April 27, 2012 7:37 pm

Media mogul who never had to ask

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Rupert Murdoch had too easy a ride from politicians

Incredulity greeted Rupert Murdoch’s claim at Lord Leveson’s press inquiry that he had never asked favours of politicians.

Throughout his long career, Mr Murdoch has often needed the forbearance (or active support) of governments to expand his media interests in the teeth of regulatory opposition. In Britain, there was the contentious acquisition of Times Newspapers in 1981, the launch of the Sky satellite broadcasting network in 1989 and, most recently, the attempt to take full control of BSkyB last year.

It may seem implausible that in his many meetings with ministers, Mr Murdoch never sought their support for these ventures, or to advance the interests of his large UK empire. But such is his character and the nature of British politics that what he said may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

Until recently Mr Murdoch’s support was the talisman of British politics – something party leaders sought above all else. True, Gordon Brown denied Mr Murdoch’s claim that he threatened “war” on News International when it switched its allegiance to the Conservatives, but the point about the story is that it does not immediately seem unbelievable. After all, Mr Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, flew halfway around the world to speak at a News Corp event to court Mr Murdoch’s support.

Quite possibly politicians did not need to be asked for favours as they interpreted their role to be, so far as possible, to smooth Mr Murdoch’s path wherever it led. The willingness of the culture department to communicate privately with News Corp during the BSkyB bid certainly lends credence to the idea of Jeeves-like ministers unobtrusively helping things along.

Like most great entrepreneurs, Mr Murdoch is anyway disinclined to ask beforehand; he acts first and deals with the consequences afterwards. This instinct led him to launch Sky before he had a valid British licence to do so.

When it comes to Britain, Mr Murdoch sometimes exhibits a sense of disappointed entitlement, as if he feels he has done the country a great service and received scant reward. This shone through at the inquiry when he talked about his battles with the print unions in the 1980s. “You wouldn’t be here with 10 papers today if I hadn’t beaten the old craft unions,” he said, correctly.

Yet politicians have been too susceptible to this argument: it leads them to reward media barons with regulatory concessions for investing in lossmaking media ventures. It was just such a bargain that allowed Mr Murdoch to gain his strong position in the first place, and later to consolidate it.

The inquiry spent much time quizzing Mr Murdoch about whether he had ever solicited politicians’ favours. The sad truth is that he probably never needed to.

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