Published on 2 Mar 2012

My part in Rupert Murdoch's ascent?

Curiously, I do not think it was fear of being traduced or “exposed” by the Murdoch media that made us go easy on him.

It is easily forgotten that in the 1980s and early 1990s, Murdoch struck many across British media as a refreshingly ballsy outside influence administering a shake-up to our deeply conservative trade. And I use the word conservative in its true sense – resistant to change whether from a right or left wing perspective.

New, brash Aussie money somehow seemed to challenge the old media hegemonies. Scale was not in those days any kind of a problem. It was when he got into television that scale began to play. Yet what had defined his entry into newspapers – republican, anti-European, free market economic views, and Page 3 attitudes – played almost no part in the ever-expanding electronic world of News Corp. Not until Fox News, did we see any of that.

Rupert’s defection from his Oz to his US passport was a moment we barely took note of in 1985. But that was THE moment when what had merely seemed to be expanding UK influence went global.  The wielding of power by press barons has been a feature of previous generations of the British body-politic  –  Rothermere, Beaverbrook and the rest – and maybe there are some echoes in what is being laid out in front of us at Leveson, even if theirs was a little more transparent. But we are dealing with the now. That “now” is the Murdoch period.

Retrospectively, what had seemed a harmless, yet deeply un-British incident, in which the media mogul lugged an aspiring JFK-like youthful bidder for power more than half way round the world, today becomes much more significant.

Young Tony Blair, battling to escape the chaotic overhang of the Kinnock bids for power in 1987 and 1992, was prepared to go many uncharted extra miles. When he flew all the way to Hayman Island off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 1995 to court Rupert in his News Corp den, it now seems the moment which captured a shift in how power and influence works in our country.  An aspiring British politician in near-supplication to gain the support of a foreign corporate power.

It was a tableau completed, according to Vogue Magazine in 2011, by the vision of a Blair, standing on the banks of the River Jordan in a white chasuble, ordaining his position as godfather to Murdoch’s youngest daughter Grace.

In between, as the Leveson Inquiry has now heard, British public and private life allegedly became subjected to the most extraordinary period of un-British performance in our modern history. Private secrets were stolen, or so it has been claimed from Leveson’s witness table, and public servants were corrupted.

What had seemed strange and unusual in 1995, suddenly fitted a form. This was a form that apparently penetrated  at every level of our public life.

Where once we would have laughed at Italian corruption, this week we suddenly blanched when we were told it has happened to our own; to our police, to our civil servants, to our prime ministers – even, we are told, to our publicly-owned horses. Now we laugh at ourselves, but with a worrying hollowness.

So far this is less to do with provable criminality, than with a more obvious “culture”. This week’s developments are, after all, police allegations.

This journey that I have described, book-ended by Hayman Island and the River Jordan, is not about who we thought we were, is it perhaps more about who we have now become.

Is that why, as a journalist who has operated throughout this period, I feel a sense of personal failure, even responsibility, when it comes to the reporting of Rupert Murdoch and the influence of his empire?

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21 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Jon,

    This is a very welcome, humbling mea culpa. Thank you for your honesty.

    Now….how many of your colleagues across mainstream media are going to have the courage to do the same? How many of them will respect the memory and actions of great TV journalists like Ed Morrow and Fred Friendly when they confronted McCarthyism at great risk to their careers? How many of them will have the moral courage to denounce a Western colonial war (Vietnam) the way even Walter Cronkite did at the height of his popularity? How many of them will follow the lonely leads of fine journalists like Paul Foot and John Pilger?

    Murdoch was never anything more than a fast-talking barrow boy with a quasi-plausible line in extreme right wing cultural poison. He was and is a neocon propagandist. Many of us pointed this out at the time and since. The social results of Murdoch, his employees and the Tories are all around you in poverty, unemployment, crooked banks and disgusting, murderous wars. The media we have is a natural result.

    We frequently ask how a great civilised nation like Germany could be corrupted by Nazism. After the last thirty odd years in Britain we need wonder no more.

    1. Hannah says:

      I personally admire and respect Jon for this frankness. I also am of an age when I remember journalists such as Pilger and Foot, the likes of which would not stoop to the depths of depravity to sensationalize media stories.

      It’s quite true, Murdoch is a ‘back street barrow boy’and unfortunately has built his empire on the social weaknesses of others. To consider that he may have TOTAL media control fills me with deep unease and concern.

      As yet Leveson has to conclude, but we are already informed that Police are considering opening up more of their frontline tasks to contract out to private security firms.

      Where will the ‘buck stop’ there then? Who will be brought to account and more importantly WHAT can we do about it?

      Will we see an increase in the old ‘backhander’ mentality and possibly a move towards ‘insurance protection’ style policing?

  2. Philip Edwards says:

    Jon,

    If I may, an addition to my other response above.

    If British mainstream media wants to rescue its reputation and decency there is one historical issue it could tackle and help expose. That is the real cause of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 and the subsequent cover up.

    Incredibly, the families of the victims still seek justice in the matter. If there is any profession which could help them to do so it is yours. As anyone knows who has followed the evidence available even thus far, most of mainstream media – led by journalist thugs Mackenzie at the Sun and Neil at the Sunday Times – were guilty of the most horrendous attacks on the victims. C4 News stood out for its dissenting courage at the time.

    If you need any help in the matter contact professor John Ashton or read Phil Scraton’s book “Hillsborough the Truth.” You might also read Lord Justice Peter Taylor’s report on the disaster. Then you could get Mackenzie and Neil in the studio to answer uncomfortable questions on their actions at the time.

    It has been almost twenty three long years wait for justice. Don’t you think that is too long?

  3. e says:

    Murdoch’s “Page 3 attitudes”, his willingness to turn a profit by objectifying women should have told enough of us [the people of Britain] that his brand of news was going to cause damage to our society. I don’t myself buy the idea that he flourished because of keenness to throw off small c conservatism – damaging sexism personified the status quo of generations. Ironically Murdoch’s brand flourished because of the symbiotic relationship with our first ever female Prime Minister, though of course she was merely following an equally age old tradition of supporting a propagandist sympathetic to her legislative aims for the political economy.

    To my mind there’s no getting away from the fact that the British media, the fourth estate, has failed in its first duty for decades, if that duty requires journalist to speak as they find and to speak for the populace before their employer.

  4. Philip says:

    It’s extremely likelt that some – probably a very small number – of public servants were corrupted in this way. It’s generalisations & oversimplifications like this that give all the media – not just Murdoch – a bad name. As a former worker in the public service for the whole of my working life I’d say most of my colleagues would have been highly resistant to Murdoch – or other – corrupt money provided for information they held. In my day, anyone who did leak anything (e.g. Customs & immigration staff leaking to the media about celebs caught at Heathrow with drugs) got sacked.
    Where Murdoch corrupted our public life was (a) making craven politicians (b) removing fact-based news with packages of opinion-saturated newslets largely hidden among celebrity baloney (c) turning “news” into the doings of celebs & footballers & WAGS, etc so most people don’t actually know owt about nowt (d) using lies, misleading & partial information to mould people’s views on issues Murdoch regarded as important – e.g. anti-EU (e) employing the sort of person with repellent views who believe that none of us are entitled to any privacy.
    What did he do at the start? Attack the unions & put boobs on Page 3!

  5. Lucy says:

    One word: Wapping. I still have my ‘Murdoch the Gravedigger’ placard, and it doesn’t seem far wrong today…

  6. adrian clarke says:

    I love the holier than thou attitude, both of yourself,Jon,and the media at large,particularly that small publication the “Guardian”A paper ,in its vendetta against NI not too proud to make up a front page that destroyed another great Newspaper.A media rent with envy at NI power within its circles.Envious that it produces newspapers wanted by the public at large,The “Sun on Sunday” launch success is proof of that.The rise of “Sky”a service that has to be paid for is proof of its popularity.No wonder the rest of the media is envious of Murdoch’s success.It is interesting too that the Police are now trying to put the boot in.Is that a self protection racket?
    I hope in the interest of openess and transparency,every media outlet has its accounts checked for claims of payments for information and every journalists expenses for the last ten years are also checked for the same.
    If the pious ,envious hypocrits seeking to destroy NI are checked ,i wonder what can of worms it will uncover.
    Beware Leverson,if we the public are to know of others dirty secrets,for he will surely hurt freedom of information

    1. Patrick Graham says:

      that sounds so much like Leni Reifenstal its almost inspiring…but then – when it gets to the conspiracy theory – a little too much like Mr Burns and Smithers.
      the “Sun on Sunday successful launch proof” is a bit of a give away…

      employee by any chance?

    2. adrian clarke says:

      No i am retired ,and they are always my own views.I believe there was/is a conspiracy between the Guardian(left leaning) and Tom Watson(spokesman) for the Labour party and GB in particular.
      Insider ,although very old now, knowledge, indicated that most journalists paid their sources for information.A check on theirs and companies accounts would be interesting and fair

  7. Mudplugger says:

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing and Jon is to be applauded for acknowledging what happened over that period and that, along with most others, he missed it.

    As a very successful businessman, Murdoch long recognised the importance of ‘influence’ in high places. It is unfair to label only the Tories as recipients, because Murdoch did not discriminate, he has sought and bought influence with all suitable targets.

    But let us not forget his commercial courage in ‘betting the farm’ on persuading UK viewers to pay for something they had always had for free – 25 years ago Sky was a monumental gamble and it paid off.

    There is no doubt that Murdoch’s personal politics lie to the Right and that he uses his media organs to support those views.

    But let us also not forget that no-one has ever been forced to buy the Sun or the Times or to subcribe to Sky or watch Fox News – they are all voluntary products which the reader/viewer freely chooses to sample.

    If the Left feels aggrieved, then there’s nothing stopping them doing the same thing and seeking their own voluntary viewer/reader-base in competition.

    But why bother when we’ve already got the compulsory-tax BBC and Channel 4 ?

    1. Patrick Graham says:

      but if Sky had failed early on – we’d have a sane level of funding and a football league that was not distorted beyond all financial reason, with just enough free viewing on the BBC to encourage more people to get out and watch the footy…

      was it so great that we got SKY sports and sky cinema? I’d say not.

    2. Mudplugger says:

      But, Patrick, that’s exactly the point. Murdoch took an enormous commercial gamble to put himself in pole-position to exploit the ‘sweeties’ he knew would prove irresistible to the masses. He changed viewing, but as a consequence, he also changed the content, such as football and film-viewing. Whether that’s a good thing or not, each individual decides.

      For my own part, I choose not to subscribe to any of Murdoch’s offerings, but at least I’m free to decide that, unlike with the ‘compulsory’ media foised on me by taxation.

    3. Patrick Graham says:

      I do get it – in a free market world this all seems fine and a good gamble… I just think that you can argue for freee to accesaa satellite bestial porn subsidised by advertising, 24/7, the same basis, – much like the gamvle he took with the Sun and Page 3 –
      and the gamble he took with paying police for salacious details…

  8. Patrick Graham says:

    There are a few who warned of Murdoch from the start – and campaigned against him.
    My Uncle, Araucaria of the Guardian, long ago refused to work for Murdoch’s Times despite being asked to in a time of dire financial need by a friend who had worked there.

    the compromising thing appears to be a sense of needing to belong to the media groupings in order to make a career/money –

    my uncle’s lack of compromise has had short term consequences but in the long term has helped him have a clear conscience.

    My feeling is that there are many in the media whose conscience needs far more clearing help than yours Jon, but its good that someone with your public presence can point this out.

    C4 news continues to make the BBC slots look painfully shallow and glib.

  9. Nicholas Monro says:

    Jon,
    Don’t be so hard on yourself! C4 News is the classiest news production on TV and compulsive viewing. As the perfect compliment to The Guardian it’s also incredibly innovative compared to BBC News with its vast resources. C4 News’ edge is that feeling it represents the interests of the people whereas BBC News ‘sits on the fence’.If anyone could have, and should have, taken on Murdoch surely it was the power of the BBC? But instead C4 Midday News is cut and I get Robert Peston droning all over my lunch.Makes me think Murdoch has moles inside BBC. People suspect the truth. Your role is to warn us and to highlight the trouble spots so we can do our own research.Thanks to education (information literacy) and new technology anyone keen can discover how compromised was Murdoch’s ascent. Murdoch should now be left with 1% share in BSkyB to remind UK how close it came to disaster.But he is merely the devil’s advocate and you, the media, must now redeem yourselves by investigating and exposing all those corporations and private interest groups who stand to one side of Murdoch, who quietly lobby parliament and sit fidgeting at the back during select committees and public inquiries.

  10. Julie says:

    I must say I am incredibly proud of some sections of our press prepared to speak openly and report truth. In this environment it can’t be easy.

    I think if as a country we are to preserve any kind of an acceptable future, we must be open about the mistakes of the past and move on whilst not forgetting them. If Leveson and Weeting unearth the full extent I am starting to think there will be no one left to either run the country or arrest those involved. Will we ever see it all I wonder?

    I have witnessed first hand now exactly what Central Office can do to fight the truth coming out. My jaw dropped at their tactics.

    I’d like to see a time when openness and fact dictates our choices. Half the country are still asleep thanks to Murdoch… boy are they going to be in for a shock!

  11. Margaret brandreth-jones says:

    Forgive me , but are you saying that Murdoch and Blair were the triggers for British corruption?
    I would agree with ‘Competition objective’ as a corruptive.
    I would endorse materialism and greed to own as another factor.
    I would underline a growing lack of ethical principles as causal.
    I would even blame media for portraying comedy as a medium to scathe good sense and common decency.
    BUT a few men don’t make rotten apples wholesome.

  12. Antony says:

    Jon,

    It is ironic that the only mea culpa which I have heard from a journalist with regard to journalism’s apathy to News Corp’s misplaced dominance in our politics and society is from the only journalist for whom I have respect.

    While, it this instance, I think your mea culpa is misplaced, I applaud you for your self-awareness and humble approach. For what it’s worth, a man of little significance (me), distressed by the condition of our politics and journalism and unclear as to how to contribute to it for the better, has been cheered.

    Best regards,

    Antony

    1. Margaret brandreth-jones says:

      I am sorry but I need to reiterate my stance. Everybody has a choice to act as ethically as they want. The logical consequence of acting right and proper should be reciprocated with a peaceful and upright life, however because the many are twisting the truth , manipulating legal proceedings, including the police, getting prize jobs C/O the twisters, the profiteers are milking others and destroying lives. This did not start with Blair , go back to the early 80.s

  13. Saltaire Sam says:

    The arrival of that young Tony Blair certainly signalled a major change in our nation’s life – most of it bad.

    His determination to get power, no matter how much he had to compromise his party, bore fruit for him personally. But what did it do for the rest of us?

    Tuition fees, creeping privatisation in the NHS, corruption and excess in the city, an illegal war. more power to Murdoch and a political scene which has not one party of the centre left, leaving millions disenfranchised.

    Blair’s legacy: thousands of innocent dead, the rich richer and the poor poorer, and a coalition government given an open excuse to do what they said they wouldn’t do because they are ‘clearing up the mess left by labour’ or, ironically, ‘only continuing policies started by labour.’

    And yet, like failed bankers, he continues to reap rich rewards while ordinary people pay the price.

    He truly is the son of Thatcher.

  14. Stephen says:

    I am not sure how Tony Blair’s arrival began the nation’s decline. That started thirty years ago when Margaret Thatcher set out on the road to turn this into the fifty-first State.

    If we could dispense with much of the Welfare State and return the NHS to its original remit there is every prospect that we could have a sustainable future, unlike socialism-dominated Europe.

    As I did not partake of the credit binge of the last two decades, I now find that my prudence is being punished to bail out those who did borrow beyond their means. Unfortunately, Mr Prudence – when he was Chancellor – borrowed billions on extremely bad terms to build schools and hospitals for which we will be picking up the bill for a generation or two.

    Tony Blair was a champagne socialist who realised that to get power he needed the votes of ‘middle England’ and Rupert Murdoch owns the publications that they read. It is a sorry state of affairs when a media mogul holds the keys to power but this is not much different to the situation in the other fifty States, where big business runs the country whilst an elected puppet pretends to have control.

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