Rupert Murdoch is probably the most successful media proprietor and operator in history. There is no possible argument about his boldness, vision and skill of execution in conquering the British tabloid market, leading vertical media integration by uniting film studios and television stations, cracking the US television triopoly, being one of the great pioneers of satellite television and founding a conservative-populist American news network. (It was to reduce News Corp’s dependence on Roger Ailes’ Tea Party Fox News Network that he was so eager to spend £8.3bn ($13.3bn) buying all the shares in BSkyB and laying hands on all its income.) It must also be admitted that the Wall St Journal is the only quality product Mr Murdoch has ever bought and actually improved.
He was sometimes very fortunate, especially when Margaret Thatcher exempted his satellite telecasting from regulation (though she was just repaying the favours of The Sun); that his bid for MGM was unsuccessful just before his near-mortal financial crisis in 1990; and that British Satellite Broadcasting was so ineptly managed by Granada and others that it collapsed into his arms 20 years ago. But luck is a small part of the explanation for his success.
It is unlikely that Mr Murdoch, his son James, or Les Hinton committed crimes (Mr Hinton is a very decent man). Discerning people should not be impressed by the process familiar to me and other victims of it, of hostile media solemnly citing law professors and retired prosecutors and sources who spoke on condition of anonymity (usually tendentious fantasies of the journalists themselves), to comment on the Murdochs’ legal problems. No one should begrudge The Guardian, the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and others their fun at his expense, nor take it too seriously. He is, as Clarendon said of Cromwell and the British historian David Chandler updated to Napoleon “a great bad man”. It is as wrong to dispute his greatness as his badness.
Murdoch-bashing has, until very recently, generally been a disreputable activity, chiefly engaged in by the envious, the far-left and the commercially uncompetitive, all almost incapable of disinterested comment – but not always. It is, on this subject at last, a time for truth. For decades Britain’s establishment professed to despise Mr Murdoch but appeased and grovelled to him, (“I thoroughly disapprove of Rupert, but I quite like him,” was the tedious refrain), as when it became clear that most of opinionated London expected him to prevail over The Daily Telegraph in the price war that he launched in 1993. It is a matter of some pride to those of us at the Telegraph then that he did not. As I commend a robust response to the British, I shall not practise unilateral verbal disarmament myself.
It would be astonishing if some News International employees had not engaged in crimes, revelling in the climate of immunity that has been the group’s modus operandi for decades. Successive UK governments of both major parties supinely truckled to him. The more vituperatively his titles slagged off the royal family, the more certain were their books to be excerpted in the Sunday Times.
Although his personality is generally quite agreeable, Mr Murdoch has no loyalty to anyone or anything except his company. He has difficulty keeping friendships; rarely keeps his word for long; is an exploiter of the discomfort of others; and has betrayed every political leader who ever helped him in any country, except Ronald Reagan and perhaps Tony Blair. All his instincts are downmarket; he is not only a tabloid sensationalist; he is a malicious myth-maker, an assassin of the dignity of others and of respected institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism. He masquerades as a pillar of contemporary, enlightened populism in Britain and sensible conservatism in the US, though he has been assiduously kissing the undercarriage of the rulers of Beijing for years. His notions of public entertainment and civic values are enshrined in the cartoon television series The Simpsons: all public officials are crooks and the public is an ignorant lumpenproletariat. There is nothing illegal in this, and it has amusing aspects, but it is unbecoming of someone who has been the subject of such widespread deference and official preferments.
As it happens, I don’t see much practical difference to the public interest between his present effective control of BSkyB and his complete ownership of it. If, but only if, News Corp is reasonably found guilty of institutional criminality – and the potential accused deserves the presumption of innocence (however rarely it has accorded it to others) – its satellite telecasting licence should be revoked.
Before Wednesday’s withdrawal of News Corp’s bid to take full control of BSkyB, I believed that if it was just a matter of a few journalists bribing a few police officers and hacking promiscuously, the authorities should slap their wrists and let the deal happen. That was a sideshow. Spiteful regulatory intrusion is not what was needed, and would only have resulted in another of Rupert’s whitewashes and a renewed bid at a lower price.
What matters is the recovery of the integrity of Britain’s governing elites, and they won’t make it on Alastair Campbell’s feeble rationalisations published in the FT on Monday, or even Ed Miliband’s half-convincing call to principle. There must be a reckoning with decades of establishment cowardice towards someone whose nature has been well known throughout that time. The fault is the British establishment’s and it must not be seduced and intimidated, so profoundly and durably, again.
The writer is the former chairman of the Telegraph Newspapers and of many other newspapers. He was convicted on four counts of fraud and obstruction of justice in 2007. He served 29 months in prison until the Supreme Court vacated the convictions. An appeal court restored two counts. He will return to prison for 7½ months. He continues to assert his innocence. He is a biographer and weekly columnist for the National Review