The acquisition and exercise of power is a game, and we must thank Rupert Murdoch for reminding us of this in his testimony to the Leveson inquiry this week. It takes someone with his 60 years of empire building to gaze out over the seething mass of politicians and greasy pole climbers and recognise them for what they are: short-term renters of influence who are willing to go to unedifying lengths to satisfy their needs.
If there was a haughtiness about Mr Murdoch’s latest round of testimony, it was justified. Owning newspapers, television stations and film studios and managing politicians’ ambitions is not a job for boy scouts.
Politicians and businesspeople must inevitably communicate. And despite the fevered wishes of some, it is not always sinister. If it were, we should immediately ban Davos, the Aspen Institute’s gatherings, Allen and Co’s Sun Valley conference and any other setting where the powerful gather to talk.
Mr Murdoch gave us a good idea of what a day in his life must look like. More losses and lawsuits at the newspapers; the Huffington Post stealing more News Corp content and profiting from it; Sky Italia running into political problems; oh, and would you mind interrupting your summer holiday with your family because the leader of the British opposition party wants to show how much he loves you by dropping by?
There is evidently much that News Corp needs to apologise for. An epidemic of phone-hacking, the alleged bribery of public officials and the subsequent cover-up are stains on its reputation. Mr Murdoch apologised for this yesterday, admitting: “I failed. And I am sorry about it.” But there seems to be a desire to go further, to force Mr Murdoch to go on his knees in the public square and recant all that he believes in. He is right to resist.
The manner in which he exercises power, after all, is no different from that of many others. It is just that he does so in the media business, which loves nothing more than to scrutinise itself. If he were in, say, the poultry business, his actions would pass unnoticed. Like any powerful individual, he sits in the middle of a network of influence, tugging at strings and being tugged at in return. Building and managing networks, after all, is the secret to success.
He said on Wednesday that New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is driven crazy by the coverage in Murdoch’s New York papers, but that when election season rolls round the same papers say “vote Bloomberg”.
He also painted a wonderful picture of David Cameron’s ambition as leader of the opposition. There was Mr Murdoch in the summer of 2008 aboard his yacht off the Greek island of Santorini, perhaps waiting for the cabin steward to announce lunch, when the roar of engines announced Mr Cameron’s arrival aboard a jet belonging to Matthew Freud, the PR man married to Mr Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth.
You could imagine Mr Cameron’s giddy thrill at the glamour of it all. But the way Mr Murdoch described it, it was like a fly landing in his retsina. Yet another shiny-cheeked hack barging in on his holiday hoping for his benediction. “I think I’ve explained that politicians go out of their way to impress people in the press,” he sneered. “And I don’t remember discussing any heavy political things with him at all. There may have been some issues discussed passingly. It was not a long meeting. As I say, I don’t really remember the meeting. I think that’s part of the democratic process. That’s the game.”
The conspiracy theorists might say that he is trying to play down his influence over the prime minister. But anyone who has ever seen how politicians and business moguls interact will recognise the dynamics.
Politicians crave the company of businesspeople, especially those who can fund campaigns and influence debate. And at the very top of the business pile are those like Mr Murdoch, who not only run their businesses, but founded them and remain the controlling shareholders as well. Politicians come and go, but Mr Murdoch represents long-lived, market-tested institutional power. To declare ourselves shocked to find favour-trading among our elites is nothing but forced naivety.
The writer is a business commentator and author of the forthcoming ‘Life’s a Pitch – What The World’s Best Sales People Can Teach Us All’