We have awoken from a nightmare in Britain to discover that it was all true but that it is now over. Rupert Murdoch and his children will never be able to restore their family’s profound malign influence over British society and politics.
Murdoch’s power in Britain relied upon two media—newspapers and satellite television—that played distinct yet complementary roles in his empire. Murdoch owns four newspapers: two tabloids, the Sun and (until it was shuttered in the most recent phase of the phone-hacking scandal) the News of the World; the Times and the Sunday Times.
These he used to manipulate politicians up to and including the prime minister. The papers would also intimidate and bully his enemies. The Times and the Sunday Times were more nuanced and subtle in tone than the brash populist tabloids (or redtops, as we also call them). But they shared a unified line on Murdoch’s pet political issues. His most persistent bugbear was the European Union and its single currency, even though the opinion of a US citizen whose companies pay virtually no taxes in Britain thanks to elaborate tax avoidance schemes should have carried little or no weight.
The Murdoch papers’ key purpose, especially that of the daily, the Sun, was to determine the outcome of Britain’s parliamentary elections. Whether they truly did so is debatable. But the perception was immortalized with the paper’s headline the day after Labour’s election defeat in 1992, “It Was The Sun Wot Won It.”
Since then Conservative and Labour politicians (including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) have gone out of their way to cultivate Murdoch and win the support of his papers. When Murdoch was in town or Rebekah Brooks on the phone, prime ministers jumped to attention—their spines permanently fixed in craven stoop. The papers were less successful in making money than in spreading fear and intimidation.
But BSkyB, the satellite broadcasting network, which Murdoch will now not be able to control, was his cash machine. There is no statutory regulation of newspapers in Britain, but there is of broadcast media. This means that any television news operating in Britain must be politically neutral, which is why Murdoch could never attempt to establish a British Fox News.
Accounting for roughly 15 percent of Murdoch’s global income, the key to BSkyB’s success lay in sport and, specifically, in its purchase of the rights to broadcast live English Premiership soccer not just in Britain but around the world. The Premiership ceased some time back to be an English affair. Half the clubs are now owned by foreign corporations, including some whose wealth is of the most obscure oligarchic origins. Income for the soccer clubs comes from two main sources—television rights and the sales of club paraphernalia, especially in the Far East.
This globalized business depends on a partial monopoly in the UK for its success.
The only thing that has consistently limited Murdoch’s influence in Britain has been the BBC, the broadcaster that is editorially independent but funded through a general license fee that all television owners are obliged to pay (full disclosure: I am a former BBC Central Europe correspondent).
Murdoch’s son, James, who heads up News Corp.’s Asian and European operations, has been explicit in his desire to see the break up of the BBC. He argues that because it is funded by taxpayers, it is anti-competitive, an argument that has some merit. Yet successive generations of Britons have insisted on retaining the model because it guarantees an impartial news service.
But the real problem for the Murdochs (and other British newspapers) was that the BBC’s website is one of the most popular in the world. The BBC thus posed a competitive challenge to News Corp., which was pursuing a strategy that would eventually place all its media websites behind paywalls.
With the help of Jeremy Hunt, the culture minister, who has already pushed through some critical cuts at the BBC, the Murdochs were well on the way to forcing a salami-style slicing of the BBC into component parts, some of which would almost certainly have eventually been forced down the road of privatization.
One of the wonderful outcomes of this week is that the possibility of the BBC’s break-up is now much more remote. For this and much else, we all have to thank the ferocious investigative journalism of the Guardian and in particular its reporter, Nick Davies.
Despite a raft of threats, the paper kept on digging away at the scandal when it seemed nobody wanted to listen. The lack of appetite for his findings among the UK establishment was hardly surprising, as the paper’s efforts have broken a ring of evil forged by Murdoch that encompassed our political leaders and the country’s most powerful police force. I hope that somebody will subject his companies in the United States to similar scrutiny—but for the moment I am just monumentally relieved that we can breathe again in Britain.