Rupert Murdoch: A politician who doesn't bother to get himself elected

It is a fallacy that Murdoch is interested only in the bottom line. He's keener to have his voice heard than many think

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a sharp jab at Andrew Neil during the Leveson inquiry last week, Rupert Murdoch complained how a whole "industry" had built around "lies" about his career, and hoped his testimony would "dispel a lot of those myths". But one bit of Murdoch "myth-busting" seems to have been overlooked.

Most of Murdoch's biographers have argued that money is more important to the billionaire than politics. The former Sunday Times Insight editor Bruce Page thinks his ideological affiliations are a "currency to secure a bigger and better deal". Even Nick Davies, in his otherwise perceptive and prophetic 2008 book Flat Earth News, explains: "[Murdoch's] politics are never as big as his wallet". But Robert Jay's 10-hour interrogation has put paid to that myth: Rupert Murdoch is really a politician manqué.

Despite his complaint to the Parliamentary Select Committee last summer – "I wish politicians would stay away from me!" – Murdoch surrounds himself with them: secret meetings with Margaret Thatcher; Blair flying out to Hayman Island, Cameron to the Aegean; coming in the back door of No 10; mocking Ken Livingstone during an election victory dinner; Gove for lunch, dinner and tea. There's no possible social reason for such encounters, other than that he actually likes talking "issues", and not just back issues of The Sun on Sunday.

Throughout his two-day hearing, Rupert's desk took the most hand banging whenever he wanted to emphasise how his politics were not determined by business interests. The one time he caused a real kerfuffle among his lawyers was when he diverged from their script to decry another newspaper editor for putting commercial considerations foremost: "The most unethical thing I've read for a long time...."

On this, Murdoch would find support from surprising quarters. David McKnight's recently published book Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power was written before the hacking scandal broke, but agrees on the essentials: "Murdoch is at least as devoted to propagating his ideas and political beliefs as he is to making money".

Only a desire to be heard can explain why the head of one of the world's largest media conglomerates needs to take to Twitter to get his point of view across. Every year Murdoch siphons off hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidise loss-making titles such as The Times, The Australian, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal – much to the dismay of his New Corp board. And for what? These papers act as mouthpieces for his views or to gain him respect and credibility from the political classes.

This is something he learnt from his father. Keith Murdoch parlayed someone else's scoop about the Dardanelles campaign into a headline, and then into political leverage in the British cabinet in the First World War. Keith formed a lifelong friendship with the owner of The Times, Lord Northcliffe, and returned to Australia as the "Hero of Gallipoli" to build up the Herald Group of newspapers and practise his own brand of intrigue. He was soon christened "Lord Southcliffe".

Like Beaverbrook and Rothermere in Britain, Keith Murdoch was so interested in politics he joined the government, invited by Robert Menzies to be Director-General of Information during the Second World War. However, the censorship he introduced turned out to be so draconian that he was forced to leave under a cloud.

There have been many Freudian speculations about Keith Murdoch's legacy to his son Rupert, but they seem to miss the obvious political bequest: a warning to avoid high office. Why go into democratic politics, where there's always a danger you might be held accountable at the ballot box? Much better the "power without responsibility" that Stanley Baldwin once decried in the popular press.

"I'm held to account by the British people," Murdoch told Robert Jay. "They can stop buying the paper. I stand for election every day." Over four decades of his dominance of British media that has been the key Murdoch mantra, parroted by many employees today: people vote for us with their feet – or at least their pockets. We are politicians by the back door.

Overlook, for a moment, the obvious flaws in this argumentum ad populum (are Sun readers buying politics, horoscopes, football results or outsized breasts?); leave aside the clear undemocratic implications (if I can buy more copies of The Sunday Times do I have more votes?). Here is the essence of Murdoch's ideology: a free press, in a free market, leads to a free society.

Months before his father died, Rupert was at Oxford, campaigning for Labour, with a bust of Lenin on the mantelpiece. Like many other neocons, Murdoch still honours his Marxist background and, from Wapping to Fox News, remains a historical materialist for whom ideology and industry are inseparable. In his business model, form is content: neoliberal, deregulated, outsourced, global, too big to fail, almost "too big to jail".

That's where the 81-year-old came most alive during his testimony, celebrating the "disruptive technology" that might make the printing presses at Wapping obsolete, or the new educational software that would render school teachers redundant.

Murdoch has been an avatar of this kind of "creative destruction" for as long as most of us can remember, and with a ferocity and ingenuity that some of us would rather forget.

But if – as it seems from the distinct smell of burning bridges – Murdoch's testimony to Lord Justice Leveson was a settling of accounts before a long goodbye, then the end of his dominance of the British press might change the country's political atmosphere too.

Peter Jukes reports on the inquiry for The Daily Beast/Newsweek. His book 'The Fall of the House of Murdoch' (Unbound) is out in July