Last updated: May 5, 2012 12:11 am

Murdoch diminished?

For decades Rupert Murdoch’s empire has been courted and feared by politicians. Now it may be unravelling

Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 384 pages

Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power, by David McKnight, Allen and Unwin, RRP£20, 296 pages

Good Times, Bad Times, by Harold Evans, Bedford Square Books, RRP£13.99, 595 pages

The Murdoch Archipelago (revised edition), by Bruce Page, Simon and Schuster, RRP£14.99, 576 pages

 

The world in which he moved so freely is closing in on Rupert Murdoch. A committee of British MPs has judged him “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company”. He faces regulatory and legal challenges in the three Anglophone countries in which he has been most powerful – Australia, the UK and the US. The British tabloids that once fuelled his expansion are faltering, the aggression and distortions of their journalism held up to ridicule and contempt.

Tom Watson, the Labour MP who levered himself up from lonely railer against a scornful empire into one of its most doughty enemies, writes at the end of Dial M for Murdoch, co-authored with Martin Hickman of the Independent, that Murdoch’s company, News Corporation, “may not be strong enough to withstand” all that is still to be thrown against it. He quotes Michael Wolff, Murdoch’s most obsessive (and most bet-hedging) chronicler, as writing that “what’s happening in Britain is eating News Corp up ... an extraordinary corporate death is taking place”.

The process is not limited to the UK. Least noticed this past week, but most threatening in the country where Murdoch began his ascent and in which he exerts most political influence, was the release in Australia of a government-sponsored Convergence Review that – along with much else – proposes a more diverse ownership in all media. News Ltd, Murdoch’s Australian company (which instantly rubbished the report), publishes newspapers that have between 60 and 70 per cent of the country’s market by circulation: the conventional wisdom there, even more powerfully than in the UK, has been that the political party Murdoch’s papers support wins.

All of the books under review here regard Murdoch as more or less a monster: and thus it is worth recognising that he has distinguished defenders. William Shawcross, whose 1992 biography presented Murdoch as “a unique builder of media”, wrote in Standpoint magazine in December 2010 that criticism of this “restless, visionary iconoclast” is snobbish and ill-informed. Roger Cohen, a prominent commentator on the New York Times, wrote in his paper last July that he admires Murdoch for similar reasons – for his “evident loathing for elites”; and argues that Murdoch’s “no-holds-barred journalism is ... good for free societies”. Both note, rightly, that he has poured hundreds of millions of pounds into the maw of The Times and Sunday Times (Shawcross also quotes combined losses for the papers at £87m in 2009), newspapers with considerable strengths.

 

Less defensible, or at least in need of qualification, is Murdoch’s view of himself as an anti-establishment radical. Bruce Page, who commanded the Insight team of investigative journalists on the Sunday Times in the 1960s and 1970s, regards the mogul with unrelieved contempt. In The Murdoch Archipelago, first published in 2003 and re-released last year with a commentary on phone-hacking at News International that sees it as a logical extension of the company’s tabloid approach, he argues that Murdoch’s boasting of scoops in the News of the World that rocked the British establishment is mere “bar room hype”. The book presents Murdoch as a manipulator on a vast, dangerous scale, publishing papers that – as Page writes of The Sun when it launched – “sharply reduced any demands made on the readers’ minds”.

Another reissued book, Sir Harold EvansGood Times, Bad Times (first published in 1984), shows less contempt but more bitterness. Evans was editing the Sunday Times when Murdoch bought it together with The Times in 1980. The new owner moved Evans, then at the height of his reputation, to The Times and fired him after a year, as (in Evans’ telling) the owner grew increasingly impatient of the editor’s determination to judge Margaret Thatcher’s government on its merits, not to support it uncritically. He notes that the big stories of his editorship of The Sunday Times all appeared before Murdoch bought the paper – such as the defects in the DC-10 airliner, the terrible side-effects of the thalidomide drug on unborn babies, and the outing of the former MI6 operative and Soviet spy, Kim Philby.

 

Evans’ memoir belongs to a select literary genre – that of books written by former Murdoch editors revealing the frustrations of working for Murdoch. Besides Good Times, Bad Times, there is the pained Sundry Times by Evans’ successor Frank Giles (1981-83); the more robust Full Disclosure by Andrew Neil, editor of the paper between 1983 and 1994 (Neil did continue something of its revelatory style, to little thanks from his proprietor); and The Insider by Piers Morgan, who edited the News of the World from 1994 to 1995 and conveys the tension and insecurity almost in spite of himself. All save Morgan grew to distrust and dislike Murdoch and – most insistently in the cases of Evans and Giles – to believe he was a serial breaker of his word.

The notion of Murdoch as an outsider is also given short shrift in David McKnight’s part-acute, part-overdone Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power. In the preface, the Australian essayist Robert Manne praises McKnight’s insight that “the psychological key to Murdoch is his capacity to continue to think of himself as an anti-establishment rebel despite his vast wealth and his capacity to make and unmake governments”.

McKnight, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales, is highly polemical, which leads him to make statements such as “Murdoch has become an American and thinks like one” – as if Americans constituted an undifferentiated reactionary mass. This reveals more about McKnight than Murdoch.

 

He is better on such passages as Murdoch’s disillusionment with John Major, Thatcher’s successor – and comments, rightly, that as prime minister Major showed some courage in bringing forward a broadcasting bill that imposed restrictions on large newspaper companies. His reward – an affair revealed and Murdoch’s support passing to New Labour – underlined the point to his successors that a British government best not mess with Rupert.

He is good, too, on the phony claims to “balance” made by the News Corporation-owned Fox News in the US. Matthew Freud, the London public relations consultant married to Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth, is quoted as saying: “I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being sickened and ashamed by [the channel’s] horrendous and sustained disregard for journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to.” It will be interesting to see if Elisabeth Murdoch is one of those from within the family who shares her husband’s view, when she delivers this year’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival in August. She will be the third Murdoch to give the keynote talk.

One cannot imagine any family mea culpa satisfying Watson, who emerges in Dial M for Murdoch as the political correlative to Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who did most to open up News International over the past six years. The MP probed away at what he had early guessed was a fantastic lie – that Clive Goodman, the royal correspondent jailed with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire in 2007 for hacking into the phones of the princes William and Harry, was a lone “rotten apple” in the News of the World barrel. “It was,” he writes, “a lonely pursuit” – the more so since his party’s leadership, who enjoyed Murdoch’s support, were not helpful, while News International saw him as an enemy to take down. Watson and Hickman quote Morgan’s diaries as recording a conversation with Tony Blair, who told the tabloid editor that “it is better to be riding the tiger’s back than let it rip your throat out”.

In a draft witness statement to the Leveson inquiry quoted by Watson, Blair’s former communications director, Alastair Campbell, apparently wrote: “I recall Rebekah Wade [then NI chief executive; now Rebekah Brooks] telling me that so far as she was concerned, with Tom Watson it’s personal, and we won’t stop till we get him” – an extraordinary remark for the head of a large media company to make to the prime minister’s closest adviser.

The company’s tabloids were not only the most popular in the land, not only regarded kindly by the government that they supported, but also enjoyed the esteem of their newspaper peers. Under the editorship of Andy Coulson (2003-07) – later to resign as the first intimations of the phone hacking scandal surfaced, and later still to enter Number 10 as David Cameron’s director of communications – the News of the World won the Sunday Newspaper of the Year award on three consecutive years, and was hailed on the third occasion by the judges as “an incredible sledgehammer of a production”. Admiration of the tabloids by the tabloids – and by others in the press – was largely unsullied by any consideration of their ugly personal campaigns and their massive distortions. That we mostly passed by on the other side, often with a humorous shrug, is a shame that envelops all of British journalism.

Dial M for Murdoch has a fine sense of how to build a story, detailing how the first unravelling began, as Goodman objected to being dumped on; as Max Mosley, the former head of Formula One, succeeded in suing the News of the World for revealing one of his sado-masochistic “romps” and became “an intelligent, wealthy and tenacious enemy”; as the Commons’ Culture Committee grew ever more critical; as Watson, joined by fellow Labour MP Chris Bryant, began to make some impression in the Commons. And bit by bit, to their own surprise, the small band of unravellers found that they were bringing down the building.

In the hands of Murdoch’s journalists, tabloid journalism became a huge political fact. They defined, for the largest audiences in Australia and the UK (to a lesser extent in the US, where the New York Post is powerful but limited in its reach), what constituted political scandal, political success and political potency. Leaders from Margaret Thatcher onwards were not wrong to fear Murdoch: if it was not “the Sun wot won it”, as the paper’s front-page headline stated after the Conservatives’ 1992 general election victory, still the Murdoch tabloids set a standard and gave their reporters and commentators a vast – and greatly enjoyed – power over elected representatives. The case against Murdoch is not that he published popular papers: it is that he and his senior staff used the power that came with popularity to weaken representative democracy.

How much of News Corporation will crumble? The lawyer Mark Lewis, who represented many of the News of the World’s victims, is preparing to test how far US law will support action against News Corporation in its homeland – where the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act may define as a crime any proven bribery by News Corporation employees in the UK or elsewhere. The so-far supine shareholders of News Corp, of which Murdoch owns 30 per cent, may yet force at least the sale of the British papers and perhaps – after the release last week of the Commons Culture Committee report branding Murdoch as unfit to lead his company (a majority finding from which the four Conservative members dissented) – his BSkyB stake as well.

Matt Driscoll, a News of the World reporter sacked when he crossed Coulson, wrote in his testimony to Leveson that his former bosses “felt they were almost beyond the reach of the law”. The law seems to be reasserting itself now.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor and director of journalism at the Reuters Institute, Oxford University

This story has been re-edited since its orignial publication.

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