DJ Taylor: The limitless power of self-delusion

James Murdoch has an evasive defence strategy, but the British love a bossy-boots and dream of being posh

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Presumably, in 10 years' time, jurists – not to mention anxious media barons – will still be talking about The Murdoch Defence. On the other hand, such is the pile of trouble that its originator, James Murdoch, has built up for himself over the past few months that you wonder whether this last-ditch stratagem will have many takers. Essentially, the Murdoch Defence consists of denying something that one is accused of – in this case knowing about the phone hacking practised by one's underlings – and then attempting to dig oneself out of the chasm thereby created by protesting ignorance of a situation which you, as the chief executive of a major company with responsibility for its codes of practice, really ought to have been aware of.

To reduce the question to its absolute elementals, either Mr Murdoch has done something he should not have done, or he has not done something that he should have done. Either way he is damned. All this, inevitably, sheds a fascinating light on what might be called the psychology of the trapped tycoon, and how members of this unhappy breed are supposed to behave when the vultures are gathering and the retributive knocks start sounding at the door. Certain moguls – the late Robert Maxwell, dead these 20 years, springs to mind – seem to be able to carry on through sheer force of will. In other cases, a piteous confusion sets in.

Throughout Mr Murdoch's appearances before the parliamentary select committee, and the injurious revelations about his employees, fans of the Edwardian novel will have grown ever more aware of his resemblance to Edward Ponderevo, the central figure of H G Wells's Tono-Bungay (1909). It is not, of course, that Mr Murdoch's business activities bear the faintest connection to Wells's self-made pharmacist, who grows fat on the patent medicine of the title and then creates a chain of bubble companies which collapse on each other. No, it is merely that Ponderevo, who spends his final days in a state of ashen-faced confusion, unable to remember what he did or said, and blaming the newspapers, offers striking similarities to the young Mr Murdoch. Once again, we can see life imitating art rather than the other way around.

Back in the 1980s, people used to talk about the "cult" of Margaret Thatcher using the word in its modern sense, which the Concise Oxford Dictionary stigmatises as "derogatory, of transient fad". A quarter of century later, it would be more accurate to use the original Latin cultus, meaning "system of religious worship". Its devotees have come out in force to consider Meryl Streep's portrayal of her in the forthcoming biopic, beneath "Is the Iron Lady tarnished?" newspaper headlines.

Naturally, the Thatcher cult takes in all sorts of conditions of men (and women), from the council-house dwellers encouraged to buy their own homes, to nervous bourgeoisie delighted that she "stood up" to the trades unions, and women keen on her infiltration of an all-male club. Curiously, at the time of her ascent to power, the part of the demographic most in favour of her always seemed to be men in late middle age. Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, for example, both born in 1922, were fanatic Thatcher-worshippers. My father (born 1921) used to refer to her as if she were some semi-intimate friend of the family. "Margaret showed them all at Prime Minister's Question Time," he would proudly reveal, or in an acknowledgment of her occasional awkward progress from one vantage point to another, "She's not very good on her legs, you know."

There have been countless newspaper articles about Thatcher the dominatrix, a kind of public school matron lining up the lower fourth before their unmade beds. But what you imagine Amis, Larkin (and Taylor senior) were responding to was not merely, from their point of view, an attractive woman who stood no nonsense, but someone who had contrived to stylise this personality to the nth degree. It will be interesting to see how Meryl Streep conveys something of this allure.

In the run-up to Christmas, Tyrrells, the manufacturer of hand-cooked English crisps, has been advertising an eye-catching competition on the side of its packets. "Win a castle for a weekend and live like a lord," runs the rubric. "Just think: a house party for 16, your own staff your own chef... even your own swimming pool." For some reason English culture has always been fascinated by the idea of what "living like a lord" might mean in practice, and alarmed that those lower down the social scale might be insufficiently respectful of this desirable state. When, for example, W S Gilbert put Great Expectations on the stage, the line in which Magwitch says that Pip is living in chambers "fit for a lord" was changed by the censor to "fit for heaven".

On this evidence, "living like a lord" seems to mean unfettered opulence and seigneurial excess. Most contemporary testimony, on the other hand, is much less reassuring. Some definitions of "living like a lord" in the early 21st century might include admitting to perjury, being sent to prison for fiddling your parliamentary expenses or courting notoriety by appearing on TV reality shows. In faint acknowledgment of these tendencies, Tyrrells assures potential entrants that "If you don't feel like lording (or ladying) it up, you can always choose £10,000 in hard cash instead". Call me an egalitarian ingrate, but I'd take the money.

Pop fans will have been intrigued by Wednesday's news that Radiohead are releasing a download single entitled Daily Mail. A preview of the lyrics disclosed references to "the lunatics taking over the asylum". Whatever one may think of the paper in question, this is a welcome reanimation of an ancient tradition.

The first known pop reference to the Mail, after all, comes in the Beatles' Paperback Writer ("His son is working for the Daily Mail/It's a steady job, but he wants to be a paperback writer "). Come the late 1970s' New Wave, references to the Fourth Estate hopped from one album to the next. The Jam's Paul Weller, for example, sneers at the City type in Mr Clean for his choice of morning reading – "You miss Page Three, but The Times is right for you", while his band-mate Bruce Foxton devoted a three-minute single to the News of the World: "Check before you spread... News of the World". Or there was Joe Jackson's immortal Sunday Papers: "If you want to know 'bout the bishop and the actress...? If you want to know 'bout the stains on the mattress?"

No doubt that PhD thesis entitled From Fleet Street to Tin Pan Alley: Journalism and the Pop Aesthetic has already been signed up by the media department of one of our newer universities.

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