Stephen Glover: If Murdoch's so bad, what about Desmond?
Monday 17 January 2011
Someone calling himself Henry Porter posted a comment below my column last week. It obviously wasn't Henry himself. He would never write in such a coarse way, and would be the last person in the world to accuse me of being "a bit dim" for holding the views I do about Rupert Murdoch, as this rough impostor did. I have written before about the need for vigilance so far as newspaper websites are concerned, and this case only proves my point.
Still, whoever is passing himself off as Henry has done me a service by helping me to concentrate my thoughts about the media mogul. I want to explain to the strange person-who-would-be-Henry, and indeed to Henry himself if he is lurking out there somewhere, why I think they and their allies are wrong to make such a big issue out of Mr Murdoch acquiring the 61 per cent of BSkyB he does not already own.
The first point they miss is that Mr Murdoch is by no means the power in this land he used to be. Twenty five years ago, when the Press tycoon was at his peak, I might well have joined them on the barricades. (Actually, Henry would have been unable to have come along then because he was for five years a columnist on the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times. Unlike him, I have never worked for Murdoch.) A quarter of a century later, the sales of his most influential paper, The Sun, have fallen from a height of more than 4.3 million copies a day to just over 2.8 million. It is not the force it was, and nor are his other British titles.
The second point they miss is that Mr Murdoch and News Corp, the company he controls, have bigger fish to fry than they did 25 years ago, when his British newspapers mattered most. He has 20th Century Fox, Fox Broadcasting Company, including Fox News, a controlling share in BSkyB, his new baby The Wall Street Journal (one of the best papers in the world) as well as innumerable other titles. His British newspaper empire is not merely depleted; it has also become peripheral to his interests.
The third point they miss is that Rupert Murdoch is 80 in March. They imagine they are watching Macbeth when they may have strayed into the final act of The Tempest. Mr Murdoch may be superhuman but he is not immortal, and the enormous energy which led him to create the biggest media empire in the world is slipping away. He has a son, James, who is plainly very capable, but he is not his father. The chances are, if James does inherit the chairmanship of News Corp, and manages to keep the ramifying empire in one piece, that it will turn into a more conventional media company – less ideological, more corporate and more boring.
The fourth point I have made before. No one among the many opponents ranged against Mr Murdoch – not the BBC, the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Henry or the impostor – have been able to explain why BSkyB 100 per cent owned by the Murdoch empire is likely to be very different from the one we have at present, controlled and run by Murdoch.
In short, many of his opponents are fighting an old battle on mistaken grounds while being under the illusion that his power in this country is undiminished. By the way, we saw or heard almost nothing of most of them in the years (1995 to 2009) when Rupert Murdoch's papers uncritically supported Labour – years during which a few of us tossed our pathetic and harmless little firecrackers at the Murdoch-owned Times for dumbing down, or The Sun for intermittently suppressing bad news in Iraq in order to protect the flank of Tony Blair.
I would respect Mr Murdoch's critics much more if they had even half unsheathed their swords when Richard Desmond, who owns pornographic television channels, not long ago acquired Channel Five. There wasn't a poop of protest. Mr Desmond has just unilaterally removed his Express titles and the Daily Star from the Press Complaints Commission, which means they will not observe the code of decent practice which other titles mostly try to. It is the 59-year-old Mr Desmond, not the nearly 80-year-old Rupert Murdoch, who is the coming man in the British media. In comparison with him, Mr Murdoch is the Archangel Gabriel. I can even forgive him for The Sun's page three girls.
Dim or not, I can't persuade myself that Mr Murdoch's desire to own the whole of BSkyB threatens our freedoms or the well-being of media rivals. But I increasingly expect that the deal will be blocked by the Government. This is no longer a fair or rational debate. The arguments against him may be thin and tenuous, but they are being advanced with so much noise, and from so many different directions, that it seems likely Rupert Murdoch will be beaten.
Without Monty, what is Mecom for?
How long will Mecom survive the ousting of its founder, David Montgomery? That provokes a further question. What is the point of Mecom?
Mr Montgomery, a former editor of the News of the World and of Today, and once chief executive of the company that owned this newspaper, built up Mecom into a substantial pan-European newspaper group over a decade. That is some achievement. But no good deed goes unpunished, and three leading shareholders last year called for his removal on the grounds that the company was not doing well enough. After more argy-bargy in the board room, he has finally gone.
Mr Montgomery's greatest skill lay in cost-cutting. That worked well enough until the recession hit. Now he has gone, it is not easy to see the rationale behind the medley of Dutch, Scandinavian and Polish newspapers which constitute Mecom. The very name sounds weirdly unearthly, almost intergalactic – a bit like Mr Montgomery, perhaps. The company's German newspapers have already been sold, and others are likely to follow. Will Mecom even survive? It may be an old-fashioned view, but there surely must be some other purpose to owning newspapers than making money.
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