Bolivia Newton-John's Blog

For Murdoch, it is all commercial, not political.

July 8, 2011

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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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.