The king of broken promises: Rupert Murdoch

Harold Evans
Saturday 25 June 1994 23:02

Rupert Murdoch's powerful friends, from Mrs Thatcher to the Chinese regime which recently granted him satellite TV rights, have helped him create a global media empire. But he has enemies, too: notably the man he once appointed editor

of the Times. As this new preface to Good Times, Bad Times shows, the wounds are far from healed

THE DECADE since I related my adventures at the Times with Rupert Murdoch in Good Times, Bad Times has seen a unique enlargement of his power in Britain, in the United States, and now in Asia. He has been constant in his methods and style, in his energy and vision, in his courtship of politicians and in the cheerful impudence with which he puts his commercial interests ahead of the conventional principles of journalism and public affairs. Nobody should have been in the least surprised that, in his attempt to appease the Chinese Communist leadership, he would kick the BBC off his Star TV transmissions. Mr Major does not need a dish in his backyard to get the message: if he wishes to see himself idolised in all the Murdoch newspapers, he has only to go easy on the notion of democracy for Hong Kong. What, after all, are the aspirations of the Hong Kong Chinese by comparison with the glory of beaming soccer and sitcoms to billions of the Chinese urban masses?

Mr Major's predecessor understood very well the relationships between a good Murdoch press and a good deal for Murdoch enterprises. The enlargement of his base in Britain was made possible only by the complicity of Margaret Thatcher. She performed as his poodle in 1987 and 1990, as she did in 1981 when she allowed him to gain control of the Sunday Times and the Times. Of course, if the print unions had behaved a whit less treacherously and not forced out the most enlightened commercial ownership a newspaper group has ever known, Murdoch would never have got his chance to take over Times Newspapers from the Thomson Organisation in the first place. Paradoxically, the Independent, the first new national quality newspaper in Britain in the 20th century, was nourished at birth by Murdoch's redemptive blow for press freedom early in 1986, when he finally defeated the print unions by moving to Wapping. This triumph, fashioned from the original conception of Today by Eddy Shah in 1984, broke the disruptive power of the (trade union) chapels and altogether transformed the economics of the British press. The carnivore, as Murdoch aptly put it, liberated the herbivores.

Murdoch's acquisition of Times Newspapers in 1981, and his ability to manipulate the newspapers after 1982, despite all the guarantees to the contrary to Parliament, were crucial elements in his apparently inexorable rise. His later triumphs in adding Eddy Shah's Today newspaper to his clutch of two dailies and two Sundays in 1987, and in the way he became the dominant figure in satellite television broadcasting in 1991, have their piratical precedents in the way Times Newspapers fell into his hands in 1981. The artful dodge that worked then to evade the Fair Trading Act's provision for a reference to the Monopolies Commission, that the newspapers were in imminent danger of closing, was dusted off again for Today, then owned by Lonrho, with about as much justification: none. The ministers responsible for enforcing the law, John Biffen in the first case and Lord Young in the second, fully lived up to Murdoch's classification of politicians as invertebrates. They were both, of course, hardly free agents. At their back they could always hear Boadicea's chariot hurrying near. Whatever the anti-monopoly law might enjoin and the public interest in pluralism might require, Mrs Thatcher would tolerate no defence of competition when the would-be press monopolist was her faithful flack. And when he appeared in the role of interloper, as he did with satellite television, she would tolerate no defence of monopoly.

In this case the monopoly was one her own government had approved when the Independent Broadcasting Authority awarded British Satellite Broadcasting the licence from among seven competitors, including Murdoch. The groups owning BSB, having risked hundreds of millions of pounds, discovered that their exclusive contract was not worth the paper it was written on the moment Murdoch challenged them. He beamed into Britain his pan-

European satellite service, Sky, whose satellite was under Luxembourg ownership, and did it before a fumbling BSB was ready with its satellite. The BSB directors protested to Mrs Thatcher and had their ankles bitten: competition was good for them.

Once again, Murdoch was to prove above the law. The cross-ownership regulations provided that a national newspaper could not own more than 20 per cent of any British television company. There was never a prayer that Mrs Thatcher would force Murdoch to abandon either medium. In 1990, when he negotiated a merger between Sky and the BSB partners with a 50 per cent stake for himself, the cross-

ownership rules made the deal plainly illegal.

It was also a clear breach of BSB's contract with the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The Home Secretary, David Waddington, even conceded the unlawful nature of the merger

in Parliament.

But Murdoch had seen Mrs Thatcher privately four days before the deal was announced, and once again the fix was in. The Government washed its hands of the affair. A murmur of regret that the law could be broken with the prior knowledge of the Prime Minister might have given a touch of decency to the proceedings, but it would have taken a bolder spirit than Mr Waddington. The Independent pinned down the essential hypocrisy: 'The fact is that Mr Murdoch employs his media power in the direct service of a political party, which now turns a blind eye to what it has itself depicted in Parliament as a breach of the law in which Mr Murdoch is involved. So much for Mrs Thatcher's lectures on media bias. In other spheres she endorses the principle that accumulations of power are bad for democracy. Why not in this one?'

Why not? The reasons for Mrs Thatcher's perverse interventions on all matters concerning Murdoch may be more diverse than the simple wish to entrench a political ally. Murdoch is the kind of freebooter she admires; she may have been seduced by his dash, and his contempt for the liberal intelligentsia, into thinking that what is good for Murdoch is good for the country. It would be interesting to know her reasoning, but on her elevation to the Lords she took the title of Lady Amnesia: one searches in vain in her 1993 memoir for any explanation of her contrary actions, or even a mention of Murdoch.

The period when Murdoch flung himself into the battle against BSB demonstrated the force of his concentrated energy and his relish in gambling for high stakes. It also demonstrated his disdain for independent journalism. His five newspapers, including the Times and Sunday Times, blatantly used their news columns to plug their proprietor's satellite programmes and undermine the competitor. It was left to the Financial Times to show that a commercial interest need not entail a sacrifice of integrity. Its owners, the Pearson Group, had a stake in BSB, but the readers would never have known it from the FT's treatment of the news. The FT journalists should have petitioned for the canonisation of their chairman, Lord Blakenham, who in 1987-8 had seen off a bid by Murdoch to add that newspaper to his collection.

THE BRITISH story has parallels in the United States. When Murdoch bought Metromedia's six big city television stations in 1985, the Federal Communications Commission, with a Reagan-appointed chairman, gave him an unprecedented two-year waiver of cross-

ownership rules so that in New York, Chicago and Boston he could run television stations and newspapers. Nobody could waive for him the requirement, on acquiring a television station, of forsaking Australia and taking American citizenship, but arrangements were made to spare him the egalitarian stress associated with it. Instead of sitting it out for an hour or two with the huddled masses in the courtroom, he emerged from the judge's chambers just before the judge herself.

The secret of Murdoch's power over the politicians is, of course, that he is prepared to use his newspapers to reward them for favours given and to destroy them for favours denied. The way the cross-ownership struggles worked out provided an intriguing demonstration of this in 1993. Murdoch hoped that the two-year waiver on cross-ownership agreed with the FCC might become permanent, but in 1987 Senator Edward Kennedy slipped a late-night amendment on an Appropriations Bill resolution that had the effect of killing the deal. Murdoch had to sell the New York Post, a paper he was loath to lose. He had never been able to make a success of it, but he valued the political base it gave him. Kennedy's amendment was defended in the press by committee chairman Senator Ernest Hollings on the high ground: 'The airwaves belong to the public. Concentration of media ownership threatens free speech. No man is above the law.' But Kennedy's tactic was also widely seen as revenge for his years in the Murdoch pillory: he had been regularly savaged in the Post, the Boston Herald and the supermarket tabloid Star. The Herald was pleased to refer to Kennedy as Fatso.

The surprising sequel in 1993 was that this war looked to be over. Who should back Murdoch when he offered to take over the bankrupt Post if he could also keep New York's WNYW, part of the Fox network? Kennedy. Kennedy, who had forced him to sell the Post in the first place. But why? The first clue came the day Murdoch took over the Post. He announced that he had secured an option to buy back the television station in Boston (WFXT), and not long afterwards that he was ready to give up the Herald, Kennedy's tormentor. Allan Sloan surely had it right in his Newsday column: 'What we've got here is your typical winking and nodding mutual-back-scratching deal. If you doubt that Kennedy and Murdoch have come to terms, I've got a bridge I'd love to sell you.'

Murdoch had bad times as well as good in the past decade. His record of broken promises was much bruited in 1983-4 when he tried to buy Warner Brothers, and failed, and did buy the Chicago Sun-Times. The Chicago deal had echoes of the Times Newspapers sale: a consortium headed by the publisher, Jim Hoge, was betrayed by its owners, the Field family. Murdoch's chameleon charm was brilliantly deployed in appearing square and safe to Marshall Field V and maverick to his racier brother, Ted. The Sun-Times journalists were not so biddable. Hoge quit, and the columnist Mike Royko crossed the Street to the Tribune with the Roykism that no self-respecting dead fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch newspaper. It was a sour experience for Murdoch.

He sold the paper, profitably, in 1986, after moving into television. He had a happier time acquiring a controlling interest in Fox movie studios and using the former Metromedia television stations to build a fourth national

television network with the creative genius of Barry Diller. That was a considerable achievement, but he was spending other people's money like a Master of the Universe. In October 1988 he paid just under dollars 3bn for TV Guide and precipitated his worst time. The man so apt to eviscerate a manager for a minor miscalculation took his company into a debt of more than dollars 7bn that it could not service, and did it on the advent of a recession and a credit squeeze. By 1990 his international holding company, News Corporation, was on the brink of bankruptcy. At the same time, a Channel 4 television expose, and a subsequent book by Richard Belfield, Christopher Hird and Sharon Kelly, stripped away some of the mystique.

At a critical time, the programme demonstrated how News Corporation, with its headquarters in Australia, had for years concealed its true condition. It had exploited the lax accounting and taxation standards of Australia in order to create a web of inter-company debt and avoid taxation. Murdoch had seemed unstoppable but in his 60th year he was obliged to go on a humiliating global roadshow, in the words of Australian Business Monthly, exhorting and pleading with bankers to give him breathing space.

It was touch and go. He had to sell assets, including New York magazine and Premiere in America, he had to launch even more draconian cost-cutting programmes, and he had to dilute his equity below 40 per cent. But Murdoch is no Maxwell, though at that time it was natural to regard the two as tabloid twins. Maxwell was the meat axe, a muddler, a volatile sentimentalist, a bully and a crook. Murdoch is the stiletto, a man of method, a cold-eyed manipulator. Using all his persuasive talents and power of concentration, he held on to his newspaper holdings in Britain and to Sky, and to Fox and Channel 5 in the United States, and by 1993 he had bounced back. He was again one of the world's most powerful media barons, and certainly the dominant force in British communications. He controlled Sky television and Collins publishing, and nearly 33 per cent of national newspaper sales. Somehow he had also persuaded the BBC, in the prone personages of Marmaduke Hussey and Michael Checkland, to let Sky have a monopoly of live Premier League soccer on television.

Both ITV and BBC were bidding high for live Premier League soccer (and less for recordings), but the BBC is said to have indicated that its offer to pay for the right to broadcast Match of the Day recordings was conditional on an FA deal with Sky. ITV executives might have been forgiven for wondering precisely what this strange negotiating position had to do with the BBC's rivalry with the ITV. In any event, terrestrial viewers of both BBC and ITV were deprived of the long-time excitement of watching the highest level of the national sport as it happens.

To William Shawcross, who had remarkable access to Murdoch for his 1992 biography, nobody should lose any sleep over this accumulation. Shawcross is particularly dismissive of the criticisms I made about the conduct of Times Newspapers. 'If Murdoch had been running a chemical company and Harold Evans had been a dismissed foreman, his complaints would never have gained such wide currency. Much of the criticism of him (Murdoch) by journalists and media experts has been repetitive and uninteresting.' Students of the British class system, on show in the Shawcross lexicon, will be amused to note that I am put in my place as a foreman. It is never to be forgiven that a horny-handed son of toil somehow got to edit the Times. But there are other more important curiosities about this Murdochian statement. The whole point, as Robert Harris remarked in a review in the Independent, is that Murdoch is not running a chemical company, but seeking to become the most powerful disseminator of opinion and entertainment in the world, 'and a different standard of judgement must apply'. Not one of Murdoch's five national newspapers, read by 10 million people, deviated from his anti-Labour party line in the British General Election of 1992, a decisive feature of the bias in the British press whereby the Conservative party can count on 70 per cent of the total circulation of national dailies. The second curiosity of the Shawcross-Murdoch defence is that he is at pains, here and throughout, to skip over the fundamental issue at Times Newspapers. A newspaper owner who imposes a political policy and fires a recalcitrant editor can invoke his right to do what he will with his property. At Times Newspapers Murdoch had unequivocally forsworn that right. Parliament, the Thomson Organisation and the Times board would never otherwise have agreed to his purchase. It was the breach of all the guarantees he gave that made the case rather more interesting than Shawcross is willing to concede.

How did Murdoch get away with it? How did he? It is an important question about Times Newspapers, but it is one to be asked of many of Murdoch's initiatives. Shawcross objects to the repetitious nature of journalists' complaints about Murdoch, but it never seems to dawn on him that the repetition is produced by a significant repetition in Murdoch's behaviour. He makes solemn promises, then breaks them when it suits him. He pledges loyalty to people, then double-crosses them. He commits a wrong, but disguises his motives in a smoke trail of disinformation.

There are scores of instances on three continents, but one need only consider the case of Collins Publishing, which in 1988 so closely followed the parallel at Times Newspapers in 1981-2. In 1981 he had failed in a hostile bid for Collins, but held on to a 19 per cent shareholding that gave him 42 per cent of the voting stock. He made a significant promise to Ian Chapman, the Collins chief executive and architect of its fortunes, in the presence of Lord Goodman, representing Murdoch, and of Sir Charles Troughton, deputy chairman of Collins. He swore he would never again make a hostile bid for the company. (He also said that he would not exercise his right to acquire in the market 2 per cent a year of the stock, which he did not.)

Collins flourished under Chapman. His good name and his recommendation of Murdoch were decisive in persuading the board of Harper Row in New York to sell control to Murdoch in 1987. Chapman was rewarded the following year in exactly the same manner other Murdoch benefactors have been rewarded: he was betrayed and traduced. Murdoch broke his pledge of 1981. He made a hostile takeover bid, and he denounced Chapman's management. When Chapman and the board resisted, Murdoch charged, in an unpleasant offer document, that staff morale was low and the performance of the core business was bad - charges, as Chapman retorted, that had been manufactured for the bid.

The Collins board finally capitulated when Murdoch raised his offer from pounds 290m to pounds 400m and gave the directors promises about the future editorial and management autonomy of Collins, London, and of HarperCollins in the United States. These promises, too, were soon forgotten.

The global trail of deceit was less distinct in 1981 when Murdoch sought to acquire control of the Times and Sunday Times, but I have come to regard the judgements I made then as the worst in my professional career. The first blunder was not to campaign against Murdoch, the second to be tempted from my power base at the Sunday Times where, with a world-class staff behind me, I would have been much harder to assail. My professional vanity was intrigued; I thought I could save the Times. In the event, I did not save anything. Two of the most important newspapers lost their cherished independence. The anti-Labour bias of the press was given a further twist. A proprietor who had debauched the values of the tabloid press became the dominant figure in quality British journalism.

There was a critical opportunity, as I describe in Good Times, Bad Times, to block Murdoch in 1981. At five to midnight, the Sunday Times journalists' chapel was on the verge of applying to the courts for a Writ of Mandamus to force the Government into referring the takeovers to the Monopolies Commission; the Fair Trading Act provided that in principle all newspaper takeovers should be referred. If Murdoch had persisted, he would have had to testify publicly about his international dealings, his cross-ownership of media, and his record of promise-keeping. The Thomson Organisation would have had to defend its cooked-up presentation of the Sunday Times as a loss-maker. All the issues which have subsequently become key to the Murdoch question would have been brought into the daylight.

The Sunday Times journalists voted down that initiative at the 11th hour by more than 100 votes, but the 14 dissenters of the so-called Gravediggers' Club felt the result might have been different if I had given a lead. As editor and chairman of the Sunday Times's executive board, I was not a member of the chapel, but I believe they are right in their assessment. I did give the chapel every financial statement I possessed so that they could debate the issue in the crucial meeting and prepare evidence if they decided to go ahead with a Writ of Mandamus, but I did not try to persuade any of them to vote for it.

That was a mistake. Short of sitting in the stocks in Gray's Inn, I do not know what more I can do to acknowledge the error of my ways. I did not then know that the Thomson Organisation had given the Government a set of figures at variance with those presented to our Times Newspapers board meeting and at variance with the Warburg prospectus, in its successful attempt to make the Sunday Times appear a loss-maker. Knowledge of that squalid stratagem might well have changed my attitude even at that late stage. My decision was to resist Murdoch from within rather than challenge him in public. One of the leading Gravediggers, Magnus Linklater, now editor of the Scotsman, has written to say that in my position he would probably have taken the same actions. This is generous. It is, as Maitland remarked, hard for historians to remember that events now past were once in the future. The reasons for the decisions I took seemed good at the time: the determination of the Thomson Organisation, and especially Gordon Brunton and Denis Hamilton, to sell only to Murdoch and to sell the Times and Sunday Times together; the mutual distaste for each other, as a body, of journalists on the Times and Sunday Times, which militated against the Times's editor, William Rees-Mogg, and myself joining forces - as we should have done from the start; the unprecedented editorial guarantees we had secured from Murdoch; the risk of a second-choice purchaser closing the Times - the Daily Mail, which bid pounds 8m more than Murdoch, insisted on the freedom to do this. (John Grigg, in his 1993 History of The Times, says Lord Rothermere confirmed this to him.)

None of these risks was as great as the risk we took with Murdoch. It was not that we trusted him. The outgoing board and both editors thought we had shackled him, locked him in a trunk in an inviolable castle tower, given one key to a group of honourable men and entrusted the other to the highest court in the land, Parliament. But Murdoch is the Houdini of agreements. With one bound he was free. His machinations are almost Jacobean in their strategic cunning.

How all this occurred, and how it seemed at the time, is worth describing in detail because it suggests the manner in which institutions are vulnerable when they rest on moral assumptions that a determined, clever man can exploit. My own abrupt and painful severance from the Times is the least of it, though emblematic. I was the 12th editor in nearly 200 years. Murdoch is on his fifth editor in 11: the late Charles Douglas-Home was the 13th, Charles Wilson the 14th, Simon Jenkins the 15th and Peter Stothard the 16th.

Perhaps the values of tradition and continuity have been exaggerated; certainly that body of Times journalists which affected to uphold them in my day has hardly been conspicuous on the ramparts since. In any event, the 12th editor wishes the 16th well. I declare an interest in this. I recruited Stothard to journalism on the Sunday Times and took him with me to the Times in 1981. He was one of the new men whose appointments were said to have aroused resentment. How he and, until recently, Andrew Neil at the Sunday Times have worked out their responsibilities with Murdoch hovering over them on the satellite is something that I hope they will one day share with us.

When I first told, in the first edition of Good Times, Bad Times, of the pressures I had resisted, there was some disbelief. It is still the stance of Murdoch, to judge from his interviews with William Shawcross, that these were fictions of my imagination. It is no pleasure, in this instance, to be so vindicated by events. I had not dreamed up the idea that my principal difficulty with Murdoch was my refusal to turn the paper into an organ of Thatcherism. That is what the Times became. No doubt Charles Douglas-Home was more in sympathy with Thatcherism than I was, but a succession of editors struck the identical note and, as Shawcross concedes, Murdoch's voice soon resonated in other editorial opinions designed to appease him.

Shawcross mentions 'constant sniping criticisms of such Murdoch betes noires as the BBC and the British television establishment in general'. I had not dreamed up the row I had over insisting on the proper reporting of Parliament. Under my successor, who had felt as keenly as I did, the famous Parliamentary page and its team disappeared overnight. I had not dreamed up the way Murdoch, under pressure, would subordinate editorial independence to his other commercial interests, as he did when he secretly transferred the corporate ownership of the Times titles and then suggested I suppress the news in the Times itself. In the following decade extraneous commercial pressures became manifest, especially in the reporting of his ambitions for Sky Television and his takeover of Collins. The convictions supposedly animating the crude campaign against the BBC vanished the moment it agreed to a commercial partnership with Murdoch. I had not dreamed up the proprietor's determination to give orders to staff, in breach of the guarantees. It was by his direct instruction that Douglas-Home, soon after becoming editor, dismissed Adrian Hamilton as editor of the business news section of the Times. I had not dreamed up the scandal of the eviction of his father, Sir Denis Hamilton, as chairman of Murdoch's national directors; on that gallant man's death, the Times obituary suppressed this entire period of his life. I had not dreamed up the threats to the reputation for accuracy and fairness. When Murdoch lied about the circulation of the Times in my editorship, the Times published the falsehood, and then Douglas-Home refused to publish my letter of response or any form of correction. The same lie was retailed to Shawcross. Douglas-Home suffered a tragically early death, but the truth is that he was the fig-leaf behind which Murdoch began the rape of the Times as an independent newspaper of unimpeachable integrity.

I am often asked my feelings about Murdoch today. My concerns are professional rather than personal. I am happily fulfilled in a career in magazines and book publishing in the United States, and when I come across him socially in New York I find I am without any residual emotional hostility. He is for his part agreeable and sometimes vividly amusing. I have to remind myself, as he wheels about the universe of the Big Deal, that Lucifer is the most arresting character in Milton's Paradise Lost. There are many things to admire: his courage in taking on the unions at Wapping (though not his taste for Stalag Luft architecture), in challenging the big three TV networks in the US with a fourth, and altogether in pitting his nerve and vision against timid conventional wisdom. If only these qualities could be matched by an understanding of journalistic integrity, he would be a towering figure indeed. I am still in one respect in his debt. On my departure from the Times I became a non-person, and it proved a very happy experience. For years my birthday had been recorded in the Times, a matter I felt more and more to be an intrusion into private grief. After my resignation, my name was left out of the birthdays list. I came to regard each passing year as not having happened, since it had failed to be recorded in the paper of record, and I adjusted my stated age accordingly. More recently, my name has been put back in the birthdays list, which is a pity. Perhaps this new edition of Good Times, Bad Times will generate another act of rejuvenation.

Adapted from 'Good Times, Bad Times', by Harold Evans, in a new edition published tomorrow in paperback by Phoenix pounds 12.99

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