This city has been the November host of a global tyrant, on whose rampages the sun never sets. His name is not George Bush but Rupert Murdoch.
Bush, acknowledged as their legitimately elected leader by at least some of his fellow citizens, presents so frail a political physique that it seems faintly ludicrous to impose on him even the conventional honorific “leader of the free world,” let alone the robust dignity of “tyrant.”
The President’s arrival in the United Kingdom was preceded by interviews with British newspapers in which he paid humble respect to those democratic traditions permitting Britons to assemble in vast numbers and to cover him with ridicule and abuse. He allowed himself to be scheduled for a possibly humiliating session with relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq.
The entire state visit, the first by a US President since Woodrow Wilson visited these shores in 1918, has been depicted in virtually every newspaper as a political embarrassment to Prime Minister Tony Blair, who issued the invitation many months ago, when he supposed that the two could preen over a successful operation in Iraq. It most certainly represents a low point in esteem here for the United States, at least as a nation led by a man regarded by a third of all Britons as perilously ignorant, running neck and neck with North Korea’s Kim Jong Il as a threat to world peace.
How different has been the brief tour of his British assets by Rupert Murdoch, on hand to crush a rising by some shareholders in British Sky Broadcasting, who claim the company is being run by Murdoch as a private fiefdom in a manner injurious to their interests.
At BSkyB’s annual general meeting on November 14, Murdoch conducted himself in a manner that would have won the approval of Vlad the Impaler, snarling at one dissident that if he didn’t like it he should sell his shares, and bickering openly with BSkyB’s chief executive, his son James. Investors, irked by a share price dead in the water for six years and virtually nothing offered in the way of dividends, did make their views clear. Murdoch was quoted by the Independent‘s Jeremy Warner as complaining to his wife at the end of the session that some had been “bloody insulting” and “seriously nasty,” but he carried the day, at least for now.
The global tyrant still had time that day to grant an interview to the BBC in which he placed Tony Blair on notice that the loyalty of Murdoch’s newspapers was not to be taken for granted. Referring to himself respectfully in the first person plural, Murdoch was kind enough to intimate that “we will not quickly forget the courage of Tony Blair” but then made haste to emphasize that he also enjoys friendly relations with the new Tory leader, Michael Howard.
On the mind of the global pirate is a topic one would have thought he’d have scant interest in, namely national sovereignty. Murdoch professed himself exercised by the matter of the EU Constitution. Slipping on the mantle of Britishness, Murdoch pronounced, “I don’t like the idea of any more abdication of our sovereignty in economic affairs or anything else.”
The Guardian found this altogether too brazen and editorialized that “Rupert Murdoch is no more British than George W. Bush. Once upon a time, it is true, he was an Australian with Scottish antecedents. But some time ago he came to the view that his citizenship was an inconvenience and resolved to exchange it for an American passport. He does not live in this country and it is not clear that he is entitled to use ‘we’ in any meaningful sense of shared endeavor. To be lectured on sovereignty by someone who junked his own citizenship for commercial expediency is an irony to which Mr Murdoch is evidently blind.”
Then the Guardian got a bit rougher: “Readers have been put on notice that the views expressed in Murdoch titles have not been freely arrived at on the basis of normal journalistic considerations.”
For a very extended gloss on what the Guardian editorialist was driving at, we can turn to The Murdoch Archipelago (just published by Simon & Schuster in Britain) by Bruce Page, a distinguished Australian-raised journalist who has lived and worked in England for many years, perhaps best known for his work leading the “Insight” team at the (pre-Murdoch) London Sunday Times. Page’s detailed and compelling case, based on his investigation of Murdoch’s operations in Australia, Britain, the United States and China, amounts to this: As an international operator, Murdoch offers his target governments a privatized version of a state propaganda service, manipulated without scruple and with no regard for truth. His price takes the form of vast government favors such as tax breaks, regulatory relief, monopoly markets and so forth. The propaganda is undertaken with the utmost cynicism, whether it’s the stentorian fake populism and soft porn in Britain’s Sun and News of the World, or shameless bootlicking of the butchers of Tiananmen Square.
There was something so megalomanic about Murdoch’s interview with the BBC that one wonders hopefully whether it has all gone to his head and soon he’ll be gnawing the carpet like other moguls before him. Probably not. Murdoch is too focused a predator for the wasteful extravagances of insanity, and he’s perhaps a shade more careful than his fellow media czar, Conrad Black, now in the midst of eviction from control of his empire because sufficiently powerful stockholders took a dim view of Black and colleagues’ easing $73.7 million out of Hollinger under the guise of noncompetition fees.
The Sun won a White House interview with George Bush, probably as a consequence of desperate pleading from 10 Downing Street to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Robert Thomson, editor of the (Murdoch-owned) London Times, was invited to meet Bush at the White House November 12, a week before Bush’s flight to London but, so the Financial Times later reported, had to send regrets. He’d already promised to attend a party in London hosted by Murdoch, the annual gathering of his top seventy global executives. As the FT asked, “Well, what would you do?”