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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Day In a Page

Read Next
9.4 million people watched the first of the three-way debates at the last election. The audience for the one on Thursday is likely to be far lower.  

David Cameron needs to learn some new tricks – and fast

Steve Richards
The 2010-formed Coalition was led by a partly reformed Conservative Party, checked and balanced by Nick Clegg  

How did the Coalition ever manage to work together so harmoniously?

Isabel Hardman
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor