Rupert Murdoch receiving the Global Leadership Award 2015 Rupert Murdoch receiving the Global Leadership Award 2015. Source: Hudson Institute - Flickr - Wikicommon / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

As Murdoch steps down, Des Freedman looks at the carnage created by the media’s foremost champion of neoliberalism

The announcement that media mogul Rupert Murdoch is to step down from his role as chair of Fox and News Corp has been widely seen as the ‘end of an era’. Piers Morgan’s craven response to the news has been typical of that of much of the establishment. Now a presenter with Murdoch-owned TalkTV, Morgan tweeted that Murdoch had simply been ‘a bold, brilliant visionary leader whose audacity & tenacity built a magnificently successful global media empire.’ 

Murdoch was the quintessential media figure of the neoliberal era. His career was marked by his devotion to neo-conservative politics: the consistent downplaying of climate change, the unwavering support for free market policies, the disgusting promotion of racism and sexism, the cynical exploitation of people’s private lives and the passionate celebration of militarism and nationalism. It was no coincidence that, apart from the Papua New Guinea Courier Mailevery Murdoch title around the world backed the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 – a sure sign of his pro-war credentials. 

This was an era that included everything from the Sun’s outrageous targeting of Liverpool fans after the Hillsborough Disaster to its pernicious coverage of refugees and asylum seekers and its participation in the phone hacking scandal (which led to the closure of the flagship News of the World). In the US, this featured Fox News’ (initial) obsession with Donald Trump (which was so extreme that Fox became known as ‘Trump TV’) and its consistent platforming of anti-vax voices and right-wing conspiracy theorists. One study found that watching Fox News would make viewers less informed about the world than if they didn’t watch any news at all. 

Nevertheless, this was a reign based on a business model and an ideological commitment that made him one of the most powerful voices in the world and earned his companies many billions of pounds. Despite his statement to the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 that ‘I have never asked a prime minister for anything’, he was a regular visitor to Downing Street and a powerful influence on political culture and, indeed, only recently it was reported that Rishi Sunak was ‘persuaded not to quit by Murdoch executives’ after being fined for attending Boris Johnson’s birthday gathering curing the Covid lockdown.  

Murdoch’s departure, however, comes as a time when this “magnificent success” is heavily tarnished. The tawdry family drama of who will succeed him (for now that has fallen to oldest son Lachlan who most obviously shares his Dad’s politics) is less significant than the huge rifts inside Fox and its recent payment of nearly $800 million to tech company Dominion for reporting lies about how Dominion had apparently rigged the results of the 2020 US election. Fox is still not out of the woods as it’s facing a further multi-billion dollar lawsuit from another tech company, Smartmatic, for a similar crime. 

Yet while Murdoch’s professional decline is a cause for celebration, the media power with which he was so closely associated has far from disappeared. Whether it’s Lachlan Murdoch or another figure imposed by the Board in future years, Fox and News Corp (and all the other outlets following the same clickbait model) will still continue to contaminate the media environment with their neoliberal fantasies, climate denial, and anti-immigrant coverage. This is a structural, not a familial problem. 

Meanwhile, the desire on the part of mainstream political figures not to antagonise Murdoch or any other media mogul is still all too evident. This was most famously expressed by Tony Blair’s love-in with Murdoch which started straight after Blair was elected as Labour leader in 1994 and immediately started writing articles for the Sun. Blair then flew to Australia in 1995 to address senior Murdoch executives in order to win their support and, indeed, was so grateful for Murdoch’s firm backing in the 1997 election that he  sent a letter to Sun editor Stuart Higgins, thanking him for the paper’s ‘magnificent’ support: ‘It really did make the difference’ he wrote

Fast forward 26 years and the current Labour leader Keir Starmer is a regular contributor to the Sun and in frequent contact with Murdoch: ‘we can’t keep him [Starmer] away’ said one News Corp executive following Starmer’s attendance at Murdoch’s midsummer party.  

And it’s not just about Labour, nor just about Murdoch. The Financial Times recently reported that some trade union leaders are nervous about organising a mass campaign of resistance to the government’s anti-strike laws in case they fall foul of right-wing newspapers. Union leaders, according to one insider, ‘didn’t want headlines in the Daily Mail saying “unions plan to break the law”’. 

This is a disastrous approach. Media power is brittle, not all-pervasive, and is best resisted not through accommodating to it in the hope that it can be neutralised but standing up to it and calling it out. That is precisely what RMT leader Mick Lynch did so effectively in turning the tables on hostile interviewers during the recent rail strikes. 

Rupert Murdoch is a very significant figure but not an all-powerful deity. He has been a hugely negative influence on global politics and journalism for some five decades. It’s true that he transformed journalism but only by intensifying the worst aspects of sensationalism, unwarranted intrusion, pro-war propaganda and climate denial.  

Writer Dennis Potter summed up this influence when, back in 1994, he admitted that he had named his cancer ‘Rupert’ because ‘there is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life.’ 

Corporate media power may be pernicious but it is not unassailable.

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Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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