Lynching the Last Great Newspaperman

Rupert Murdoch’s critics will never concede that the tycoon has any merits — but our media would be worse off without him

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Dial M for Melodrama: The Labour MP Tom Watson's account of the phone-hacking scandal fails to reflect on his personal motives or the wider political revenge he seeks

Has Rupert Murdoch been a force for good or bad in Britain? To an increasing number of people the question will seem absurd. Of course he has been a force for bad. That is certainly the view of the Labour MP Tom Watson and his co-author, Martin Hickman, a journalist on the Independent, in their book Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain (Allen Lane, £20). In an exhaustive account of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, they find a very great deal that is wrong with the media tycoon and absolutely nothing that is right. In the final chapter, they go up a gear and let fly, asserting that “Rupert Murdoch was not running a normal business but a shadow state.”

Wow! It is some claim. I’m not wholly sure what a “shadow state” actually is, but it sounds formidable, frightening and powerful. The phrase would seem to imply that the ruler of this mysterious parallel entity, Rupert Murdoch, has ambitions that extend far beyond money-making to the control and ordering of our lives. It is, in fact, an assertion so wild as to verge on the lunatic, and one wonders how two apparently intelligent and well-balanced people could have brought themselves to make it. But then Murdoch seems to have this effect on his critics. He is the embodiment of evil and they, of course, are the embodiment of virtue.

Perhaps there is little point in trying to introduce a note of rationality into what is certainly no longer a rational debate, but I shall try. I freely admit — how could I not? — that the phone hacking reflected enormous discredit on the News of the World journalists involved in it, the Murdoch executives who orchestrated the subsequent cover-up, and the Metropolitan Police who connived and colluded in the affair. However, even Watson and Hickman admit there is no evidence that Rupert Murdoch knew about either the practice or the cover-up, though they maintain, with some justice, that he helped foster a free-wheeling, swashbuckling tabloid culture at the newspaper, and therefore cannot escape responsibility for what happened.

Of course if Murdoch had personally approved illegal surveillance of celebrities and others there would be no point in trying to make any kind of case for him. But I very much doubt that he did.  News Corp, of which he remains chairman and chief executive, employs more than 50,000 people in many countries, and he simply did not have his eye on the ball in a tiny backwater of his vast empire. Nor did his son James, who might have been expected to, given that he was on the spot in London (Rupert generally works in New York) and responsible for News Corp’s British operations.

Imagine, for a moment, that we are back in July 2009, before the full gravity of the phone-hacking scandal became apparent, largely as a result of the efforts of the Guardian‘s Nick Davies. At that time Tom Watson’s boss, Gordon Brown, was still on reasonably good terms with the media magnate. The Sun still supported the Labour Party, if with less enthusiasm than it had shown in the Blair years. For the most part the Left had learned to live with Murdoch. What, in those actually not very distant days, might a fair-minded and reasonable person have said about the man? 

I would have said that his “Page Three” girls had slightly coarsened British life — no longer a very fashionable view, I know. I would have grumbled — and often did grumble in various columns — that he had allowed The Times to dumb down under a succession of editors. I would have complained — and did complain — that before, during and after the invasion of Iraq The Times and the Sun got into the habit of downplaying or even suppressing news that might have undermined the Anglo-American cause. And I can certainly recall criticising Murdoch for trying the kill off the Independent through predatory pricing — slashing the cover price of the loss-making Times — and largely succeeding.

But I would also have pointed out, and did so, that Murdoch has probably sunk more than £100 million into The Times since acquiring it in 1981, and that, when all is said and done, it remains a pretty good newspaper. I would have admitted that his other titles publish interesting articles and break important stories. Above all, perhaps, I would have praised BSkyB, for which Murdoch bet the farm, and almost lost his company, in the early 1990s. Who can dispute that it offers excellent sports coverage, some good drama and increasingly fine arts programming? Sky News produces reliable and independent round-the-clock news, and the Murdoch empire, owner of 39 per cent of BSkyB, bears its share of the annual £25 million losses.

Back in the early summer of 2009 many in the Labour Party would probably have agreed with much of this analysis, including possibly Gordon Brown himself. No longer. Opprobrium for Murdoch on the Left seems universal. The other day I bumped into a professor of journalism (one of a species, by the way, that is pretty uniformly rooting for statutory control of the press) and was told that Murdoch could not be praised for having created BSkyB because its programming does not have enough home-grown, British content. What kind of argument is that?

Needless to say, Watson and Hickman do not even consider the possibility that in his long career the 81-year-old Murdoch might have done even one or two good things. Their blow-by-blow account of the phone-hacking affair (the most detailed so far published, though necessarily incomplete because events move on apace) cannot find a single achievement to lay at Murdoch’s door. Naturally it does not occur to them to praise Sky News for its admirably even-handed coverage of the affair. The Times, admittedly after a slow start, no longer pulls its punches whenever more evidence of bad behaviour at the News of the World (or News International) emerges.

The unremitting negativity and extremity of judgment of most of Murdoch’s critics are amazing. Watson and Hickman never ask themselves why people like them were able for so long to tolerate a man now derided as the devil incarnate. Mr Watson is partly driven by personal motives — he was turned over by the Sun after he had led a conspiracy to force its hero Tony Blair to hand over to Gordon Brown — which he never examines. Nor does he reflect on the wider political revenge in which he is engaged.

Murdoch was tolerable as long as he was on Labour’s side. Tom Watson’s patron Gordon Brown became for a time at least as close to the tycoon as Tony Blair had been, united in part by their shared Scottish Presbyterian roots. When the Sun dumped Labour in September 2009, Brown allegedly rang Murdoch and roared at him for 20 minutes, ending up by telling him that he would destroy his company. During a hearing of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee last November, an overwrought Mr Watson called James Murdoch to his face a “Mafia boss”. That description might more accurately fit Mr Watson’s former boss, Mr Brown, the capo di tutti capi.

In this sense Rupert Murdoch’s decision to ditch Labour may have been one of the worst he ever made. He didn’t particularly like David Cameron, and seems to have been leant on by James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, the Tory leader’s friend and fellow member of the Chipping Norton set. In the months before the May 2010 election the Sun pulled out all the stops for Cameron but failed to win it for him, thereby suggesting, as Rupert Murdoch himself intimated during his recent appearance at the Leveson inquiry, that newspapers are not as powerful as politicians think they are. 

If the Sun had continued to support Labour, I expect the election result would have been much the same, and Murdoch would have been on the losing side, which he hates. But he would not have found himself as the Labour Party’s, and the Left’s, number one hate figure. The Guardian would doubtless have published its revelations all the same — after  all, the first knockout blow came in July 2009, a couple of months before Murdoch ditched Brown — though probably with less glee. He would have had a rough ride but not as rough as the one he has had. As for David Cameron, he would not be saddled with the accusation that he bartered his soul, and that of his party, for Murdoch’s (ineffectual) support.

The only point of this slightly elaborate “What if?” is to illustrate how recent, unexpected and contingent the anti-Murdoch jihad is. It is mired in political calculation — or perhaps in political revenge. Beware those like Tom Watson and his fellow Labour members of the Culture Committee who, clothed in the raiment of virtue, recently made the preposterous declaration that Rupert Murdoch is not a “fit person” to run an international company.

So bitter and relentless is the assault on Murdoch that the case against him is no longer pursued with any semblance of reason. Take the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. It was the Guardian‘s front page allegation on July 5, 2011, that the News of the World had “deleted the missing schoolgirl’s voicemails, giving the family false hope” which ignited the controversy, disgusted the public and led directly to the Leveson inquiry. After a statement from the Metropolitan Police last December, the Guardian published a correction which stated: “The News of the World was not responsible for the deletion of voicemails which caused Milly Dowler’s parents to have false hope that she was still alive.”

Quite a turnaround, though it should be said that the News of the World did apparently hack into Milly Dowler’s mobile phone a few days later, which was obviously indefensible, but without deleting any voicemails. How do Watson and Hickman deal with this important matter? They repeat the original allegation of deletion at some length before briefly mentioning the Guardian‘s correction and then referring the readers to Chapter 23, which doesn’t exist in my version of the book. In a strange way the original allegation is allowed to stand, or at any rate has not been explicitly demolished. Nick Davies, the co-author of the July 5 piece, and in many ways a heroic figure, has also been unable to admit in plain terms that this aspect of the story was simply wrong.

What happens to Murdoch now is obviously a matter of speculation. Let us make the possibly dangerous assumption that the worst of the News of the World revelations are already in the public domain. Will he survive? A few days after the Labour MPs on the Culture Committee declared that he was unfit to run an international company, the board of News Corp begged to disagree, and declared its full confidence in him. I don’t suppose that means very much, particularly as the current board is stuffed with his allies. There is the threat of litigation in America. Murdoch’s standing there will not be enhanced if charges recently brought against Rebekah Brooks, his former favourite and James’s number two, are upheld.

Sun King or not, he must have been battered by the events of the last ten months, and affected by the vitriol unleashed against him.  Even without the News of the World scandal, it would have been rash to predict that News Corp would hang on to his British newspapers after his demise. As he said at the Leveson inquiry, the shareholders don’t like them.

After all that has happened, there must be a high chance that he will be forced to dispose of some or all of them even while he remains in charge. There are rumours of buyers lining up. One way or another, the era of Rupert Murdoch as a newspaperman in Britain — though perhaps not as the controlling shareholder of BSkyB — is drawing to a close.

Tom Watson and Martin Hickman and his other inveterate critics on the Left will rejoice but I shall not. For all his faults Rupert Murdoch has cared for his newspapers. I did not mention in my earlier rehearsal of his pros and cons his salvation of the British newspaper industry when he broke the rapacious printing unions in Wapping. This industry is now threatened by endless circulation decline and the dearth of online advertising — as well as by the possibility that Lord Justice Leveson may further strangle it with statutory regulation. His lordship seems not to understand that he may be regulating a corpse. 

Will the pornographer Richard Desmond get the Sun? Or a Chinese billionaire The Times? Will anyone fight to keep Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers alive and thriving as he has done? Of course he has had too much power — but blame successive governments for giving it to him. Anyone who values the press, and is not a score-settling politician, should regard the prospect of his retreat from Britain with regret.