Is Rupert Murdoch out of control?

BBC viewers have lost the FA Cup final. Michael Leapman fears that we all stand to lose much more: Murdoch now has such dominance that the next election is deemed to be in his gift
Click to follow
IF you meet the Director-General of the BBC, John Birt, and catch him gazing worriedly down at his midriff, I can explain why. When I wrote a book about Rupert Murdoch a decade ago I met many people who had been wooed, then betrayed, by the Australian media tycoon. "I found him very charming," one American ex-editor told me. "He charmed me right out of my underwear."

Last week it was Mr Birt who suddenly found himself wondering where his nether garments had got to, and his discomfort has wider implications. Mr Murdoch has an unhealthy dominance of the UK media and uses his great power more ruthlessly than anyone in the country. The Labour leader Tony Blair is another who would do well to check the strength of his elastic.

Three and a half years ago the BBC, where Mr Birt was then Deputy Director- General, was charmed by BSkyB - 40 per cent owned by Mr Murdoch - into a deal over televising football. While Sky claimed the main prize of live broadcasts of the new Premier League, the BBC could show the filmed highlights on Match of the Day and, most important, kept live coverage of the FA Cup, including the final.

Sky put up most of the money but the BBC's participation was crucial in selling the arrangement to the football authorities, because they did not want to restrict coverage of their sport to the minority that subscribed to satellite or cable television. Mr Murdoch certainly did not embrace the BBC because of any love or respect for the institution: his newspapers had spent most of the previous decade campaigning for the corporation to be broken up.

Many voices warned Mr Birt and his senior colleagues that those who climb into bed with Mr Murdoch can find themselves on the floor without a blanket once the initial passion is spent. They ignored the advice, because the irresistible lure of the arrangement was that it froze out ITV, the old enemy, who had to make do with the Endsleigh League First Division.

Then last week a new set of deals was made. The all-powerful BSkyB poached the Endsleigh League, but in return ITV won the right to share live coverage of FA Cup ties and has the exclusive right to the Final. The BBC, priced out of the market, is left only with recorded highlights - and even for those it ishaving to pay pounds 15m of the pounds 130m package. On Friday, the Office of Fair Trading announced an investigation into Sky's near-monopoly of sport and film supply to cable stations, but nobody expects the result to be any serious dilution of the satellite company's power.

Encounters with Rupert Murdoch habitually end in tears. Whether the Cup Final is broadcast on BBC or ITV makes precious little difference to viewers but it does matter to the BBC's corporate amour propre.

More significantly, it illustrates the wider reality that Mr Murdoch has achieved such an overwhelmingly dominant position in the media that he can do deals with whomever he chooses. He is the most powerful and potentially the most dangerous man of our generation. His power ought to be curbed, but it is hard to see who has the means or the stomach to take him on.

Media barons are like successful politicians in that they achieve dominance by stealth. Last Wednesday, as a tribute to the late Paul Eddington, the BBC broadcast the classic episode of Yes, Minister in which Jim Hacker becomes premier. Coached by the oleaginous Sir Humphrey, Hacker assures his television interviewer that he has no ambitions for high office. Pressed, he concedes that he would take on the post if his colleagues were to persuade him it was the best way he could serve the nation.

Most of Mr Murdoch's media holdings have been acquired by similar sleight of hand. However, while nobody really believes politicians when they claim to lack ambition, the British establishment always takes Mr Murdoch at his word.

He has conveyed the impression that he acquires millstones of loss-making newsprint against his better judgement but for the public good. Using that argument, coupled with judiciously placed editorial backing for the party in power, he has quite scandalously been able to avoid any investigation of his acquisitions by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

He does not believe in the regulation of media ownership. His approach is first to try to prevent any such legislation being enacted, through high-powered lobbying based on the hinted promise of political support (or threat of its withdrawal) from his media empire.

He has thus been able to gain control of 34 per cent (in circulation terms) of the national daily press and 37 per cent of the Sunday market. Such dominance, backed by huge global resources, has allowed him to conduct a vicious price war in both the broadsheet and the tabloid sectors, with the object of driving rivals out of business. Though a legitimate commercial tactic, it acts against the plurality of sources of information and opinion that the monopolies legislation is supposed to protect.

So far, rules on cross-media ownership have kept him out of mainstream television. But by pioneering satellite television, which now reaches nearly 20 per cent of British homes, he has developed enough muscle to manipulate the terrestrial channels when stakes are high, as the football deal shows.

A man as powerful as Mr Murdoch is inevitably blamed for many things, sometimes unfairly. In this month's Literary Review Roy Greenslade, an ex-editor of the Daily Mirror who has also worked for Mr Murdoch's Sun and Sunday Times, pens a polemic pinning responsibility on the Australian tycoon, and specifically the Sun, for the ills besetting British society and culture.

Yet Mr Murdoch did not invent the popular, commercially minded press - that was done by Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, when he founded the Daily Mail 100 years ago next May. Ever since, newspapers have been criticised as a corrupting influence.

To accuse Mr Murdoch of debasing the nation's moral values is not only wrong but misses the point. His influence is corrupting for a more important reason: he has achieved such dominance that the next general election is deemed to be effectively in his gift.

Despairing of the Major administration, Mr Murdoch has been courting Tony Blair assiduously for the past year and more. There have been dinners and invitations to the Labour leader to write for the Murdoch papers. Mr Blair even contributed to the promotional pullout in the final issue of Today, aimed at urging readers to switch their allegiance to the Sun.

Few would be surprised if the Sun, a Conservative supporter since the 1979 election, backed Blair's new Labour next time. The potential benefits for Blair are tremendous, because Sun readers are a key element of the electorate he must win over.

There would, however, be a price. Mr Murdoch would have to be allowed to keep his dominant position in the media - a position that, as the football deal shows, feeds on itself. This means that when Mr Murdoch decides the time has come for Labour to be ditched, he will be in a still more powerful position to achieve that end. Defy him at your peril.

Mr Blair knows all this. He knows, too, that it would be possible for a government to enact legislation that curbed the magnate's influence. Equally, Mr Murdoch knows that such a measure is unlikely to figure in either of the main party manifestos. The Cup Final is not the only valued British institution in danger of being hijacked, nor the most important.