Murdoch’s power solely lay in convincing leaders of his power

3 May

Newspapers have little power influencing public opinion. A gung-ho Sun that savaged Brown everyday failed to get Cameron a majority. An anti-Livingstone press didn’t stop Londoners voting Ken in twice. The truth is, more Brits tune in to TV and radio bulletins than read newspapers. And many tabloid-readers are often more interested in gossip and sport than political essays.

Politicians don’t believe this. They believe tabloids are decisive in winning elections. Forefront in Labour minds in particular is the 1992 election. After 13 years of Tory rule, Labour’s Neil Kinnock was certain he would win. But Murdoch’s Sun launched a vicious campaign against him, culminating in an election-day front page. “We don’t want to influence you in your final judgement,” it said, “but if it’s a bald bloke with wispy red hair and two K’s in his surname, we’ll see you at the airport.”

The front page that won an election?

Two days later, the paper announced “It Was The Sun Wot Won It”. This was sheer hubris. The wit of a headline-writer did not and cannot make a reader change his vote. The greatest thing the front page could have achieved was a chuckle. If you liked Kinnock, you’d have probably stopped buying the Sun by now. Murdoch’s power lay not in persuading the public, but in persuading politicians.

1992 convinced Labour that Murdoch was all-powerful. A new generation of Labour politicians, led by Tony Blair, set about winning over the man. In 1995 they jetted halfway round the globe for a private audience with Murdoch. Blairite fantasist John Rentoul explains it was not a bootlicking session at all; this was the speech where he stood up to Murdoch. Campbell’s diaries expose this as the fantasy it is. Campbell, writing the speech on the plane, says:

I was a bit fearful of the potential political downside of appearing to ignore the Murdoch/right-wing agenda, so I persuaded [Blair] we had to challenge that agenda further. […] The party would instinctively not like it.

Any anti-Murdoch stuff in the speech, Campbell confirms, was just to please the party. The speech was designed purely to butter Rupert up. Campbell told Murdoch they had put more into it than any speech outside party conference. Murdoch walked away happy. When Campbell returned home, Neil Kinnock raged at him. “You imagine what it’s like having your head stuck in a fucking light bulb,” he said.

All harmless pandering, you might think. But Murdoch’s support at the 1997 election came with tacit caveats. Campbell’s former deputy Lance Price said, “No big decision could ever be made inside Number Ten without taking account of the likely reaction of three men — Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch.” He was the 24th Cabinet member, according to Price.

Rupert would take care of an unfounded drugs policy, vast areas of law and order, anti-terror, anti-paedo and anti-asylum policy. All ministers who made liberal noises on these policy areas would be kicked back into line, out of fear of what Rupert might think. He would be a sort of permanent Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs. Meetings and phone calls with Rupert also forced Blair to U-turn on a referendum on a new European constitution (which unfortunately came to nothing after French voters said no).

But the greatest offence is this: those in office helped him expand his business empire. It happened under Thatcher. After he had lunch with her privately (something revealed by recent documents but denied by the official history of The Times), Mrs Thatcher let him buy The Times in 1981 without referring the takeover to the Monopolies Commission. It is said, when Thatcher again let Murdoch acquire Sky, she sent a draft of the Broadcasting Bill 1990 to his lawyers so appropriate deletions could be made.

Blair showed a similar friendliness to Murdoch’s business plans. At a private dinner in 1994, according to Andrew Neil, “Blair indicated that media ownership would not be onerous under Labour; Rupert that his newspapers were not wedded to the Tories.” A Communications Bill promised to relax rules on cross-media ownership.

It was only a Labour peer‘s late amendment to the Communications Act 2003 that allowed politicians to stop a media takeover on the grounds of public interest. Without this Murdoch could have bought off BSkyB in 2010 with no objections. Murdoch could not turn Sky into a partisan Fox-Newsesque channel under Ofcom rules. But we know Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had plans to overhaul the Communications Act 2003, which established Ofcom as a regulator. In 2011 he said the review to the Act would be “thorough” and he was “prepared to radically rethink the way we do things”.

Were this any other business than a media organisation, our politicians’ dealings with Murdoch’s companies would be slammed as corruption – the same corruption that blights Indian politics, one that makes us call the political system there “dysfunctional”. But because he owns the media, there is still a well-paid commentariat that defends him.

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2 Responses to “Murdoch’s power solely lay in convincing leaders of his power”

  1. Sachin May 4, 2012 at 11:12 AM #

    Excellent piece, with one minor caveat.
    Although it’s correct that Thatcher fast-tracked Murdoch’s takeover of The Times, this ultimately proved to be a good thing. Without his support, as several balanced Times journalists have pointed out, the paper would have been in dire straits; in the event, it remained Fleet Street’s most august voice.

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