Murdochphobia is not as radical as you think
Whatever you think of Rupert Murdoch (I’m not a fan), you should be concerned that bashing him has become the only political game in town.
Judging from recent comments made by politicians and journalists, you could be forgiven for thinking that Britain had liberated itself from foreign occupation. ‘Like political prisoners after a tyrant has been condemned to death by a people’s tribunal, [our politicians] are at last free’, gushed one commentator. A Lib Dem spokesman described MPs emerging ‘into the sunlight like the freed prisoners in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio’. Labour leader Ed Miliband says the whole ‘psyche of British politics has changed’.
Wow. Was a secret Nazi cabal exposed and expelled? Did a brave Mili-band of brothers see off an invading army at Dover? Not quite. What happened is that some journalists and the Twittertariat had a pop at Rupert Murdoch. And, under intense pressure, Murdoch closed his Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, and sacked some people. That’s about it. The ‘people’s tribunal’ is actually the Guardian editorial board, and the ‘political tyrant’ who was ‘condemned to death’ is an octogenarian Aussie who was forced to give up his BSkyB bid. Britain freed from tyranny? Sticking with the wartime rhetoric: never in the history of mankind has so much BS been spouted by so many journos.
The notion that the cultural harrying of Murdoch has made British politicians ‘free at last’ - thank God almighty, free at last! - is based on two problematic ideas. First, that British politics was, until last week, dominated by Murdoch. And second, that the muddying of Murdoch’s name will allow our politicians finally to speak honestly and with conviction once more. Neither of these things is true. The fact that so many commentators believe they are reveals a great deal about the parlous state of public debate.
The childlike glee with which respectable hacks have greeted Murdoch’s travails speaks to their belief that he was singlehandedly holding back British democracy. In recent years, their attacks on the ‘Murdoch Empire’ have sounded borderline David Icke-like. Murdoch has ‘extraordinary power’ which he uses to ‘manipulate officialdom’, said Polly Toynbee in 2009. She writes of ‘the malign influence this man has had on our politics for the past 30 years’. Other commentators describe the links between Murdoch and politicians as ‘a shadowy influence-mart’ (‘shadowy’ is a favourite word of conspiracy theorists). One goes so far as to say that ‘the huge failure of my generation’ was to ‘allow Murdoch to enmesh our politics, media and police’.
It isn’t surprising that Murdoch-bashing often sounds eerily similar to conspiracy theorising - because, like conspiracy theories, it too is underpinned by its adherents’ own profound sense of dislocation and angst. It was largely the left and the cultural elite’s inability to make inroads with the public which led them to conclude that some other, super-sinister force must have us in its dastardly grip. It is no coincidence that the liberal-commentariat view of Murdoch as the controller of minds and the dictator of agendas really took off in the 1980s: because it is directly proportionate to the declining fortunes of the Labour Party and of mainstream left-wing thinking in general. If you were to draw up a graph to illustrate this, you would see that the axis marked ‘Belief in Murdoch’s awesome power’ goes up just as the axis marked ‘Influence of mainstream left-wing thought’ goes down.
In the 1980s and early 90s, Murdoch’s ‘shadowy’ command of the British political sphere became the de rigueur explanation for why the Tories were in power and Labour and its middle-class supporters in the media were in the political doldrums. During the 1992 General Election in particular, when Murdoch’s Sun laid into Labour leader Neil Kinnock on a daily basis, culminating in a post-election frontpage saying ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ (for the Tories), many observers became convinced that this coarse bloke from Down Under was a real-life version of those lizards Icke bangs on about, controlling everything.
Of course it’s true that Murdoch is influential, and it’s also true that in the 1980s and early 90s his British papers supported Thatcher and, far more reluctantly, John Major, before switching their allegiance to New Labour in 1997. Yet the notion that he exerted an authoritarian ‘malign influence’ was simply a way for left-wing thinkers to dodge getting to grips with some profound shifts in the British political landscape at the end of the twentieth century. It wasn’t Murdoch who stole working-class tabloid readers from Labour and handed them to the Tories; Labour had been losing working-class support for years before the ‘Murdoch invasion’. Labour’s support amongst the manual working classes (many of whom read tabloids) fell from 62 per cent in 1959 to 38 per cent in 1983. Bashing Murdoch became a way for Labourites to avoid analysing their own disarray. As Sir David English, then editor of the Daily Mail, argued in the early 1990s: ‘Every time Labour loses an election they blame the Tory press… the fact of the matter is that it was Labour’s policies that helped swing the  election to the Tories.’ Feverish anti-Murdoch sentiment expressed both the left’s unwillingness to have a serious word with itself, and its increasingly irate view of the gruff public as easily brainwashed saps who had been mentally kidnapped by Murdoch.
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What the critics of the Murdoch Empire don’t realise is that Murdoch was only as powerful as politicians allowed him to be. Consider his relationship with Tony Blair, easily the cosiest of all his hook-ups with PMs. It wasn’t that Murdoch used Derren Brown-style powers of persuasion to co-opt Blair; rather, Blair, being the leader of an aloof political PR machine that was utterly bereft of meaningful grassroots support, saw in Murdoch a way of connecting with ‘the public’. It was Blair’s distance from ordinary people, his instinctive (and correct) feeling that New Labour was cut off, which led him to see Murdoch and his papers as some kind of conduit between him and us, a magic channel between the political elite and the little people. In the late 1990s and the 2000s, Murdoch’s so-called power wasn’t a product of his own warped ambitions - it was a byproduct of the desperation of a political class which believed the only way it could connect with the blob of unusual people ‘out there’ was by publishing occasional columns in the Sun titled ‘WHY I AM JOLLY ANGRY ABOUT PAEDOPHILES’.
Which brings us to the present day and the harebrained idea that loosening Murdoch’s alleged grip will liberate and re-populate with principle the British political sphere. Whatever you think of Murdoch - I am not a fan, and I believe that the phone-hacking antics at the News of the World were deplorable and indefensible - this is clearly nonsense. Because it was the already existing disarray of the British political sphere that empowered Murdoch in the first place. The respectable commentariat has effectively declared war on a man who was merely the beneficiary of historic political fallout, not the orchestrator of it. Remove him from the picture and those various profound problems - the emptying out of both left and right ideologies, the aloofness of the political class, the transformation of politics into a purely elite pastime - will still exist. Our politicians will still have nothing of substance to say, just fewer tabloids in which not to say it.
Indeed, the recent transformation of Murdoch into a modern-day Satan looks like an indicator of how politics is becoming worse rather than better - more coarse, more conformist. What the anti-Murdoch campaign really points to is the instinctive rise to the fore of a new political and media class. No, this is not its own conspiracy theory; there was no conspiratorial gathering of well-to-do commentators in which they plotted to see off King Rupert and replace him with Prince Alan of Rusbridger. Rather, having sensed the defensiveness and weakness of the right, particularly following the closure of the News of the World, sections of the chattering classes are pushing further, seeing how far they can go in ‘cleaning up’ the Old Establishment and ousting the old ‘bad’ politics and replacing it with a more transparent, sedate ‘good’ politics. This is now something akin to a ‘Diana moment’, except we are implored to shelve our critical faculties in the name of collectively hating a mogul rather than collectively loving a princess.
The end result could well be the further shrinking of the political sphere and the more thorough expulsion of everyday people from public debate. So Ed Miliband’s apparently brave decision to cut his party’s ties with Murdoch is really a recognition on his part that he no longer even has to maintain the pretence of trying to connect with the public through the tabloids, as Blair attempted. No, all that counts now, it seems, is pleasing those small but influential sections of the chattering classes who over the past fortnight have determined the political agenda in a way Murdoch could only have dreamt about. Every other issue, from recession to liberty, war to democracy, has been elbowed aside by the elevation of their narrow anti-Murdoch agenda and the implicit insistence that everyone kowtow to it. The narcissism of it all is astounding, the expectation of unquestioning compliance even more so. If it goes on like this we might end up feeling nostalgic for the News of the World‘s politics of ‘name and shame’.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.