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.

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