Some things in Britain never change. The disdain/dislike/fear of the chattering classes for Rupert Murdoch is like the tide — it rises and falls constantly. Now there’s a spring tide of anger because of the attempt by Murdoch’s global company, News Corporation, to buy the shares in BSkyB Television that it does not already own. The BBC and almost all Murdoch’s newspaper rivals are angry and shouting at the government, in the name of pluralism: STOP THAT MAN. The Business Secretary Vince Cable has referred the bid to the media watchdog Ofcom — fair enough, given the vital role of media in a democracy and current rules. Murdoch’s people insist none are breached.
My first newspaper job was on the Sunday Times in the early 1970s. Under Harry Evans, it was an exciting paper with one dreadful problem: every Saturday night brought terror that the print unions would disrupt production. They often did. By the end of the Seventies they had practically bankrupted Fleet Street. Then in 1981 Rupert Murdoch bought Times Newspapers and moved production of them and the Sun and the News of the World to Wapping. There, with the help of Margaret Thatcher’s new labour laws, he did battle with the unions. It was brutal but he won a famous and vital victory. Today there would probably be no Guardian, no Independent, no Daily Telegraph if Murdoch had not made the industry profitable. Pluralism in British newspapers today is thanks to Murdoch.
Similarly with television. At the end of the 1980s, Murdoch launched Sky TV to break the monopoly of the BBC and ITV. Sky was derided by intellectual snobs as “council-house television”. Building it was a huge struggle but now BSkyB, of which Murdoch’s company owns 39.1 per cent, has 10 million subscribers. Sky News is a constant challenge to the BBC and its conventional, left-of-centre wisdoms.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a biography of Murdoch that treated him as a unique builder of media rather than as a force from the outer darkness. But the great and the good still see him as that. They complain that he has cheapened public discourse. All tabloids, not just Murdoch’s, commit excesses. It’s up to consumers to choose what to buy.
Newspapers are at the heart of Murdoch. He has redesigned The Times (often) to appeal to a wider readership but it is still a serious paper — no other has an Oceans Correspondent. Losses for The Times and Sunday Times for the year ending July 2009 were more than £87 million as the internet saps all papers’ sales. Other owners would have given up but Murdoch sustains them while searching for ways to make them profitable.
In America, Murdoch’s Fox News fiercely defies the liberalism of the establishment broadcasters, CBS, NBC and CNN. Unlike them, Fox includes conservative American voices on its opinion programmes. The liberal broadcasters fell in love with Obama — Fox was always sceptical. So now are the mass of American voters who turned against Obama in the mid-term elections.
In 2007, he bought the new jewel in his crown, the Wall Street Journal. He has greatly improved its arts and local coverage and its conservative opinion pages. Overtaking the liberal New York Times, the WSJ now has the biggest circulation in the US.
Also in New York, Murdoch indulges a passionate interest in education. He has invested millions of dollars in and is a director of Harlem Village Academies, a charter school akin to Michael Gove’s academies. It is free to students from disadvantaged backgrounds — and they are gaining better grades than the averages obtained in New York’s public system. He is now considering funding an academy near Wapping. The boys and girls on the Guardian are not amused and have written of the “alarm” of his critics.
Murdoch has always been a passionate defender of the Jews and Israel. In a recent speech in New York he said: “My own perspective is simple: we live in a world where there is an ongoing war against the Jews.” Leaders of European opinion, he argues, seek ”to make Israel a pariah” and he thinks that Obama’s offhand treatment of Israel only encourages those, like the vicious dictatorship in Iran, who want to kill all Jews. He is right.
He is also correct that the internet poses an existential threat to newspapers. The BBC’s licence-fee-funded website, draining readers from newspapers, is a much greater threat to pluralism than BSkyB. Murdoch has erected a paywall around Times Newspapers and the WSJ in the hope of persuading readers to pay for online content. His British competitors may huff and puff but if they really want pluralism to survive, then this restless, visionary iconoclast, now aged 79 but still going very strong, has to make the paywall work. Everyone who values newspapers must hope he succeeds.