Is Murdoch really a lizard in a suit?
The Murdoch-bashing of the smart set who believes he ‘controls Britain’ has crossed the line from rational inquiry into David Icke territory.
So there he was, the secret ruler of modern Britain, the dark, rotting heart of the British state, the man who has wielded his ‘extraordinary power’ in order to ‘manipulate officialdom’ and extend his influence over ‘politics, the media and the police’. I hope you weren’t fooled by Rupert Murdoch’s diminutive stature or his octogenarian demeanour as he appeared before the Leveson Inquiry yesterday, or his denials about using his ‘political power to get favourable treatment’. Because this small, old newspaper owner is, in fact, the mastermind of a ‘shadowy influence-mart’ who has exercised a ‘malign influence on our politics for the past 30 years’. And now, thanks to Lord Leveson, we finally have an opportunity to ‘banish’ this ‘tyrant’ from our shores and a ‘glorious opportunity for meaningful reform’.
At least, that’s what the Leveson cheerleading squad, the media and celebrity groupies of this inquiry into press ethics, would have us believe. These people are rapidly taking leave of their senses. Their depiction of Rupert Murdoch as the dastardly puppeteer of the British political sphere has crossed the line from rational commentary into David Icke territory, sounding increasingly like a conspiracy theory about secret rulers of the world. And their claim that Murdoch singlehandedly ruined British politics – that he is, in the words of one commentator, the architect of modern Britain’s ‘heartlessness, coarseness and spite’ – speaks to their inability to get to grips with the true causes of political crisis today. Yesterday’s shenanigans made it pretty clear that Murdoch-bashing has become a cheap substitute for grown-up debate.
It is of course true that Murdoch is very influential, as you would expect of a man who, in Britain alone, owns both the newspaper of record (The Times) and the bestselling tabloid (the Sun). But not only do the Murdoch-maulers overestimate how influential he is; more importantly they misunderstand the origins and nature of his influence in modern Britain. It is not that Murdoch set out to create a ‘shadow state’ that could ‘intimidate parliament’, as madly claimed by Labour MP Tom Watson. Rather, it was the increasing alienation of parliament and politicians from the public which boosted Murdoch’s political fortunes, making him the go-to man for ministers and MPs desperate to make a connection with us. In other words, Murdoch didn’t destroy British politics in his scrabble for greater influence – it was the already existing death of British politics, its loss of meaning and purchase, which, by default, made Murdoch influential.
Much has been made of yesterday’s revelations that Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, had close contact with Murdoch’s News Corp during its bid for BSkyB. Hunt’s emailing of sensitive, useful information to News Corp officials is cited as proof, in the words of Tom Watson, of the ‘shadowy contacts’ cultivated by ‘the power-hungry executives of News Corp’ who were desperate to get a ‘commercial advantage over their rival media groups’ (everything is ‘shadowy’ in the view of conspiracy theorists). But the far more interesting part of the Hunt/Murdoch scandal is the belief, and desperate hope, of Conservative ministers like Hunt that they could make political gains by cosying up to Murdoch. Forget, for a second, the harebrained idea that Murdoch has some magical power to make politicians eat out of his hands, and ask instead why politicians are so extraordinarily keen to butter him up.
What the Hunt fiasco reveals – just like the Thatcher/Murdoch and Blair/Murdoch hook-ups before it – is that ours is an era in which politicians who lack old-fashioned means to make a connection with the public now hope to connect with us through the media. Murdoch is only as powerful as politicians have allowed him to be. It is their lack more than his ambition, their desperation to tune into public sentiment rather than his determination to control this country’s political life, which has empowered the so-called ‘Murdoch Empire’ and made one newspaper owner influential. The revelation that David Cameron met with James Murdoch in 2009 to discuss the Sun switching its support from Labour to the Conservatives; the exposure of Hunt’s rather teenage antics; the discussion of a so-called ‘Chipping Norton set’ made up of politicians and Murdoch men who had cosy drinks and chats in that part of Oxfordshire… what these all reveal is not the awesome power of Murdoch, but rather the extent to which politicians who have no meaningful constituency have become dependent on media networks.
Consider Tony Blair’s relationship with Murdoch in the late 1990s, which was by the far the snuggest get-together between a politician and News Corp. Murdoch didn’t barge into Downing Street and demand that Blair pursue certain political goals, as the Murdochphobics crankily claim. Rather, this special relationship was a product of the fact that Blair, a new kind of cut-off politician, more reliant on PR and spin than on anything like proper grassroots support, saw in Murdoch a way of touching base with the public. It was Blair’s aloofness from the public, his party’s growing disconnection from everyday people, which led him to see Murdoch’s newspapers as some kind of conduit between him and us, a magical channel between the political elite and the little people. Murdoch’s influence during the New Labour years was not the cause of the political rot in the 1990s; it was a symptom of the political rot, of the hollowing-out of Labour and of British politics more broadly.
This goes double for the post-Blair breed of politician, from Cameron to Nick Clegg to Jeremy Hunt, none of whom has any real connection with the public and all of whom are thus more reliant on media networks than on electoral enthusiasm. Indeed, even politicians who ostentatiously spurn the ‘Murdoch Empire’ are themselves dependent on media patronage in lieu of getting any love from the public. Consider that great warrior against all things Murdochian, Vince Cable. Who do you think is the author of his popularity? It’s the media – the non-Murdoch, ‘respectable’ media, that is, which anointed him ‘St Vince’ and made him spokesperson for middle-class decency. Likewise with Nick Clegg. The entire Cleggmania phenomenon (remember that?) was a liberal media creation. As spiked said in 2010, Clegg has been turned into ‘the High Representative of the media class, the Chosen One of that tiny but influential elite of opinion-formers’.
Because of the profound crisis of British democracy, the moral and political chasm that now exists between the rulers and the ruled, politicians care more for stuffing their little black books with media contacts than they do about engaging with the throng. It’s just that where some of them cultivate their oligarchical networks over Pimm’s in Chipping Norton (how vulgar!), others do it over fairtrade macchiatos in Islington. The same process is at work, though: alienated politicians seek out media men who might help them find a language with which to communicate with Them (ie, us).
Yet instead of getting to grips with the disarray of modern politics, the Murdoch-haters invent increasingly demented fairytales to explain Murdoch’s power. They talk about a shadowy cabal of News Corp heavies descending on Chipping Norton to grab the political class by the scruff of its neck. What we have here is a chattering-class conspiracy theory, with commentators fretting over Murdoch’s ‘mighty machine of corrupting political influence’ which apparently controls British politics ‘beneath the surface’. Replace the word ‘Murdoch’ with the word ‘lizard’ and none of this would look out of place in a David Icke missive.
We end up with the worst of all worlds: an unwillingness, or inability, to examine why British politics is in a parlous state and how this boosts the influence of the media class, and the propagation of Icke-style tales about evil Aussies coming over here and ruining our parliament, our police and our public culture. Then they fantasise that everything will get better once Murdoch is ‘banished’, like children crying ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead!’. But how, exactly, would the expulsion of Murdoch improve British political life? Cameron will still be Cameron, Labour will still be pointless, St Vince will still be a myth, and the public, wisely, will still be wary of the lot of them.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.