My battle with The Murdoch Empire
As head of British Satellite Broadcasting in the 1980s, Anthony Simonds-Gooding saw Murdoch's power up close. He has waited 20 years for his warnings to be heeded
Saturday 16 July 2011
The events of the past two weeks have felt like finally having a boil lanced.
It is now21 years since I launched Checks & Balances, a campaign against the concentration of media ownership – finally, some of its goals seem achievable.
I first came across Rupert Murdoch in 1988, when we became business rivals. I was running British Satellite Broadcasting, launched following difficult negotiations with the Government to provide Britain with a satellite television service for the first time. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was one of our most enthusiastic supporters –partly since she thought we would help to make Britain a world leader in this technology, but also because she expected us to challenge the duopoly of the BBC and ITV – and ministers promised us a clear run with no new competitors for three to five years.
Then, out of the blue, Mr Murdocharrived with Sky. He was obviously a brilliant businessman with vision and guts, but it was equally clear the rules prevented him launching a British television service – he wasn't British and he already controlled more than 40 per cent of the press. Then he suddenly announced that while Sky would broadcast British programmes only in Britain, the satellite signal was being routed through Belgium, so the rules didn't apply. It was the figleaf that the Government needed to turn a blind eye.
The battle was on. And suddenly, we no longer found Mrs Thatcher quite so supportive – it appeared that the technology gains for British industry we might have promised were not as compelling as the support that the Murdoch press could offer in elections.
We had another problem: MrMurdoch had a newspaper empire that he used unashamedly andcontinuously to promote Sky and to denigrate us, including, I suspected, some personal attacks on me and myfamily. That was tough enough, but Mr Murdoch had deep pockets too – the result was inevitable, and my shareholders sued for peace. The two companies merged and I was out.
Still, while my business dealings with Mr Murdoch left me with a bitter taste, my campaign was purely about the issue of media control. The power those newspapers gave him convinced me that allowing him to extend his ownership of the media could only be unhealthy for British democracy. Over the following two decades I watched with horror as those fears proved well-founded.
Checks & Balances, however, was a failure. People were simply too scared of the Murdoch empire to oppose him. Though our polling showed widespread public support, the campaign struggled to win endorsements from public figures, because they so feared the wrath of the Murdochs. While MPs and journalists were privately encouraging of my endeavours, none would speak out in public. Even members of the non-Murdoch press did not want to be seen supporting me – they feared for the day they might want to work for him.
I don't blame Rupert Murdoch for the way his sphere of influence was allowed to grow unchecked. He was always going to push as far he could push until someone stopped him – and no one ever did. The fault lies with those venal politicians who believed his support would win them office – a mistake, in any case, since Murdoch has only ever backed those he expected to win.
It just went on and on: fromMargaret Thatcher's support, tothe way in which Tony Blair flew halfway round the globe to court him, to David Cameron's appointment of Andy Coulson and hisfriendship with Rebekah Brooks.
Only now, finally, has this stopped. And what's striking is how many people have had the same fears as me all along but never felt able to say so. That tells me the spell has finally been broken.
Indeed, there is not a chance that Mr Murdoch can come back from this. The secret of his power, much like Tiger Woods you might say, was his aura of invincibility – opponents were defeated before they had even taken to the battlefield. But that aura has now been fractured and cannot be repaired. The situation is bad enough already, but by the end of the various inquiries, the Murdochs will really be damaged goods. It has taken more than two decades, but my then 12-year-old son, who told me back then that "What goes around, comes around", has in the end been proved right. This is vindication.
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