or the Sydney Daily Telegraph are not exactly hidden – as Julia Gillard could confirm. Still, it’s clear that Murdoch is prepared to lose a lot of money (on, for instance, the New York Post) in order to advance his opinions in America.

How much influence has he had? The answer depends in part on whether you think Murdoch made the zeitgeist or the zeitgeist made him. McKnight argues that his media decide what the issues are, and so the questions politicians must address. Without necessarily deciding an issue, they foreclose discussion of others. Also, by adopting a notion of ‘balance’, Murdoch’s media imply that major questions are not settled, that one person’s science is as good as another person’s. A ‘balanced’ treatment of creationism, for example, might be that the evolutionary theory is no better than the theory of intelligent design. A ‘balanced’ treatment of global warming gives equal credence to those who put forward evidence for man-made climate change and those who reject it out of hand.

Foreclosing, of course, means more than promoting a spurious ‘balance’: it means excluding proper knowledge from the public sphere. Robert McChesney, in his introduction to McKnight’s book, cites research indicating that regular viewers of Fox News are more ignorant even than a proportion of people who say they watch no news at all. This has consequences. Perhaps the central defect of modern democracy, the price we pay for its virtues, is the fact that much of the electorate is largely unacquainted with anything more than the elementary workings of modern societies and political systems. In the absence of knowledge, people tend to fall back on folk wisdom and urban legend, nearly all of which is conservative. In the UK, that makes the construction of rational policy on, say, crime, immigration, welfare or the EU almost impossible. Foreclosure, therefore, just as much as active propaganda, works in the interest of those whom Murdoch and other conservative media barons represent. In this respect, Murdoch is not an innovator. Much of what he says and writes is the common coin of conservatism. Conservatives have always claimed they ‘really’ represent the ordinary man against the conspiracy of self-serving educated ‘elites’ (see the Daily Mail’s campaign against MMR vaccination, very similar to the Sunday Times’s coverage of HIV). The language in which these ‘elites’ are described – ‘champagne socialists’, the ‘liberal media’ – is also common to modern conservatism. Murdoch is merely the latest in a long line of media magnates prepared to lose money in order to promote their own convictions, however dotty. And Murdoch isn’t the first and won’t be the last to practise self-deception. He isn’t the wild colonial boy he pretends to be. His father and mother both accepted imperial honours; his father’s papers were always conservative; Sir Keith and Lady Murdoch (Dame Elisabeth) and the young Rupert lived lives wholly divorced from those of the average Australian; and the elderly Rupert is even more estranged from the ‘people’. But it is a rule of politics: if you wish to deceive others you must first deceive yourself.

Media barons often deceive themselves too about the extent of their influence. Most make inflated claims, Murdoch no less than the others. Murdoch’s authority is almost certainly less than he and the politicians who have sucked up to him believe. He is the most significant of the media barons, but only one of several, and he operates within a traditional press culture created by others, and which passes from baron to baron. In Britain he has over-reached himself and the future of the empire here must be in doubt – a consequence of the recklessness he seems to encourage in his organisations. In the US, where Murdoch’s real interest lies, and whose future matters to him more than anywhere else’s, he has had only limited success. One reason is that even by American standards Murdoch’s politics are extreme. Many of the people he has supported are politically half-crazy. An expert at foreclosing can defy reality only for so long. Eventually reality will express itself: that is the virtue of democracy. Though the Republican Party has indeed been transformed, that transformation has had little directly to do with Murdoch. And he has not transformed American politics. Obama was re-elected; the Tea Party movement is disintegrating; the Republican Party is fracturing; Obamacare is still with us. The New York Post and the Wall Street Journal are based in a city that voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party last year.

It is also possible to exaggerate Murdoch’s political reach. Fox News, for example, however profitable it has been and however significant for conservative America, is a cable programme watched by only a tiny proportion of American adults, most of whom are presumably already believers. The American market is so large and diverse that it seems in practice difficult for any one individual to have the influence Murdoch would like. Obama worries less about Murdoch’s good opinion than his opposite numbers in Britain and Australia do. And Murdoch’s reach is confined to English-speaking countries. The failed attempt to buy Berlusconi’s Mediaset business was Murdoch’s last effort to advance significantly beyond his heartland. Berlusconi, indeed, is a much better example of the ambitious media mogul than Murdoch. He managed to turn the Italian state into an appendage of his businesses: something Murdoch has never achieved in the Anglophone states. McKnight argues that Murdoch has derived much of his power from attaching himself to the dominant ideas – neoconservative, neoliberal – of the Western world. But if they are in fact the dominant ideas it is only in English-speaking countries. Murdoch’s career isn’t a genuinely international phenomenon but a manifestation of the political cultures of Australia, Britain and the US.

McChesney writes that Murdoch ‘is the poster child of crony capitalism: his empire is built on effective government-granted monopoly franchises such as broadcast licences and copyright.’ In Britain, crony capitalism has gone further than that in his cause. A semi-politicised police force played an important part in his victory over the print unions at Wapping, for which he was undoubtedly grateful. Though often astute and bold, he has not made his own way in the world. Without the active connivance of the political class, Murdoch could never have constructed his empire. Why and how this happened tells us much about the modern democratic state. The first explanation for the connivance is straightforward. Once Murdoch had made his politics clear it was in the interests of conservatives everywhere to prop him up. He was their agent and they used him as much as he used them. Mutual exploitation would have continued in Britain had not the phone-hacking scandal obliged his political allies to deny him the full ownership of BSkyB that he wanted and they wanted him to have. Even within the conservative ruling class, however, things have changed to Murdoch’s benefit. In the past, Tory political leaders knew they had to manage the conservative press. People like Rothermere and Beaverbrook were powerful and politically ambitious. They had specific political programmes which often conflicted with Tory policy, and more often than not they were seen off by a party leadership with enough self-confidence not to be bullied. Even Thatcher, who certainly thought she needed Murdoch, was fairly cool in her relations with him, as was John Major. Coolness, however, isn’t (or wasn’t) characteristic of the present leadership. The embarrassing, cloying relationship between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks revealed by the Leveson Inquiry shows how far the tone has changed.

The interesting question is why those in political opposition were and are so reluctant to resist Murdoch. It is clear that no one in the British or Australian Labour Parties has seriously thought of taking him on, even though he was and is crucially dependent on the goodwill of politicians – goodwill which could have been withdrawn. Unfortunately, ingratiating themselves is more their line, the response of people who don’t necessarily think press ‘freedom’ is a principle that has to be upheld – they are used to more or less regulated radio and television systems – but do think there is no point in taking on the media, and so tacitly accept Murdoch’s own estimation of his political influence. They also believe, not unreasonably, that there is an effective monopoly of opinion regardless of who owns the press and that breaking up a media business simply means replacing one capitalist ideologue with another. Ingratiation, therefore, made sense to Blair and Brown, however demeaning it became. Political calculation obviously comes into it but more important is the fundamental loss of conviction in an ideologically eviscerated social democracy. Our free-floating political class, for whom politics is a system of networking and personal advancement, don’t share the general public’s instinctive hostility to Murdoch. On the contrary, the media and the opportunities they provide are indispensable to such a political culture. That, as much as anything, is what has given Murdoch his power.