RUPERT MURDOCH'S STRANGE COVERT REIGN over British public life did not begin all at once. It came about gradually, by accretion, and started with his purchase in 1969 of a dusty old tabloid called The News of the World.
In the same year, the BBC, keen to understand the man who some said would transform British media, dispatched one of its cherished sons to interview Murdoch. David Dimbleby — then a 30-year-old reporter, today the august host of the BBC's flagship political debate program — set about Murdoch with the clipped vowels and polished cunning that will be familiar to viewers of Question Time. Halfway through the report Dimbleby speaks to Murdoch's second wife, Anna. Here, he strikes on a more informal line of questioning, and says with an almost coquettish lilt in his voice:
"I expect it's awful to be the wife of a media tycoon. I mean, don't you feel cut out of so much of his life?"
Anna considers for a moment. Then she says:
"I don't like it when people call him a tycoon. Tycoon is a sort of Americanism. He's a good Australian businessman, and he's come over here." The beginnings of a smile flicker over Anna's face; she suppresses it, and adds: "And he's going to show you how to do it."
That answer was an impromptu, perfect encapsulation of the Murdoch project as it was then conceived. For 30 years Murdoch has considered himself the ultimate outsider at the heart of the British establishment, a man "over here" and determined to bring a value system shaped by the colonial experience — one that insists on egalitarianism, robustness, and competition — to bear on an old British elite that he considered hypocritical, complacent, and, above all, beholden to repulsive class prejudice. That outsider mentality has lain behind everything Murdoch has done, from the culture of tabloid sensationalism pioneered at the News of the World, to the breaking of the print unions in Fleet Street in the 1980s, to the assault launched on Britain's sleepy- four-channel television landscape by the Sky pay-TV network. It drove him to sell the British people a new idea of themselves, and their country. In our millions, we bought it.
Today, the mesmeric hold that Murdoch came to exercise over British public life has been broken. A long series of revelations about journalistic and business practices at News International have, across the last four weeks, lent the press reports in Britain something of the quality of a magic trick with a top hat and doves: just when you think there can't possibly be any more, there is. Those revelations —starting on July 4th with reports that in 2003, News of the World journalists hacked into the phone of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, interferin...read more