Murdoch always backs a winner

Attempts at censorship by the owner of `The Times' should not surprise anyone, says Richard Davy
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The Independent Online
Rupert Murdoch's attempts to censor Chris Patten's book will not have surprised anyone who has worked for him, least of all those of us who were writing leaders for The Times when he bought the paper in 1981. The previous owner, Lord Thomson, had never interfered with editorial policy. Murdoch started gently but within a few months had swept aside the guarantees of editorial independence that he had given to Parliament and the directors. "I give instructions to my editors all round the world," he told a member of staff, "why shouldn't I in London?"

His first editor, Harry Evans, fought for editorial freedom but lasted only a year; Murdoch put it about that he had spent too much money, and maybe he had, but the fact is that pressure on his editorial policies became relentless only after Mrs Thatcher complained about him. He was replaced by Charles Douglas-Home, who was sufficiently deferential. Murdoch had let it be known that Charlie was a temporary editor, which did not suit Charlie at all, so he was eager to please.

We were soon given to understand that no criticism of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan was allowed. Other changes followed. Strange interpolations crept into leaders on their way to the printer, often reversing the sense. From having been personally critical of Zionism Charlie now supported "my friends the Israelis," as Murdoch called them. Foreign aid became bad. Towards Moscow, balanced analysis was replaced by denunciations of the "evil empire" that echoed Washington's line at the time. Murdoch was close to the "hawks" who were calling for economic warfare against the Soviet Union.

This apparent contradiction between his attitude to Moscow then and Peking now is probably easily explained. He is driven by commercial considerations, as much as political conviction. What he wanted for his business interests in the 1980s, and maybe for his vanity too, was access to the corridors of power in London, Washington and New York. His papers became instruments in the pursuit of that access by supporting the political and financial leaders of the day. He had no business interests in Moscow so he could afford to present himself as an implacable enemy of communism and champion of freedom.

Today he wants access to Peking and the capitals of Southeast Asia, so his papers and television stations must subordinate themselves to that purpose.

It is of course possible to have an interesting debate about whether democratisation in China is best accelerated by isolation or penetration. But these are almost certainly of little interest to Murdoch, and there are no signs that he is engaged in serious thought on that subject. The East is where he hopes to make money, so its political leaders must be wooed.

As I found out on The Times, this makes it pointless to discuss the merits of a policy with Murdoch or his minions. Charlie, it turned out, had not understood or even read much of what we had written on East-West relations. When I argued that, no matter how much we disliked communism we should at least talk to the Russians, with whom we were engaged in a massive nuclear confrontation, he asked, with every sign of surprise, "But what is there to talk about?" That was, of course, before Thatcher and Reagan started talking to the Russians. Had Charlie lived he would presumably have been told to turn with them.

He was so insecure that even when he was away he would phone in to have the leading articles read to him. Neither of the two previous editors had done that, so we felt demeaned.

We parted on reasonably amiable terms, as did other leader writers, since he had his good sides, but he had destroyed the intellectual integrity of the paper. Soon afterwards a senior member of the Cabinet Office told me that he had stopped reading Times leaders because they had become "boring and predictable".

The Labour Party should draw the right lessons. Although Murdoch certainly admired the strong political leaders who were in power in the 1980s, just as he now admires Tony Blair, what was important to him was that they were winners. In future elections he will also want to back winners. For as long as the Labour Party looks successful he will be inclined to support it. Tony Blair's backbone might be a little stiffer if he remembered that Murdoch needs politicians as much as they think they need him.

After leaving `The Times' Richard Davy worked for a consultancy in Oxford and later became a leader writer on `The Independent'. He is now a Liberal Democrat councillor in Oxford.