Adrian Hamilton: The shadow of a monstrous power

He has the power to propel policy where it matters to him because the cost of quarrelling with him appears too great
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The Independent Online

If there was one thing that has been certain in this uncertain world of politics today, it was that Rupert Murdoch would be allowed to go ahead with his bid for full ownership of BSkyB without referral to a competition inquiry. Tens of thousands might write petitions opposing it; half the media might come out against it; MPs might rail against the phone-hacking apparently prevalent in the News International stable; and Vincent Cable, the Business Secretary, might declare that this would be the defining moment when Murdoch would be brought to heel. But as surely as night follows day, no government – of whatever persuasion – was going to set itself up in battle against the mogul that is Murdoch.

It is the reasons given for avoiding a referral that are so pathetic and so demeaning. All this stuff about hiving off Sky News into a separate, publicly quoted company, with an independent chairman and a set of rules keeping Murdoch at bay, are so much guff. Even more humiliating is the publication of the correspondence with the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, suggesting that Murdoch had somehow been forced to swallow his pride and accept that his family, who had founded SkyTV and Sky News, would be prevented from ever having a seat.

Make no mistake, Rupert Murdoch and his heirs despise all this business of terms and obligations. He has been through it before with the takeover of The Times and The Sunday Times and more recently with the Wall Street Journal. He does whatever is needed, appointing independent directors and accepting self-denying ordinances for editorial interference, and they mean nothing to him.

This is not because he has some subtle plan for the domination of editorial opinion on the airwaves or print. Far from it. In his mind all such protestations about the purity of content are simply irrelevant. He believes he knows how to make money out of old-fashioned and tired media and he has proved he can do it. In this case he wants full ownership of the satellite television corporation he founded because he sees it as a source of what he has always valued most – a steady flow of cash. Nearing 80, he wants a clear-cut organisation that can survive for his children, by his Chinese wife as well as his Australian one.

The quibbles about standards and journalistic ethics, in this drive for dominance, are viewed as just the irrelevant prattling of the over-privileged and over-educated elite. If they want an independent Sky News, let them have it. It probably won't survive on its own much beyond the decade allowed, and is marginal to his immediate ambitions anyway. So too with the Wall Street Journal and The Sunday Times before that. He wanted them for their particular commercial advantage, in advertising in one case and internet information in the other – not (in his eyes at least) for any special or insidious political purpose.

And, sad to say, there are a number, including journalists, who buy into this "narrative". On their logic, there is no fundamental reason why Murdoch should not get full ownership of the satellite creature he created. He already has a controlling 39 per cent of the company. He appoints its senior management and directs its investment. There is nothing in policy terms he is likely to do with 100 per cent ownership that he cannot, and does not, already do, with his son James there as chief executive. If the ownership of a news channel is seen as a special competitive problem in terms of the number of editorial outlets for the group, then that can (and has) been dealt with by hiving it off as a largely independent enterprise.

But even aside from the questions of whether SkyNews can survive as a self-running organisation when BSkyB will be taking its output and giving it over 85 per cent of its revenue, this misunderstands the nature of the threat. By the strict legal criteria of monopolies legislation, and a concentration on ownership of news outlets, a full takeover of the satellite broadcaster may not pose problems of market dominance (which is why the EU and now the Monopolies Commission are letting it through). In cultural and social terms, however, it is extremely threatening.

In the first place, the creation of such a media giant, larger even than the BBC and far bigger than any of its rivals in the commercial sector, is bound to unbalance an industry in desperate need of new ideas, new outlets and new vibrancy. Murdoch may talk the talk of free markets, but, like the railway and oil barons of old, he seeks nothing more arduously than to remove competitors. We've seen it in his predatory pricing of newspapers and the actions of Sky in its quarrel with Virgin cable television. Hence too his obsessional hatred of the BBC and all it stands for.

Greater size can only give Murdoch greater sway over public affairs. All bosses of major corporations have influence, over politicians and the administration. BP can move foreign policy on Libya, Russia and anywhere else it wishes to operate, as can British Aerospace and the major defence contractors on the grounds of so-called "British interests". But the influence of this media owner, foreign-born, foreign-domiciled and dismissive of this country, is both more direct on UK politicians at the top and more complete.

It's not that the Sun necessarily directs more votes than the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph (both of which vehemently oppose the BSkyB takeover). It doesn't. But it is that Murdoch's reach through all forms of media means that no government is prepared to take him on. He has the power to propel policy where it matters to him because the cost of quarrelling with him appears too great. He doesn't need to tell ministers what to do, any more than he needs to tell his editors what to write. He merely has to indicate his persuasions, which he does on a whole range of issues, from his hatred of the European Union to his absolute opposition to any form of regulation.

The other reason for opposing Murdoch in this case, as in others, is less tangible and less subject to legal constraint. But still needs saying. It is that he is ultimately a malign influence both on public standards and on people around him. As an active opponent not just of regulation but of all forms of professional codes of behaviour, he has allowed a culture to grow within his own organisation and, through competition, in some of those outside, where anything from phone-tapping to bribery goes, where comment is more valuable than reporting (the more extreme the better), and where facts are whatever takes your reader's or viewer's fancy.

The British Government had their chance with the BSkyB bid, not so much to stop him doing it – that was for the regulators to decide – but to make Murdoch understand that he was a mortal, subject to investigation and transparency in his moves like anyone else. In flunking it, it has only confirmed Murdoch in his cynical view of the world and reminded the rest of us just how weak society is when confronted by a media monster determined to get his way.