By Arab News
By Neil Berry
Intellectual well-wishers of Rupert Murdoch maintain that but for him British newspapers would have remained at the mercy of Luddite print unions and never made the transition to the digital age. They argue that his decimation of the unions in 1986 was a necessary piece of brutality. They often claim too that his incomparably scurrilous newspapers, his daily tabloid the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World, have been a small price to pay for his keeping alive the upmarket British titles, the Times and the Sunday Times.
Yet the case that Murdoch ever had any redeeming qualities looks increasingly dubious in the face of the epic-scale phone-hacking scandal that has scotched his bid to secure complete control of his BSkyB television network (while also reflecting unhappily on the judgment of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who enlisted the discredited former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, as his director of communications).
It is not just that Murdoch’s British company, News International, nurtured a culture of criminality, routinely sanctioning bribery and intimidation. Of a piece with his buccaneering management style has been his unremitting contempt for liberal values. The truth is that Murdoch’s media empire has always been heavily tilted toward championing the free market and propounding a fundamentally US/Zionist worldview. None of his newspapers has paid much more than lip service to the ideal of the poet John Keats: human discourse as a “thoroughfare for all thoughts, not a select party.”
A hard-bitten Australian who became an American citizen, Murdoch has long been of the party that prioritizes the waging of pre-emptive war on Muslim countries deemed to threaten the strategic interests of the United States and Israel. The bellicose neoconservative stance of his chief US media outlet Fox News is just the brashest manifestation of the thuggish ideological agenda that has defined the Murdoch brand. There was never any justification for regarding him as an upholder of free thinking. His “respectable” newspapers have been a fig leaf for his rugged US-style rightism, his visceral belief that might is right.
It is with good reason that Murdoch has been pictured as a vampire squid, with tentacles reaching into every corner of British public life. The sinister character of his influence was all too palpable in 2004 when the verdict of the Hutton Report into the BBC’s coverage of the Iraq war was leaked to the Sun. Censuring the corporation for reporting what has since attained the status of established fact — that the government of Tony Blair deliberately exaggerated the case for going to war against Iraq — the Hutton Report left the BBC badly compromised, and the prompt splashing of the story across the front page of Murdoch’s mass circulation tabloid hugely compounded its embarrassment.
Leave aside his ceaseless efforts to discredit British membership of the European Union, it is fair to say that defaming the BBC has been the principal policy objective of Murdoch’s British newspapers. If they have smeared the BBC at every turn, it has been in large measure because it stood in the way of Murdoch’s monopolistic ambitions, but it has also been because as a public broadcasting organization the BBC enshrines, however imperfectly, a commitment to open debate and objectivity that is anathema to him.
Despite its own not inconsiderable resources and status as a global media brand, the BBC has perforce adopted a defensive posture vis-à-vis Murdoch. By the very nature of its gentlemanly ethos, it has been ill-equipped to challenge him on his own bare-knuckled terms. The great irony of the phone-hacking scandal is that at the very moment when Murdoch was poised to deliver the coup de grace against it, all the BBC has had to do is simply report the news in order to inflict grievous damage on the mogul who has treated it with such disdain.
It is a measure of the abiding sense of the vampire squid’s reach that the Independent newspaper has reported suspicions that, embattled though he may be now, Murdoch is nevertheless contriving to manipulate the BBC’s coverage of the phone-hacking scandal, if only in the sense that his minions have sought to limit the damage he and his son James, Chairman of News International, are sustaining. The fact is that the BBC’s business editor, Robert Peston, has close professional ties with senior figures at News International. The Independent’s implication is that through him they have drip-fed the BBC with information calculated to focus public attention on Coulson as bearing the blame for News International’s travails.
Yet the wonder is that Murdoch ever reached a point where he could not only threaten to usurp the BBC but increasingly influence, if not determine, the very decision-making process in Britain. Historians will marvel that even after his British newspaper company was exposed for flagrant violations of the privacy of celebrities and ordinary people the British government still seemed prepared to allow his bid to assume total control of BSkyB to remain a matter for independent adjudication. In its protracted readiness to grant Murdoch the benefit of the doubt as to whether he was a fit and proper person to maximize his British media holdings, Britain’s political establishment has looked at once pathetic and ridiculous.
Rupert Murdoch first broke into the British newspaper industry in the late 1960s, a decade that began with the US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, stinging the British ruling class with his acid observation that Britain had lost an empire and failed to find a role. It could be said that Murdoch ruthlessly turned to his own advantage the mental and moral lassitude of a once global power that by the 1970s was experiencing terminal crisis. Indeed, his career as an insatiably rapacious media baron has in many ways been an episode in the decline of Britain. That British politicians are now hurrying to distance themselves from Murdoch is the measure of how shaming that episode is belatedly felt to have been.
— The author can be contacted at [email protected]