As the political and media establisment cosy up for Christmas drinks, Des Freedman takes a look at a successful year for Murdoch & Co
Families should be together at Christmas. That’s the simple message we should take from the merry noises emanating from Rupert Murdoch’s London apartment where, on Monday night, David Cameron, George Osborne, Rebekah Brooks and a slew of top News Corp personnel joined the mogul in capping off what has been a pretty decent year for him. After all, this was the year in which authorities in both the UK and the US dropped all remaining charges against News Corp and in which Sky, effectively controlled by Murdoch, posted record profits of nearly £1.2 billion. Four years after his annus horriblis of 2011, Murdoch has felt confident enough to restore Brooks, the former Sun editor, to the centre of his UK newspaper operations, has seen his family’s wealth double and has seen his titles contribute to the return of David Cameron and the Tories to Downing Street. Phone hacking, it appears, is simply old news.
Monday’s soiree may have been a little colder outside but the political temperature remains similar to those parties in the summer of 2011 where the UK’s political and cultural elites gathered to soak up the hospitality of the Murdoch clan. First we had Rupert’s summer party where the prime minister and his wife joined then Labour leader Ed Miliband and the ‘great and the good’ of British journalism and politics in celebrating the influence of the great man. Two weeks later, we had the gathering hosted by Elisabeth Murdoch in her Oxfordshire home that was attended by an impressive range of government ministers, advisers, senior Labour politicians, journalists, musicians and PR gurus. Then three days after that event, the phone hacking scandal erupted.
Jane Martinson has written in the Guardian that the Christmas party was the ‘culmination’ of Murdoch’s rehabilitation into British public life since his ‘humbling’ at the hands of the culture select committee. Of course the fact is that Murdoch never fully retreated from the corridors of power. Research from the Media Reform Coalition showed that News Corp executives met with government officials ten times in the twelve months up to March 2015 and that Murdoch himself was present on eight of these occasions. We also now know that George Osborne met twice during the summer with Murdoch immediately before the former’s highly controversial decision to saddle the BBC with the costs of paying for free television licences for the over-75s – a decision that weakens the BBC and, therefore, strengthens the position of Sky. Perhaps it is not so much Murdoch that is being rehabilitated so much as the reputations of Cameron and Osborne in the eyes of Murdoch himself.
One man, however, was missing from last Monday’s festivities: Andy Coulson. The former News of the World editor and subsequently director of communications under David Cameron who was jailed in 2014 for his involvement in phone hacking was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps this is because he was too busy writing one of his columns for the Telegraph, the first of which drew on his time in Belmarsh Prison to make the case for a compulsory National Citizen Service in which young people give something back to community and country. Too bad for Coulson (and all the staff at the News of the World) that he didn’t learn the key lesson of the NCS early enough: that, in his own words, ‘you are less likely to damage or destroy something you played a part in building.’
Private Eye has since reported that the Telegraph has hired him not simply as a columnist but as a ‘strategic advisor’ to its chief executive Murdoch MacLennan for a £60,000 fee (a charge apparently denied by the Telegraph). Now you may well say that this is a worthy example of a commitment to rehabilitate even the most compromised jailbird and that the company is simply demonstrating its loyalty to a man it has long praised. After all, MacLennan actually provided a character reference for Coulson during the hacking trial arguing that ‘I have always found him to be extremely honest and reliable’ and praising his ‘huge achievements at the News of the World which is easy to forget’. His fellow columnist Matthew d’Ancona was a victim of phone hacking but nevertheless describes Coulson as ‘a man of great decency.’ That is the kind of loyalty that money alone can’t buy.
On the other hand, you could describe Coulson’s ‘normalisation’ as a scandalous rebuff to both the victims of phone hacking and to those many journalists who were not tempted to resort to criminal behaviour to secure a story. You might have expected the Telegraph to tread just a little carefully before exposing itself to yet more allegations of corrupt behaviour. This is the newspaper, after all, whose former chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, resigned over its reluctance to cover HSBC’s tax affairs in case it undermined the paper's commercial relationship with the bank. And you might think that the developing relationship between the Telegraph and Coulson is a ‘most sinister development’, to use Oborne’s phrase, in its demonstration of total indifference to the implications of hacking and unethical journalism.
So the nexus between political and media elites – or as the American sociologist C. Wright Mills called it in The Power Elite, the ‘interlocking directorate' – continues on its merry way into 2016. Murdoch will resume his monthly meetings with government and his titles will continue to attack anyone who stands in the way of a securitised and neoliberal Britain: Jeremy Corbyn, anti-war campaigners, refugees, benefit claimants and public service broadcasters. Every now and again, the Sun will overstep the mark and publish lies that force even the supine press regulator IPSO to demand a front page correction; but then the Sun’s quirky humour means that it will hide the correction in a corner under a picture of footballer Theo Walcott, safe in the knowledge that one of Murdoch’s most loyal lieutenants, former political editor Trevor Kavanagh, has just been promoted to the board of IPSO.
Murdoch, Cameron, Osborne, Brooks, MacLennan, Coulson, Kavanagh: this is the villainous cast list for a Christmas panto about vested interests in today’s Britain. Behind them stand the victims of phone hacking demanding a review of the CPS decision not to prosecute News Corp for corporate wrongdoing, the campaigners determined to press for Leveson Part 2 to examine the failure of the police to investigate phone hacking, and a Labour Party leadership that has now promised to challenge the concentration of media ownership that has contributed so much to the corrupt relations between political and media elites. Sadly, this corruption seems to be for life and not just for Christmas, unless we discover the resources and energy to tackle it.
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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