AUGUST 8, 2011
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, interfering with the police investigation — now make for familiar reading on both sides of the Atlantic: it is enough to say that they encompass not just phone hacking, but illegal payments to police officers, and, less tangible, News International’s close relationship with successive British governments, most recently made apparent when Prime Minister David Cameron hired former NOTW editor Andy Coulson as his press secretary. This maelstrom has brought about the closure of the NOTW, the loss of key Murdoch lieutenants, and the end of Murdoch’s aspiration to take full control of Sky Television. It has decisively weakened his influence over Britain’s political class: a loss previously unthinkable for the man who, it was said, could decide a general election via the front-page of his weekday tabloid, The Sun. Most of all, it has seen Murdoch covered in the ire of the ordinary British people: the very people he always claimed to understand, and empower.
It’s been a long four weeks. Now, as Parliament disbands for its summer recess – MPs won’t be back until September – there is in London an atmosphere of dazed, uneasy aftermath. What, everyone seems to be asking, just happened? What does it mean for our public life? Was that Steve Coogan, star of 80 Days Around the World, that I just saw on Newsnight, arguing about the human right to privacy?
Certainly, we are being encouraged by those covering the story most fully – the Guardian newspaper and the BBC – to believe that there has been an important change, that some pernicious influence has been pushed back. That we are in some important sense more free than we were before. But what is this apparent freedom? Is it real, and will it last? And what to do with it?
The unremarkable room that was the object of Britain’s gaze two weeks ago is one among a handful of similar rooms in the Palace of Westminster, which host the day-to-day, cumbersome business of the British Parliament: discussions with titles such as “Localisation issues in welfare reform” and “Joint pre-appointment hearing with the government’s preferred candidate for Chairman of the S4C authority.” On Tuesday, July 19th, just after 2:30pm, Rupert Murdoch and his son James (head of the News Corporation’s Europe and Asia division) made their way into this room, and sat before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.
It was already a commonplace, by then, to observe that the events which had brought the Murdochs here amounted to a classical tragedy in contemporary clothes. What followed made it clear that these events constituted a particular, and almost uniquely cruel, tragedy for Rupert Murdoch the man. And, via this, the end of an era in Britain.
On that afternoon, the vastly popular humor columnist at The Times newspaper, Caitlin Moran, captured the mood in London with a tweet: “So is everyone stopping at 2:30 to watch the Select Committee? #sentencesyouneverthoughtyou’dsay.” The Murdochs sat side by side, with their hands clasped gently in front of them on the table – a posture that psychologists say delivers the subliminal message: “I have nothing to hide.” James, on the viewer’s left, leaning forward, all restrained determination, so thoroughly covered in immaculate suit and discreetly expensive rimless glasses that he betrayed only the slightest hint of strain. Rupert to his left: stooped, hangdog, impossible to fathom.
There was a request that Rupert Murdoch be allowed to read an opening statement, which was denied. To the first question, then: MP John Whittingdale wondered to what extent Parliament had previously been mislead about phone hacking at the NOTW. But just a few seconds into James Murdoch’s answer, his father — already concerned, perhaps, that events were escaping him — interrupted James to say, “Before we get to that, I would just like to say one sentence: this is the most humble day of my life.”
James looked down at his notes, awkwardly. Did he realize at that moment what the rest of us discovered slowly, across the next two-and-a-half hours? That Rupert Murdoch, the man feared, loathed, and admired by so many — and often all those at once, by the same person —was not up to the scrutiny of the Select Committee. That he commanded few details when it came to the running of his own organization. That at the head of the mighty News Corporation there was not the fearsome tactician of legend, but a frail mixture of uncertainty and impromptu assertion; more an absence than the formidable presence that had been expected. In the hours after the hearing, some British journalists dismissed all this as an act. This is Rupert Murdoch, they said, ruthless manipulator of public opinion. The old man has clearly decided that the best he can do is to persuade us that he is too distracted, too far from these events, too old, even, to be blamed for all this. He is playing the frail old timer, to get off the hook. Don’t be fooled.
It’s a testament to Murdoch’s reputation in Britain that so many drew this conclusion. In fact, the truth was clearly otherwise, and apparent from the first words Murdoch spoke. Of course those words — “the most humble day of my life” — were insincere. The Murdochs had surely been coached by a team of PR professionals in the days leading up to their appearance, and must have been told to pursue suitably remorseful headlines: “The Most Humble Day of My Life” splashed above pictures of Murdoch Sr. on tomorrow’s front pages would be as good a result as they could hope for. But no one in complete control of their own performance, even if they were pretending to be otherwise, would drop that sentence as heavily on the ears of his listeners as Murdoch did. He spoke the statement in a way so artless as to make apparent both the calculation that lay behind it and his own ignorance of the way in which he had just betrayed that calculation. In short, he won nothing. This was not the work of a man pretending to lack vigor.
Why is all this important? First, because it makes clear the nature of the personal tragedy that these events constitute for Rupert Murdoch, which is one made decisive by its timing. If these revelations about News International had surfaced ten years ago, he might have re-asserted control over his organization, re-built his reputation, and come again to occupy the position in British life that until recently he enjoyed. If they happened ten years from now, he might be too old to be fully aware of them, or dead: but by then, News Corporation’s fortunes, and its reputation, would not be chained to the person of Rupert Murdoch in the way they are now. But they have happened today, when Murdoch has the presence of mind to insist on his continued leadership of News Corp, but is simply too old, and too slow, to respond adequately. Instead, he must watch as the most cherished outpost in his Empire becomes a lost cause. This change is real, and it will last, because Murdoch cannot undo it. In Britain, the Murdoch era is over.
To dispassionate observers sitting in News Corp’s New York offices, all this does not seem such a blow. News Corp took $2.5 billion in global net revenue in 2010; the Sun and the News of the World contributed around $65 million to this total, while The Times and The Sunday Times lost around $118 million. From where its senior executives sit in New York, News Corp is a wildly successful pay-TV and movie business, with a minor, incongruous, and unprofitable UK newspaper arm. For years, we’re told, these executives have been encouraging Murdoch to sell his British papers: on July 13th the Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed News Corp source on the subject, saying, “It was basically one of those things that was talked about for maybe two to five minutes, and Rupert would always say ‘no way.'”
The reason often given for this refusal is that Murdoch is an old-fashioned newspaper man who prizes paper and ink above all else, and this is surely true. But there is another reason, one that apparently runs just as deep, and that is his special relationship with Britain.
Yes, the U.S. arms of News Corp are where the money lies. But when you are an Australian of Murdoch’s generation, and fueled by a lifelong determination to prove yourself against the old establishment, the old establishment is the British establishment. If you are going to “show someone how to do it,” it’s them. Statements drawn from across Murdoch’s career make it plain that this project against the old British elite is central to his view of himself: its roots run deep into his childhood, his nationality, and his politics.
At the Select Committee hearing, Murdoch revealed almost nothing of his own life. The only autobiographical statement he made in two-and-a-half hours of testimony was a story about his father, the journalist Keith Murdoch, who exposed the incompetence of British officers at Gallipoli during WWI, an act for which certain sections of the British upper class never forgave him. Behind these words lie so many more – about what Murdoch means to himself, and what he has meant to Britain. And when we understand that, we can start to understand what it means that Murdoch is gone.
I just want to say that I was brought up by a father who was not rich, but who was a great journalist, and he, just before he died, bought a small paper, specifically in his will saying that he was giving me the chance to do good. I remember what he did and what he was most proud of, and for which he was hated in this country by many people for many, many years, was exposing the scandal at Gallipoli, which I remain very, very proud of.
His assault on elitism — more specifically, on the privilege and the value system of the old British elite — is a thread that runs through everything Rupert Murdoch has done in the UK since his purchase of the News of the World in 1969. The elite in question is the old British upper and upper-middle class: the public school and Oxbridge men who 95 years ago made up the officer class at Gallipoli, and who would have looked down on a self-made man from the colonies. The destruction of that elite has been what Murdoch has meant by his tireless efforts here; and that, in turn, has shaped what he came to mean to the British people.
In 1969, Murdoch’s first significant act as proprietor of the NOTW was to reignite the story of the Profumo Affair: Secretary of State for War John Profumo’s 1963 affair with the model Christine Keeler. In the six years since the affair broke, Profumo had withdrawn from public life and devoted himself to charity work. In the judgment of the British upper class he was redeemed, and though there was no question of a return to public life, he at least deserved to be left alone. When news surfaced of the intention to splash a long interview with Keeler, Murdoch was labeled an opportunist: a new kind of media proprietor with no respect for privacy, no common decency, and no idea of what should and should not be put in front of the general public. But Murdoch had a point to make: who should decide what the public can read? A few self-appointed guardians of public morals? Or the people themselves? “People can sneer all they like,” he said, “but I’ll take the 150,000 extra copies we are going to sell.” Across the next nine months, circulation rose by over 500,000.
Murdoch’s anti-elitism only hardened via his experience with the NOTW. Twelve years later the same mindset informed his purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times. In 30 years, neither title has ever made Murdoch any money. But what better victory against the British elite than to own their oldest, most prestigious broadsheet?
Perhaps the most overt set-piece battle in the long war that raged between Murdoch and the old British elite happened at the height of the furor over The Times, in the form of a BBC documentary entitled Who’s Afraid of Rupert Murdoch? Sent again to confront Murdoch was his former interlocutor David Dimbleby, darling of the British media set, son of the preeminent BBC political broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. The first 30 minutes outlined the elite case against Murdoch: an extended report invited viewers to conclude that he was avaricious and ruthless, his newspapers course and unreliable, his attitude to elected officials callous and manipulative. Cut back to the studio, where Murdoch, smiling tightly, faced Dimbleby to reply. Taken together, his answers constitute one of the most explicit statements of his position ever made. Around halfway through the interview, he tells Dimbleby:
I am not personally an elitist myself. I don’t believe that the people who read The Times are any better than the people who read the Sun, I just believe they’re different. I’m very proud of the Sun, which was not represented tonight in your film. You just took page three [a reference to the daily topless glamour model picture on page 3] which everyone seems so fascinated with; what about page one and page two, and every other page in the paper? That was a typical piece of slanting and elitism by the BBC, who after all in order to draw viewers to this programme put on a very sexy episode of Star Trek, which I was watching out in the room there… They try to carry viewers into these programmes; I know how it’s done.
Murdoch’s contempt for the old British elite was clear for all to see; and theirs for him. So Murdoch was starting to mean something to the British public. And now he owned The Times and The Sunday Times, which meant he could not be ignored.
In the years that followed Who’s Afraid of Rupert Murdoch? the British elite won a small victory: they sold an idea of their nemesis to the people, so that the Murdoch of popular imagination became an absurdly cartoonish lout, philistine and vulgar, dull but cunning, dressed in a bad suit, and speaking, always, in a broad Australian accent. The BBC, that great bastion of British elite values, did much to disseminate this caricature. In 1995 the comedians Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (the man Americans now call Dr. House) placed a sketch in their primetime show A Bit of Fry and Laurie called “If Rupert Murdoch Had Never Been Born.” A take-off of It’s A Wonderful Life, the sketch sees Fry’s guardian angel whisk Murdoch, played by Laurie, into an imaginary world in which he has never existed. The two men enter a pub filled with drinkers who chat amiably. Rupert goes to the bar and sees a tabloid newspaper. It is called The Lovely, and its headline reads “Niceness up 40%.” He picks it up and rifles through it:
“Jesus mothering Christ, where the hell are the tits?” exclaims Rupert. “You gotta have tits to sell a newspaper.” The angel leans in: “Well apparently not. Without your newspapers debasing people’s views of the world with every sentence they produce, people turned out to be interested in all kinds of other things. Strange, isn’t it?”
But something else happened in the years that followed Who’s Afraid of Rupert Murdoch? and Fry and Laurie’s skit. Circulation of The Times rose steadily, from a lackluster 300,000 copies a day in 1980 to 800,000 by 1997. Britain’s old elite may have won the battle to make Murdoch a popular figure of fun, but Murdoch won the war. While the cartoon of a vulgar, oafish, greedy press baron spread wide, Murdoch’s colonization of British media (and, by extension, of the British imagination) continued apace. By early 2011, just before the hacking scandal broke, his newspaper sales totaled around 7.5 million copies a week and the Sky subscriber base topped 10 million households. Few Britons could pass a day without seeing a Murdoch product.
This success was not built on the poor and uneducated — the people the old British elite always said would be seduced by Murdoch — but spread wide across society: professional and non-skilled, broadsheet reader and tabloid. Indeed, in Murdoch’s Britain such social demarcation lines, once seemingly so clear, were blurred: before the closure of the NOTW more ABC1s (this is marketing-speak for affluent, professional consumers) read that tabloid than the print Sunday Times. The British middle class laughed along at the caricature of Murdoch. But they also bought his newspapers, and bought into his worldview.
Inarguably, then, Murdoch helped to change Britain in the way he had intended. Of course, the demise of Britain’s old upper class and the end of our deference culture are phenomena with tangled roots that reach back past WWI: no one would claim that Murdoch was the predominant cause. But from the 1970s onwards Murdoch’s newspapers helped vanquish the last claim of the old British upper class to automatic preferment. They gave powerful voice to a new idea of Britain, and helped political leaders who embodied that idea win office: first Murdoch’s great ally Margaret Thatcher, and then her center-left intellectual descendent, Tony Blair. This new Britain was competitive, thrusting, informal, demotic, a country where our political leaders are treated with disdain as a matter of course, where “highbrow culture” is not an idea to be aspired to but one to be treated with contempt, where more young people vote for the winner of the X Factor than vote in the general election. Meanwhile, News International products helped to establish a new pseudo-elite, made up of footballers, singers, and reality TV contestants, and encouraged us to congratulate ourselves on the ruthlessness with which we dissected their lives. After all, we put them there: if they didn’t like it, all they had to do was stop being famous.
Murdoch was right about much when it came to Britain’s old elite. Their class prejudice, their paternalism and hypocrisy, their conflation of personal taste and cultural value: all of it was absurd, and had to be swept away eventually. But Murdoch’s media empire has been instrumental in its replacement by a lowest common denominator, might-is-right culture that has jettisoned what many would agree was good about old, elitist Britain: an esteem for sober judgment and decency, a belief in duty and public service, and a respect for self-betterment.
We were all shocked by the news on July 4th that NOTW journalists had hacked in to the mobile phone of Milly Dowler when she lay murdered. But should we have been? Earlier this year the Sun and other British tabloids breached contempt of court laws and traduced an innocent man when they insinuated that 66-year-old Christopher Jeffries, a former teacher and landlord to murdered architect Joanna Yates, was a volatile sexual deviant who was responsible for Yates’s death. Jeffries was later found to have no connection to the murder. His treatment by the tabloids, though it might have been meted out to any one of us, raised no significant popular protest.
It was a long road to the tabloid culture that gave rise to the Milly Dowler phone hack. Until recently, we made our way along it without complaint.
So what now?
The hacking scandal has finally surrendered its place at the top of the news agenda, giving way to other stories: mass murder in Norway, famine across the Horn of Africa, the American debt crisis; all the ordinary, tragic stuff of 24-hour rolling news. Were these last four weeks, filled with revelations that struck at the heart of the British establishment, just a strange and fitful dream? The real wreckage they have left behind, and the processes now in place that are meant to clear that wreckage, remind us that they were not.
An official review ordered by David Cameron is set to examine British media practices and ethics. It will seek to establish, says its chairman Lord Justice Leveson, what is meant by “the public interest,” to discuss when invasions of privacy are justified and when they are not, to delineate what constitutes a suitable relationship between a journalist, a politician, and a policeman. The inquiry could result in a new voluntary code of conduct to which all newspapers will be asked to adhere; it may even result in new privacy laws that make many tabloid kiss-and-tell tactics explicitly illegal (they are arguably illegal already, by dint of breaching the human right to privacy). Britain’s hyper-aggressive tabloid culture — a freight train run out of control for more than 20 years — will never be quite the same again.
Meanwhile, politicians are opening up on the extent of their dealings with people at News International. David Cameron says he has had 26 meetings with N.I. executives since the general election in May 2010; Chancellor George Osbourne has had 16 such meetings in the same period; Labour party leader Ed Milliband, 15. On average, a member of the British government has met with an N.I. executive once every three days since the election. MPs will now be expected to report these meetings as a matter of course, and their content will become subject to scrutiny as never before.
In any case, for now News International is a public relations toxin that no politician wants to touch. It’s now clear that a tragic paradox haunts the life story of Rupert Murdoch: so successful was his anti-elitist project that it placed him among the most powerful in a new British elite, and so, according to the principles in which he had so thoroughly schooled the British people, he must be brought low. For the last four weeks the British public have examined News International and discovered access to power unchecked by any democratic process, corruption in open view of a servile police force, unbounded hypocrisy, and callousness directed at ordinary, working people. Memories of Gallipoli may have faded in the public consciousness, but the British people still recognized all this well enough: it was the behavior of an elite just as real, and as potent, as the elite that provided our officer class in WWI.
For a while, then, a space has opened up in which we in Britain might build a new tabloid culture. We can hope for a print media that encourages journalists to tread more carefully over the difficult terrain where the right to privacy borders the public right to know. On the Fleet Street grapevine there is talk that a group among the redundant NOTW journalists want to re-launch the paper under their own steam, and take it back to its old-fashioned campaigning, anti-corruption roots.
In fact, the end of Murdoch leaves space in which to substantially adjust our public life, so that relationships between the people, the media, and our elected leaders are reconfigured for the better.
But that quickly starts to sound wide-eyed. After all, it has been like this for years, and there will always be much scandal to read about. In the final summation, what comes after Murdoch is sure to be somewhat different. But not necessarily better.