Can politicians finally escape Murdoch’s grasp?

July 11, 2011

By Bruce Page
The views expressed are his own.

The News of the World was a survivor, increasingly moribund, from dark, forgotten passages in British social history.

Likewise, the Murdoch family is a political throwback — but thus far their wealth and their influence have escaped the lethal damage the News of the World did to itself. Though much diminished, the Murdochs might yet restore their peculiar system — in which media boss and political syndicate practice mutual exploitation, to the visible decay of effective democracy.

A similar symbiosis threatened when Thomas Jefferson worried that decent government could not exist without decent newspapers. But the threat generally retreated between Jefferson’s time and the last third of the 20th century. It was then, in 1969, that Rupert Murdoch, new proprietor of the News of the World, set about his life’s work: revitalizing that special relationship, along lines pioneered by his father, Keith, as a journalist in the Great War, government propaganda minister during World War II and newspaper owner in Australia.

When selling 8 million copies (not today’s 2.9 million) News of the World led the huge 1950s popular-newspaper boom, which rising literacy had produced.

A competitor, the Daily Mirror just managed to top 5 million then. But the NoW had long feasted with unique greed on society’s many weeping sores. Marital breakdown was about adultery: nothing restricting the destructive fantasies of divorcing partners. There was even less restraint in covering the lower criminal courts — thronged by the sad product of systematic police hunts designed to impose sexual conformity. No legal aid existed before 1947, so journalists were by custom twined-into the legal process: subsidizing murderers’ defences, in return for exclusive stories which typically concluded on the gallows.

Few of today’s boozy mourners would like to revisit that long-gone heyday. The NoW was already down to a 6 million circulation when Murdoch bought it: fading ever since with progress in social and legal hygiene. Irony suffuses News Corp’s attempt to reverse things, visibly desperate lately — for marketing moral shock needs a grimly puritan environment, which sits ill with soft pornography. “So long, and thanks for all the tits,” wrote an electronic newsheet last week, all sentiment absent.

But profitable decline provided special opportunity: Politicians in a free society can’t dictate mores sufficiently to generate commercial success for friendly publishers. But Keith Murdoch had seen in the 1930s that they could allocate valuable electronic spectrum, and once in control of big print artillery Rupert developed the simple business model he would use to build his empire.

Politicians ready to aid Rupert Murdoch’s expansion, particularly into electronic media, received fulsome — indeed slobbering — praise. For the recalcitrant there would be torrential abuse, concocted with tenuous reference to fact.  Book-length space is needed to recite the whole record, as in my “Murdoch Archipelago” (2003).

Why could Murdoch build an empire through such crude bullying? How curious that he didn’t meet the lethal broadside Opposition Leader Stanley Baldwin put into British newspaper magnates Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere when they tried a coup in 1928, namely: “What is sought by the proprietors of these newspapers is power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” Exit beasts, tails down.

Changes in politics made one difference, and the nature of Rupert Murdoch made another.

Marxists once saw all elite classes — politicians and proprietors included — conspiring seamlessly against the proletariat: a simple fancy displaced by experience. But more plausibly, today’s politicians live with rising expectation, declining performance, and  decaying self-confidence, all stemming from constant opinion-polling data.

To rate the problems of today’s politicians more complex than Churchill’s and Attlee’s may seem over-indulgent, but it contains some truth. Far from failing expectation, those two giants defeated upstart tyrannies which seemed invincible, and presided while damage without precedent was done to ancient monsters like disease and poverty.

But society’s failure to appreciate those victories sadly oppresses those trying to extend them. Naturally, a lust for quack comfort ensues, and Murdoch has been the dominant pharmacist: enabled by his lifelong crusade against one of the last century’s subtlest media products, named by sociologist Michael Schudson as the “commercial-professional” newspaper.

In Jefferson’s day the newspaper was politically subsidised, and democracy assumed to rest on limitless diversity of the product. But effective professions need some institutional concentration — journalism just as much as medicine. As C.P. Scott wrote in the 1920s, a useful newspaper is always a quasi-monopoly, conducted by people who can sustain both commercial and professional activities without destructive interaction.

That model of print media is widespread: often failing, but achieving some successes without which our present problems might be insoluble.

Within Murdochland, the walls between the commercial and professional duties of a newspaper do not exist.

The reason for their absence is simple: Effective editors must follow truth wherever it leads, and Murdoch finds such prospects terrifying.

Who knows what psychic flaw drives him? The visible effect is a self-destructive Murdoch-habit, afflicting too many politicians for too long. They know that while in power they will face no substantive questioning from Murdoch’s operatives, and fancy the immunity will safeguard them. Some of them would perhaps like a future where the Murdoch family achieve media hegemony, all questioning being superseded by nightmare silence.

But this scandal has many politicians now suddenly seeming to prefer a bracing reconnection with reality, the more so as they discover that Murdoch’s enraged-poodle act now ceases to unnerve them. By repulsing News Corp’s grotesque claim on BSkyB, in light of new allegations that Murdoch’s other outlets had targeted Gordon Brown, they may yet open up a new future for themselves.

–Bruce Page is the author of “The Murdoch Archipelago”

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