Prince of Darkness

Ian Aitken

  • Rupert Murdoch by William Shawcross
    Chatto, 616 pp, £18.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 7011 8451 5

As a young man working for Lord Beaver-brook’s broadsheet Daily Express, I used to have a highly pleasurable daydream in which the coincidence of my name being the same as my employer’s led to some confusion among the company lawyers, with the result that I became the proprietor on the Old Man’s death. I would visualise myself getting off the bus outside the old Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street, walking down to the entrance of the big black palace, taking the lift up to the second floor, and bursting into the editor’s office just as the morning conference was about to begin. After explaining the circumstances to the astonished assembly, I intended to invite the editor to move over, plonk myself down in his seat, and announce that there were going to be a number of changes.

The most important of these, I planned to say, concerned the leader-writers. From now on, the Daily Express would be a Labour newspaper. I expected all the formidable skills of George Malcolm Thompson – or old Greenwich Mean Time, as we used to call the chief leader-writer – to be directed first to securing the leadership of the Labour Party for my hero, Aneurin Bevan. Thereafter, no effort was to be spared in achieving the election of a Labour government. To this end, I would want to talk to the leader-writers before they applied themselves to their typewriters each afternoon, and again after they had finished their labours. Michael Foot would become the paper’s principal political columnist, and there would be generous severance pay for staff members who found these changes unacceptable.

In the event the company lawyers made no mistake, and when Lord Beaverbrook died the newspapers passed – with unfortunate results – to his formidable widow, Lady Beaverbrook, and to his son, Sir Max Aitken. The reader will have spotted that even in my fantasies I harboured no prissy ideas about editorial independence. My vision of owning a newspaper was that it would say what I wanted it to say about the great issues of the day. To that extent, Lord Beaverbrook seemed to me an infinitely preferable version of the genus than, say, Lord Thomson, who originally regarded owning newspapers and radio stations as no different from owning profitable toothpaste factories or fast-food chains. Though he altered that view later, it was not in the direction of greater interference with editorial policies. He turned out to be willing to foot the bill for the loss-making Times for the rather pathetic reason that he was proud to be the owner of so venerable an institution.

This line of reasoning should, in logic, lead me to express admiration for the subject of William Shawcross’s enormous biography. For Rupert Murdoch is arguably the most successful, and certainly one of the most ruthlessly interfering, media moguls in the history of the world. Moreover, he shares Lord Beaverbrook’s colonial iconoclasm about the British (or rather, the English) Establishment. He has no time for the Monarchy or the aristocracy, and disclaims overt republicanism only because he regards the British as such wimps that he doesn’t think we could get along without a monarch at the top of our social heap. The same iconoclasm led him to keep a bust of Lenin in his rooms at Oxford as a lad and is still wheeled out as justification of his support for Mrs Thatcher and her awful -ism. His stock-in-trade is to present himself (in much the same way as she did) as the defender of the little fellow, even as a sort of little fellow himself, fighting against the dead hand of those born to rule.

In fact, however, there is no parallel between previous media moguls and Rupert Murdoch. Compared to him, press barons like Lord Beaverbrook, the Rothermeres, or even Lord Northcliffe, were pipsqueaks running parish magazines. They may have sought to influence the political complexion of a large Western democracy, but Murdoch is in the business of changing the cultural complexion of the entire world. If Mr Shawcross has a single clear message for us, it is that Murdoch is not driven by lust for money but by a belief that the current revolution in information technology has given him the opportunity to spread the free-market philosophy of the American Way of Life to every corner of the globe. Never mind that the ‘information’ part of information technology is largely entertainment rather than news, and that much of the news it does contain is either slanted or positively false. Mr Murdoch evidently believes that all this can be justified by reference to the greater good of introducing the wonders of free enterprise not just to class-obsessed Brits but to African tribesmen and Asian peasants, though Mr Shawcross records that even his subject is capable of expressing regret at the destruction of ancient cultures involved in spreading the gospel of Reaganism and Thatcherism so widely and so ruthlessly. William Shawcross’s hesitation about the true nature of the Murdoch phenomenon has brought him some bitter criticism from former journalistic colleagues, who accuse him of falling under his subject’s notorious spell. I am less critical of Mr Shawcross’s failure to denounce his subject as a monster. It is true that he is sparing with his own condemnations, but in the course of nearly six hundred pages he provides plenty of denunciation from others, together with enough facts about his conduct to hang him several times over.

The story is frankly horrific, starting with Murdoch’s first vacation job on a Birmingham newspaper, when he advised the proprietor (a friend of his father’s) to sack the editor. It gets into its stride with the sacking of an old friend as editor of the first newspaper he owned simply because he wrote too friendly an obituary of Nye Bevan. It is punctuated with the succession of lies he tells about his intentions towards many of the publications he buys up. It reaches a climax when he assures the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal that he has no intention of giving up his Australian citizenship – a condition of winning control of a TV channel in Oz – only to toss his passport aside in favour of an American one in order to be allowed to buy a US television network. The sheer cynicism of this step would have been surprising in almost anyone. Coming from a man whose newspapers have made cheap jingoism second only to sex as their selling point, it is revolting. As an American columnist put it, the time had probably come to remove the torch from the Statue of Liberty and just have the lady give a two-finger salute to those huddled masses yearning to be free.

For British readers Rupert Murdoch’s reputation as the Prince of Darkness rests mainly on his ownership of the Sun and the News of the World. And here it must be conceded that Mr Shawcross does equivocate just a bit. He is clearly appalled at the vulgarity, the cruelty and the unapologetic dishonesty of these two tabloid comics. But like many other journalists, he cannot help being amused by the chutzpah of the Sun’s editor, Kelvin Mackenzie, by his professionalism and by his wit. He devotes page after page to anecdotes and Kelvinisms, many of them so coarse that they would not even get published in the Sun itself. Noting MacKenzie’s hostility to ‘poofters’ and ‘bum bandits’, Shawcross records that he responded to one foolhardy reporter who objected by shouting round the newsroom: ‘Watch out, folks! There’s a botty burglar about.’ When a writer whose copy had been spiked pleaded to be granted at least ‘an E for Effort’, she got instead an ‘F for Fuck Off’.

According to Shawcross, Murdoch loved this kind of thing until Establishment disapproval began to suggest to him that something nasty might be done to curb tabloid excesses by way of a change in the law. He then hosed down his over-ebullient editor – only to object when the tamer version of the Sun started to lose sales. For the essential fact about the Murdoch miracle is that it was the enormous profits earned by the Sun which largely financed the frenetic expansion of the News Corp empire in Australia, the United States and the Far East. It and the News of the World were his milch cows – and he returned to milk them whenever times were hard.

Shawcross is most equivocal in his telling of the extraordinary story of how Murdoch tricked the Fleet Street print unions into creating the conditions in which he could sack their members and overnight begin producing his London newspapers with what amounted to non-union labour. The trouble for Shawcross, and for me, and for many other liberal-minded journalists, is that we had come to hate the grotesquely greedy and disruptive print unions so much that almost anyone who could rid us of them was likely to be seen as a benefactor. Sloppy wets like me may have been aghast at the savagery of the struggle; but we could hardly fail to raise a cheer at the emasculation of chapel officials who had so often wrecked our efforts to bring the news to our readers.

Murdoch’s success in smuggling his entire printing operation into his Wapping fortress turned his milch cows overnight into a whole herd of prize animals. At the final count, he paid £60 million to get rid of the unions: in return, the value of his papers soared from £300m to around £1 billion. The number of print workers fell from two thousand to 570, the packers from 1469 to 132; together they were producing 33 million newspapers a week; and profits were up 85 per cent to £35.5 million. Moreover, says Shawcross, the bankers were so impressed that they fell over themselves to finance Murdoch’s ever-increasing appetite for worldwide expansion.

Much of Shawcross’s book is taken up with a (sometimes tedious) record of these take-overs and buy-ups, culminating in the frenetic battle to shore up the grossly over-extended News Corp edifice when the self-same bankers were confronted by the world recession and wanted their money back. If Shawcross is to be believed, the battle was won by a whisker. But Murdoch nevertheless remains saddled with vast debt repayments which must be completed by February 1994. Like the rest of us, he clearly has urgent need of a world upturn.

How is it that Murdoch succeeded in refinancing his preposterous spider’s web of debt and counter-debt when the man who yearned to emulate him, Robert Maxwell, failed to achieve the same thing in a not dissimilar situation? Mr Shawcross records more than once that one of the few things capable of ruffling Murdoch’s cool temper was the suggestion that there was something in common between him and Cap’n Bob. His own account of the difference was that Maxwell was an obvious crook, even if people didn’t dare say so, whereas he, Murdoch, was known to be a man of his word when it came to paying his debts. My own explanation is rather different: namely, that while both men were clearly mad by most people’s standards. Maxwell was plainly much madder. Murdoch may see the rest of humanity as little more than pawns in his Olympian game, but Maxwell seemed close to seeing other people as mere creatures of his imagination.

The other outstanding difference between the two is that Murdoch was shrewd enough to throw in his lot with the Thatcher/Reagan ideological circus, while to his dying day Maxwell remained the world’s most improbable Labour supporter. As Shawcross makes abundantly clear, Murdoch’s loyal support for the Tories and the Republicans paid off handsomely, not least when he was exempted from the cross-ownership provisions of Thatcher’s Broadcasting Act and was thereby able to own Sky Television without selling his Tory-backing newspapers. Much the same has applied in Australia, where he developed an extra-special relationship with Premier Bob Hawke. He may have helped with his friends’ elections, but they certainly did not forget their ally once they achieved office.

There is, of course, a word for this in the English language, though I am no more disposed to use it in print than Mr Shawcross has been. Readers of the book will get the message fairly quickly – which seems to dispose of the allegation that Shawcross was conned by a charming shyster. As for that business of being grateful to Mr Murdoch for destroying the print-union racketeers, there has been a heavy price to pay. It is beyond dispute that the Dirty Digger has dragged the rest of the UK’s popular press into the gutter along with his nasty sheets. He now looks like doing the same to television on a worldwide scale. Worse still, it recently began to look quite possible that public disgust with the depravity of the tabloid press – a depravity which this book convinces me is directly traceable to Mr Murdoch’s arrival in Fleet Street – may provide the Government with an excuse for imposing dangerously illiberal curbs on legitimate broadsheet newspapers as well as on the offending tabloids. This is a grim prospect, and all the more so in the light of speculation that the Government is considering the imposition of VAT on newspapers and magazines.

To that extent, the Guardian did Mr Murdoch a huge service when it published the full text of Lord McGregor’s letter to Sir David Calcutt. In that remarkable document the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission exposed the degree to which the Princess of Wales actively stoked up press interest in the state of her marriage. What is more, it turned out that the facts contained in this letter were known to the Prime Minister and other responsible ministers even as their minions were encouraging the view that press behaviour towards the Royals warranted some form of statutory regulation.

This reveals some of the same hypocrisy which characterised the Matrix-Churchill affair, in which ministers were willing to suppress information about their own misdeeds even at the price of sending three innocent men to jail. It is so outrageous that it provides some modest hope that the whole murky episode will in the end prove to have had a silver lining. For Mr Murdoch and his fellow newspaper proprietors may become so infuriated by a prime minister they put into office that they will feel obliged to reconsider their support for the Conservative Party at the next election. If this seems fanciful, it is worth recalling that much the same happened to Mr Macmillan as a result of his mishandling of the Profumo scandal. I know, because I was political editor of the Daily Express at the time, and I am in no doubt that it was disaffected Fleet Street proprietors who helped make Harold Wilson electable in the mid-Sixties. If Mr Major doesn’t watch out, their successors could easily do the same for John Smith in the mid Nineties. Why, the proprietor of the Sun and the News of the World may already be rummaging through his attic even as I write, in the hope of finding that long-discarded bust of Lenin.