Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair. Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair. Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The BBC’s three-part documentary series on Rupert Murdoch and his media empire gives an intimate view of ruling class power and the challenges to it, writes Tom Whittaker

Available to watch now on BBC iPlayer

“Dynasty” is an appropriate term to describe the Murdoch Empire, suggesting something quasi-medieval at work in terms of power and influence. After watching the three-part BBC documentary series such a judgement would seem not too far off the mark.

Murdoch’s malign influence on politics and the media has long since been noted by those on the left; the British playwright Dennis Potter famously referred to his pancreatic cancer as “Rupert” in his last TV interview before his death in 1994.

Potter’s comments came in the aftermath of Labour’s bitter 1992 election defeat. Despite a deep recession, the recent Poll Tax debacle, and consistent leads in opinion polls, the Labour leader Neil Kinnock was defeated by John Major. On the day of the election the Sun had infamously put Neil Kinnock’s head inside a lightbulb on its front page with the headline “If Kinnock wins will the last person to leave Britain please turn off the lights”. The day after they claimed victory: “It was the Sun wot won it!”.

This is covered in the opening sections of the documentary, as is Murdoch’s close political allegiance with Margaret Thatcher. The Sun had first backed the Conservatives at the 1979 election and had maintained this support for her throughout the turbulent 1980s. In return, Thatcher had assisted Murdoch in acquiring the Times and Sunday Times Newspapers, flouting previous regulation which had sought to limit concentration of media ownership. Murdoch is said to have wanted a populist tabloid, a serious newspaper and a TV company and with the Sun and News of the World (NOW), the Times & Sunday Times, and his significant shares in BSkyB, he now had all of these.

The crucial Wapping Dispute of 1986-87 when Murdoch took on and defeated the powerful print unions, is left out of the documentary. This is one significant omission from an otherwise excellent documentary. Without the defeat of the print unions Murdoch would not have been able to wield the same levels of power and influence.

Two porcupines: Murdoch and Blair

The first episode, ‘Kingmaker’ examines Murdoch’s role in helping Tony Blair to become Prime Minister in 1997. In 1995 Blair had controversially travelled to a News International conference in the Hayman Islands, abasing himself sufficiently to get Murdoch’s backing.

Blair and Alastair Campbell seek to justify their courting of Murdoch actions as necessary to neutralise a hostile media. Campbell says “we knew there was a wild dog in the corner and we needed to keep it quiet”. However, the truth is that Labour would have been likely to win the election in 1997 with or without the backing of Murdoch and the Sun. Campbell recounts that the trip led to a furious row between himself and former leader Neil Kinnock. Campbell told Kinnock that they “hadn’t offered him (Murdoch) anything”, with Kinnock replying along the lines of “but you will”. According to Campbell, Murdoch described the relationship between himself and New Labour as “two porcupines making love”, which even Campbell admits was “fucking weird”.

Meanwhile, the current Prime Minister John Major and a host of other Tory ministers and MPs had spent the 1990s getting shafted in the Murdoch press as a series of sleaze and scandal stories erupted. Some of this was standard tabloid titillation, but it also highlighted the blatant hypocrisy of a Tory Party that preached social conservatism whilst practising something quite different. Moreover, there was a deep anti Tory mood in Britain by the mid 1990s even Murdoch’s populist papers saw a need to articulate at least some of this.

Major claims that at a private meeting in early 1997 Murdoch wanted a change in policy on Europe, which Major took to mean as a referendum. When this was not offered, and the election was called shortly after the Sun reversed its historic support for the Conservatives going back to 1979 and chose to back Blair. Blair subsequently wrote an article for the Sun soon after that promised a referendum should his government seek to enter the Euro, a pledge probably inserted after discussion with the paper’s deputy editor. Clearly Murdoch was helping to shape government policy in all sorts of ways.

Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Times and a close associate of Murdoch in the 1980s, described the depth of involvement between News International and New Labour as “unprecedented” and “almost incestuous”. Blair became the godparent to Murdoch and his third wife Wendy Deng’s daughter Grace. However years later, the relationship would sour after Wendy Deng wrote about how irresistible she found Tony Blair’s legs and body. Murdoch and Deng divorced shortly after and Murdoch no longer returns Blair’s calls.

Cheerleader for the Iraq War

Of more concern for us in terms of the relationship between Murdoch and Blair was the Iraq War. This was the moment at which the Faustian pact between the two men could no longer credibly be denied. Amidst the various underlying motives for Blair’s crusading zeal, his relationship with Murdoch must count pretty highly. The liberal journalist Peter Oborne describes Murdoch as a “big cheerleader for the Iraq War”, whilst Andrew Neil claims he was a hawk on foreign policy whose aim was to “keep Blair’s feet to the fire”, meaning keeping Blair to firmly aligned with the US government. According to Neil, in the week before the invasion of Iraq, Blair spoke with Murdoch more often than he spoke to his foreign or defence secretary. The Sun dutifully ran a series of front pages forcefully agitating for war and every one of Murdoch’s 160 papers across the world each leant their backing to the invasion.

Yet the Iraq war was massively contested, both in Britain and across the world. A majority of public opinion in Britain was against it and this points to the limits of both Murdoch’s and media power more generally. These limits would soon be dramatically exposed when the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World (NOW) engulfed the Murdoch Empire in 2011.

Cameron and the Leveson Inquiry

The second episode ‘The Rebel Alliance’ documents how the tables were turned on Murdoch and how the resulting phone hacking scandal went to the heart of David Cameron’s government.

In 2009, the Sun had shifted its support back to the Conservatives after a fierce charm offensive by Cameron and his then shadow chancellor George Osborne. This centred around the notorious ‘Chipping Norton set’, which included Cameron, Osborne and Rebekah Brooks CEO of News International. This idyllic Cotswold village was also at the centre of elite power in Britain.  Cameron would go horse riding with Brook’s husband, and Osborne and Cameron hung out with Brooks on New Years Eve.

Gordon Brown could not fit into this world the way Tony Blair could and following his speech at Labour conference in 2009, the Sun’s front page declared that “Labour’s Lost it”. Brown really only had himself to blame, having spent the last decade fully signed up to the New Labour agenda, yet the manner of his execution was brutal nonetheless.

Cameron hired as his director of communications Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World. Under Coulson’s watch, the News of the World had routinely hacked into the voicemails of various celebrities and politicians and also of ordinary people who were in the news. This included victims of terrorist attacks and even the parents of murder victims. From 2008 onwards this criminality began to slowly come to light as various celebrities and politicians, often funded by Formula One boss Max Moseley launched libel suits against the News of the World. The investigative journalist Nick Davies built a story exposing the web of criminality linking the News of the World with Cameron’s director of communications Andy Coulson and the metropolitan police force that was unwilling to investigate these crimes of the powerful.

The shit would finally hit the fan in 2011 when it emerged that the News of the World had hacked the phone of the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. The public were disgusted and the criminality could no longer be concealed. Cameron fired Coulson to protect himself, whilst Murdoch closed down the News of the World to protect the rest of his empire. Brooks, Coulson, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch himself, were forced before parliamentary select committees.  Then in 2012 the Leveson Enquiry was held. Murdoch described his appearance before MPs as “the most humble day of his life”. He was bullshitting, but was clearly more rattled when he faced members of the Dowler family who judged him with complete and absolute contempt.

Yet it was always doubtful that a public inquiry, even one with the scope of Leveson, would be sufficient to dismantle a key nexus of ruling class power. Sure enough, few of the inquiry’s findings were acted on. Andy Coulson received a prison sentence but Rebekah Brooks and the rest got off. Despite suffering serious reputational damage Murdoch and his empire survived largely intact.

Ruling class ideologue

The concluding episode ‘The Comeback’ looks at the role played by Murdoch in the votes for Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US. This includes a sychophantic Nigel Farage recounting how he was  invited over to Murdoch’s London apartment to discuss UKIP and allowed by Murdoch to smoke inside. At times the concluding episode perhaps comes a bit close to implying that Brexit was all the result of the Sun and that Trump’s victory was all the result of Fox news. Clearly, the role of the Sun during the EU referendum was a reactionary one, yet the Leave vote itself was a more complex mix of factors as there was with the vote for Trump in the US.

Nevertheless, that Murdoch was able to survive the hacking scandal of 2011-12 and then re-emerge to play a significant role in a populist right project that was able to harness anti-establishment sentiment, should give us pause for thought. Neither the financial crisis of 2008, nor the phone hacking one of 2011, reached any sort of democratic resolution which seriously curtailed ruling class power. This helped to create conditions of alienation and bitterness towards the system which Murdoch, along with the likes of Trump and Farage were then able to exploit.

The value of The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty is that it offers an intimate portrayal of ruling class power, something that is usually kept off our screens and hidden from view. We should never underestimate this power, but neither should we see Murdoch or other capitalist media moguls as all powerful. When the Sun withdrew its backing from Labour during its conference in 2009, Tony Woodley, then leader of Unite, responded by tearing up a copy of the Sun whilst on the podium exclaiming “we in Liverpool learned to do this a long time ago” a reference to the longstanding boycott of the paper in the city in response to the Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.

The Wapping dispute, the movement against the Iraq War and the campaign to expose phone hacking all seriously challenged the power of the Murdoch Empire. News International would throw the kitchen sink at Corbyn in 2017 and yet were unable to prevent his radical left programme from gaining Labour nearly 13 million votes.

An ageing Murdoch is still preaching climate change denial, but his native Australia suffers extreme heat and devastating forest fires. Ultimately, the experiences and suffering of ordinary people under capitalism will keep bringing them into conflict with the worldview of ruling class ideologues like Murdoch.

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