Bolivia Newton-John's Blog

For Murdoch, it is all commercial, not political.

July 8, 2011
4 Comments

Something has been troubling me about the narrative that is emerging about the remarkable furore engulfing News International. Many people seem to regard Rupert Murdoch as some kind of Ernst Stavro Blofeld character, lurking in his lair, white cat in hand, plotting how best to influence his many political puppets around the world so as to best achieve his murky political aims. The truth is surely much more prosaic than that. Rather than a super-villain, Murdoch is a garden variety businessman, albeit a supremely successful and powerful one. This is not to say that he is not dangerous. Too much power concentrated in the hands of one man, or one corporation, or one government for that matter, is always dangerous, and always has the potential to lead to dire consequences, some of which have become painfully manifest in the last week. The confusion, rather, seems to be about his motives.

Murdoch is, and always has been, driven solely by the profit motive. The debasement of the British printed press, which was sparked by his expansion in the 1980s and then adopted by all other newspapers, was driven not by ideology, but by relentless cost-cutting, for the advancement of no more lofty goals than Murdoch’s bottom line. A huge paranoia exists, particularly among left- and liberal-leaning observers, that Murdoch has the power to decide the outcome of elections, just by throwing his publications’ editorial lines behind the party of his choice, or whichever party serves “his interests” best. This is not borne out by evidence. Just because, after the 1992 election, The Sun claimed that It Was The Sun Wot Won It, does not make it so. Surely nobody in their right mind needs to be reminded that The Sun saying something does not make it true.

Rather than influencing public opinion, the accomplished populist Press Baron is just exceptionally able to pick winners. This is the secret, the only secret, of his success. He is always on the winning side. Nobody votes according to how The Sun so instructs, for the simple reason that The Sun does not offer such instructions. It is a cheerleader, not an advocate. There is no persuasive argument to be found within its pages. I know this because, unlike most of the Chattering Classes, hammering away at Twitter or writing editorials in The New Statesman, I live in a household that takes The Sun, and I read at least part of it every day. It is a collection of headlines and little else, most of them apolitical. Here it differs from more pernicious titles like The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, which use argument and investigation to inform and persuade (even though their arguments are fallacious, manipulative and based on distorted facts or plain falsehoods), and press a consistent ideology, however depraved, whoever is in Government.

It would not have taken an accomplished psephologist to see that John Major would be leading the Conservatives to electoral oblivion in 1997, nor an astute surveyor of public opinion to see that Gordon Brown had not exactly caught the public’s imagination. Switching sides under those circumstances was a purely commercial decision. Yet almost all politicians from both the parties of power have for the last 25 years laboured under the collective delusion that without Murdoch’s patronage, they would not win the election. Despite the events of the last week, Douglas Alexander still trotted out the line on Question Time last night that Tony Blair’s decision to court the media in 1996 was to redress an inherent bias in the British media that had kept Labour out of power. This is nonsense. Labour were kept out of power because they were seen by the public as an unelectable, disorganised, unreformed party of the loony left, which indeed they were. In the same way, the Tories were kept out of power from 1997-2010 not because of media bias, but because they were seen by the public as an unelectable, disorganised, unreformed party of the frothing right, which indeed they were.

“But!”, you cry, “Aren’t people that stupid though? Don’t they get all their information spoon-fed to them by a cynical and evil media, which they then belief as if it were fact when in fact it is Murdoch/the Illuminati/Howard Hughes trying to control them?” No. I must admit to once being of this view, but that view changed when, in the course of a council election campaign, I actually knocked on doors and spoke to people. They are far more politically interested, independent-minded and intelligent than the current narrative of the Murdoch influence assumes. As I said before, The Sun and News of the World do not try to argue for political positions, so this is just as well. Normal people have all the analytic powers, ingrained scepticism and ability to listen to different points of view that Guardian readers have (some wags may even suggest that they have more…) Murdoch knows this, and doesn’t care. He is driven by far more powerful motives.

So what motives? As mentioned above, the profit motive, pure and simple. The Sun and the News of the World are famous for populist campaigns: hatred of paedophiles; contempt for immigrants; sympathy for the armed forces, especially those who have died; campaigns to bring the World Cup to the UK and so on. These are populist, non-partisan issues. But look beneath that and you can discern their real editorial line, and it is purely commercial. The Murdoch press despises the BBC, because it is a Murdoch competitor. The Murdoch press rails against press regulation, because their business model relies on a lack of regulatory scrutiny, as has become so crystal clear. While despising bankers quite happily, The Sun has never picked up on the equally populist angle of offshore companies and corporate tax avoidance, because News International is an off-shore company that avoids tax. Murdoch’s political beliefs only extend as far as these issues, and it is part of his strategy, and evidence of his lack of real political convictions, that he picks winners and tricks them into thinking he backs them ideologically. All he cares about is having the government think they are in his pocket so that he can lobby them on issues that would advance his commercial interests. When Rupert pops into Number 10 to get thanked by the new Prime Minister for help he hasn’t actually given, these are the issues he presses, and it beggars belief that successive governments have been to blind to see this. The extent to which this erroneous view of Murdoch’s motives has infiltrated the political class can be further seen by observing Liberal Democrat circles, among which it is genuinely believed that Rupert Murdoch “holds us in contempt”, or in the words of Shirley Williams on QT last night “Rupert Murdoch LOATHES the Liberal Democrats”, one Lib Dem commentator suggesting this was because the party has not sucked up to him as avidly, another suggesting that the Liberal Democrat programme is in some way a threat. This is also nonsense. Rupert Murdoch probably never gave even a first thought to the Liberal Democrats, at least not until some ministers were included in the coalition government.

I have rambled somewhat, but this is the point: Rupert Murdoch has debased the British media with his business model, that is beyond doubt. He sparked a race to the bottom that has quickened a decline in the industry that may or may not have happened anyway due to social media, but has been unedifying nonetheless. However, the debasement of our political system that is often blamed on him is more nuanced, and blame truly lies more with successive generations of gutless, spineless, witless politicians who believed too much of what they read in the papers. It was never The Sun wot won it, it was always bad politicians who lost it, be they Kinnock, Major, Hague, Howard or Brown. By aping the debasement taking place in the printed press, the politicians of the last 25 years have been architects of their own demise, and the synthetic fury and froth they are now generating is a cover-up for what they must now realise was pure, unadulterated stupidity. They sacrificed the ability of the British political system to govern the country honestly and effectively for no other reason than to make an Australian man rich, because he said so, and they deserve to be held in our contempt.

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Clegg must speak out on the most damaging cut of all

April 14, 2011
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So far, the justification for all the cuts planned by the coalition government is that they are necessary for the economy, and to get the public finances back in order. Obviously how necessary they are is a matter of intense debate, but for what it’s worth I broadly support the coalition’s line of argument. The key point about the coalition’s argument, though, is that it is dispassionate, and framed in painstakingly economic terms. Removing Disability Living Allowance and Independent Mobility Payments for the disabled, and Legal Aid for the poor are clearly not decisions made by bleeding hearts, but are the result of hard-nosed fiscal mathematics. Which is all very well, and polls show that a majority of the British public still accept these arguments.

When it comes to economic credibility, then, the coalition rather shoots itself in the foot in its cretinous attitude to immigration. Many stupid Conservative policies were jettisoned on the formation of the coalition, which fitted with Cameron’s rhetoric of “liberal conservatism” and his attempts to paint himself as a man of the centre-ground. They have pressed ahead, however, as I have blogged previously, with the plan to reduce net immigration from around 250,000 to “the tens of thousands”. This is the most damaging cut of all, and in doing so they are putting the economy in grave danger.

A successful government reform should identify a problem needing to be fixed, and then fix it. Insofar as immigration in Britain represents a problem, it is that Britain is still a racist and exceptionalist country, unable to reconcile its own post-imperial decline with the new realities of the world. Britain still wraps its sense of self-identity in a mesh of moronic historical fictions, such as the idea that Britain was the most powerful country in the world due to our superior industrial innovation and creativity, rather than the fact that it enslaved more of the world more brutally than any other Western European countries. Immigration, then, is seen by many as a concession made by British people to the inferior and unsophisticated denizens of other, darker, countries, desperate for an unwarranted piece of Britain’s delectable pie. Britain is racist.

Yet in public discourse, opposition to immigration is often couched in specious voodoo economics. “Immigrants take British jobs”, “immigrants are a drain on the state”, “immigrants lower wages” are all clarion calls of the Right, and they are all utterly fallacious. Every single economic analysis of immigration shows that immigrants are a boon to the economy, pay far more tax than they take in benefits and public services, and because of the Lump of labour fallacy, actually add jobs to the country. They are also younger and by definition more entrepreneurial, thus doing something to address the rapidly ageing population that truly threatens our economy. As unenlightened as their core voters and backbenchers may be, the Conservative Party has traditionally been a staunch pro-business party, so willing to accept the arguments of the business lobby who recognise these issues.

So it is then even more depressing that at a time of unprecedented economic peril, Cameron is making public speeches endorsing a wholesale ransacking of the immigration system. These measures have been in the pipeline for some time, but today Cameron uses language that is unacceptable:

When there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods, perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate, that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.

Here Cameron is effectively blaming immigrants for British people being racist. It is obvious from poll after poll, and the media coverage of immigration, that many people in the UK feel this way. Media pillory of Gordon Brown last year for calling a bigoted woman a bigoted woman was a mind-numbing case in point. But thankfully the public and the media are not responsible for the economy. Using emotive, dog-whistle, populist sentiment to justify policies that will wreck the economy is literally the opposite of what the country needs in a time of austerity. The tragedy is that when the effects of this are felt, they will be mistaken for the effects of that austerity, and austerity, which otherwise may have just about kept the country afloat, will take the blame, leading to a new generation of voodoo economists who eschew austerity, but maintain a wrong-headed approach to immigration. Witness Shadow Home Secretary (and probably Labour’s next Prime Minister) Yvette Cooper’s reaction to the speech, which was basically to carp at Cameron for not going far enough.

Yet this government is supposed to be a coalition. While it is quite clear which side of the government these sentiments are emanating from (given that Lib Dem policy is for an amnesty for everyone living in the UK illegally and no tightening of immigration controls, numbers-wise), every policy should be stamped by both partners. If there was ever a time for the Lib Dems to speak out against Conservative folly, it is now. As well as being overwhelmingly in the country’s interest to keep migration levels up, it is clearly in the Lib Dems’ interest; if such economic vandalism is allowed to derail the deficit-reduction program and plunge the country into further economic doldrums, the main defence of maintaining the coalition dissolves. As I write, news is breaking that Vince Cable has strongly criticised Cameron’s speech. While this is welcome, Cable has been allowed to take too much flak on his own already – if he resigns the cabinet will be weaker, and so will the Lib Dems’ position in it. Cameron’s words and actions are racist, xenophobic, economically damaging, and virulently illiberal. Nick Clegg has rightly supported the coalition program from the front, but on this matter he should speak out now before it is too late, and Conservatism is allowed to do lasting damage.


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The trials and tribulations of being a Conservative in power

March 17, 2011
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I’m sure a lot of little dicks got hard at Daily Mail HQ when they heard about the Conservative manifesto pledge to lower net migration levels to below 100,000 per annum (from around 250,000). The pledge defies economic considerations, issues of practical implementation, and general non-racist sentiment, but was no doubt specifically designed to throw a bone to the Conservatives’ cherished core constituency of Paranoid Twitching Xenophobes (PTXs), theretofore disgruntled by Cameron’s attempted re-branding of the party as non-racist, non-misogynist and non-homophobic.

Considering that the Liberal Democrats’ stated policy on immigration was a complete amnesty on illegal immigrants, I was rather hoping that the coalition agreement would provide the Cameroons with an excuse to send this ridiculous piece of far-right dog-whistling the way of the inheritance tax cut, the mandatory jail term for knife possession, and numerous other poor-quality Tory policies which have been jettisoned. Sadly though, the policy remains in progress, under the auspices of Damian Green.

However, as immigration is an economic boon, abuse of immigration laws is immensely over-stated, and almost all immigrants (roughly the same proportion as British-born humans, funnily enough) are honest, law-abiding etc, Green has found the policy to be extremely hard to deliver. Hard, that is, without eviscerating the student visa system, which accounts for a very large proportion of immigrants to Britain, and contributes £40bn of exports to the economy. This covers a large variety of institutions, from dictators’ children at Eton to scientists/engineers at Russell League Universities to young people studying at London’s language schools to small private further education colleges offering FE/post-graduate courses (CoI – I work at one of these). But what all of these institutions have in common is that they bring people into Britain who are naturally dynamic and open-minded, usually multi-lingual, seeking to study and improve their lives, in all probability gaining a positive view of the country and potentially putting down roots, as well as bringing along aforementioned £40bn of business and in the long-run tax revenues and disposable income. People who are a far cry from those people who in the charming words of Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun, doyenne of the PTXs: “crawl off the boats knowing only two words of English: asylum and benefit” (largely because these people exist only in Kavanagh’s diseased psyche).

Yet that Daily Mail headline is too important, so Green has decided this sector is ripe for the chop. No matter that education is the UK’s 7th biggest export, and no matter that in a time of unprecedented austerity the country is relying on its big export sectors to avoid economic collapse. Those things are not as important as appeasing the PTXs, who will probably never be satisfied until anybody who with just a hint of brown in their skin has been shipped back to Foreign, or possibly to a concentration camp Immigration Removal Centre. From a party traditionally seen, for all their other faults, as pragmatically pro-business, this is shameful.

Today, after a consultation process, the Home Affairs Select Committee have become the latest critic of the ill-conceived, dangerous, and unworkable plans to gut one of UK’s best, most profitable and most-prestigious export sectors. Green has repeatedly stated that the intention is to protect “reputable” education providers while preventing “abuse”, but as Mark Easton pointed out in this great blog post last year, their plans for drawing this distinction are flawed, and based on half-baked assumptions that are not true. The current system has adequate measures in place to deal with flagrant abuses of the system, and so-called “bogus colleges” are regularly closed down under existing rules. The HASC point to evidence from Australia and the United States, where their HE/FE sectors contracted seriously after the introduction of similar restrictions, and reports that the Australian government are apparently gearing up for an aggressive marketing campaign to attract prospective foreign students do not allay fears that the UK stands to lose a lot of competitive ground. The report is worth reading, and recommends in no uncertain terms that the government reconsider most of the measures in their proposals, or even remove those on student visas from net migration figures altogether, on the basis that they are not immigrants, but visitors/customers, 97% of whom do not settle in the UK (according to the Home Office’s own figures in 2009).

All this should make Green think again, but they have those PTXs to think of, those “descendents of the war dead”, making Britain proud by cowering in their living rooms daydreaming about Islamist Pederasts hiding under their children’s beds and plotting to blow up their house prices, demanding UNDER 100,000 BROWN PEOPLE, as if it were not an arbitrary number, whose implementation would cause huge damage to the economy and no doubt cause rampant human tragedy in its wake. Green is discovering the trials and tribulations of a Conservative in power, and the problems that come when your assumptions lack any evidence, your arguments lack any reason, and your prejudices lack any basis.


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A dark day for democracy

February 11, 2011
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There are various groups in society that I wish couldn’t vote (pretty much everyone apart from me), but luckily, I am not allowed to withdraw that right from other people. None of us are, and that principle is central to our democracy. So news that MPs have decided it is their right to pick and choose who elects them should have us all worried. Aside from the fact that it contravenes probably the most important of all international conventions that Britain is signed up to, the European Convention on Human Rights, the decision undermines the principle of universal suffrage that checks the power of politicians to do as they please. They work for us, remember? Now that they have awarded themselves that right, what is stopping them extending it to other demographics: racists; Communists; anyone who votes Tory/Labour while there’s a Labour/Tory government in; and eventually anyone who doesn’t fit into The Masterplan and who Harman/Griffin/Farage/Dorries wishes couldn’t vote.

Some people say that because with rights come responsibilities, by breaking the law criminals have “consented” to having suffrage withdrawn. Well what constitutes a crime is also decided by MPs, so the conflict of interest is obvious. Furthermore, breaking the law is a mistake, made by someone on the wrong track, and anybody in society can get put on the wrong track, usually by circumstances and bad luck beyond their control. Removing suffrage from these people certainly fits in with the vengeful hard-line attitude extolled in the boozers and tabloid newsrooms, but it doesn’t fit in with the tenets of our justice system. If we are going to follow the lead of barbaric authoritarian systems like China, Saudi Arabia and the US, where law-abiding citizens (for “law-abiding citizens” see “people who haven’t been caught yet” – I break the law on a regular basis and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t) revel in treating criminals as a different species, rather than people who have made mistakes, then frankly we are going to turn into a country of which I don’t want to be part.

Moreover, what is the connection between voting and an act. Murder is a grave crime, and murderers should, in general, be restricted in their liberty for the protection of the people that they would otherwise harm, but how is this related to voting? Voting and murder are as unconnected as voting and recycling, or voting and standing on the left on Tube escalators (these last people are going to Hell anyway so why stop them voting while they’re here?). Human rights cannot be given and taken away like sweeties, and any politician who thinks they can is pretending to a higher throne and should be regarded as dangerous.

PS. As a former Labour minister, it is well-known that Jack Straw is a repulsive authoritarian, but David Davis enjoys promoting this idea of himself as Defender of Liberty, and should be ashamed of himself. Hats off to the mere 22 MPs who know their place.


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The Pupil Premium is too big to fail.

November 23, 2010
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Wise words from the IPPR, there is a basic disjunct between paying schools by results for one signifier and giving them shitloads of money for another without proper checks on how it is being used. Put yourself in the position of Headmaster X in question and it’s quite easy to see the obvious problem with that. The Pupil Premium is critically important because a) of the four key Lib Dem policies it was the one most wholeheartedly adopted by the Coalition government, and has been oft-touted as a reason for potentially enchanted Lib Dem activists to take heart, so failure to enact it would pose grave problems for the cohesion of the government, and b) our state education system has become an incredibly stratified post-code lottery that systematically and relentlessly fails the poorest kids in society using a system of ghetto-isation, a scandal of access to education which dwarfs the current higher education furore and has undermined all attempts by successive governments to increase social mobility and thus put the future of the country on a sounder footing. This is why the Pupil Premium, ultimately an incredibly wise and good policy, is too big to fail. The IPPR have sign-posted one way in which it could fail, and their warning should be heeded.


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Graduate Tax: The worst of both worlds

July 16, 2010
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As far as I can tell a Graduate Tax would take all of the problems of the current system and compound them.


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Iain Coucher and his “Purely personal reasons”

June 17, 2010
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Iain Coucher, the boss of Network Rail (tasked with maintenance of the railway network, but not running trains), is stepping down for “purely personal reasons”. If you believe that, I have some beach-front property in Birmingham I’d like to show you.


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Michael Gove, Empress of India

June 11, 2010
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At a time when British hubris about its place in the world is leading us into wars around the world and prompting us to renew our pointless and expensive nuclear “deterrent”, it is easy to understand why a Michael Gove might want to inflict colonial apologist history onto a new generation of children, but this should not sit comfortably with anyone already nervous about Gove’s sandbox experiments with the next generation of British children.


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Who cares if Diane Abbott is black?

June 9, 2010
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Coverage of Diane Abbott’s candidacy in the Labour leadership election seems to be focussing on her gender and race. Frankly, I do not believe it should matter if she is black, nor that she is a woman, but her selling point should surely be that she is honest, independent and principled, and has a personality?


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Inaugural post, response to Guido’s “The Change Coalition”

April 27, 2010
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I was quite pleased to read the Part I of that post (http://order-order.com/2010/04/18/the-change-coalition/) as it showed at least some people were thinking big and thinking sensible. The fact is that coalition governments are only alien to the UK, and work fine in many well-established democracies. Maybe they have elections more often, and change governments more often, but a cursory look at our last Lab and Con sole majorities (13 and 18 years respectively) suggests to me that that may not be a bad thing. I wish those governments had had more restraints placed on their legislative programs. Parties would a) be WAY more likely to seek cross-party consensus for their policies and b) think more long-term, if there were hung parliaments, because a) (obviously) they would need other parties’ support to get it through, b) they could quite easily be chucked out of government soon enough and if their legislation was that unpalatable it would be repealed (useful anti-extremism check and balance) and c) even if they were chucked out they might be back in again soon so it would hopefully prevent the kind of repulsive scorched-earth fuckery we’ve been seeing from Labour recently, and saw from Maggie towards the end of her reign.

Viewing coalitions as most of the public/media in this country seem to every possible combination of the main three would be unworkable in coalition. However, if our politicians grew up it could easily happen, as it does elsewhere. Guido notes one possible permutation, in my view one of the best possible (even down to which LD mainstay would fuck off back to the benches), though I agree with Guido politically usually anyway, but it is only one possible permutation. There are many others which are feasible, taking into account solely the politics of the politicians. As Guido and apparently others have noted however, our political system cultivates tribalism and consequent hatred between party activists, so it is entirely possible that no coalition whatsoever will materialise. Which is fine with a pretend government like the Scottish or European ones, but in Britain’s fiscal plight is unacceptable.

Interesting times anyway!


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About author

Bolivia Newton-John is an enthusiast from South East London. She will be mostly writing about society, anthropology, politics and entertainment, though hopefully in a less pretentious manner than here indicated. Bolivia Newton-John likes diplomacy, irony, and seeing the big picture. Bolivia Newton-John dislikes misanthropy, self-importance, and censorship.

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