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Hero or villain? Rupert Murdoch’s exit stirs strong feelings in Britain, where he upended the media

Rupert Murdoch stirs mixed feelings in Britain, where he transformed the media over half a century

Jill Lawless,Pan Pylas
Friday 22 September 2023 17:02 BST
Media-Fox-Murdoch
Media-Fox-Murdoch (2017 Invision)

Before he hit America, Rupert Murdoch ripped through Britain’s media like a tornado.

His newspapers changed the political and cultural weather and swung elections. His satellite television channels upended the staid broadcasting scene.

Journalists and politicians in the U.K. both hailed and reviled the 92-year-old mogul after he announced Thursday that he was stepping down as leader of his companies Fox and News Corp., handing control to his son Lachlan.

For The Times of London, which he owns, Murdoch was “a trailblazer who changed the media.” Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the tycoon “did more than any press baron in the last 100 years to promote the cause of the global free media that is indispensable for democracy and progress.”

But to his critics, Murdoch was an unaccountable, malevolent presence in British life. Nathan Sparkes of Hacked Off, a press reform group that aims to curb tabloid wrongdoing, said Murdoch “presided over a company where widespread illegality occurred and was subsequently covered up.” Ex-Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that Murdoch’s outlets had “poisoned global democracy and spread disinformation on a mass scale.”

U.K. Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt told LBC radio: “He is someone who, love him or loathe him, had a defining influence on all of our lives over the last half-century.”

The Australian upstart was all but unknown in Britain when he bought flagging Sunday newspaper the News of the World in 1969, acquiring daily paper The Sun soon after. A hands-on owner, he reinvigorated Britain’s stodgy, class-ridden newspaper scene with papers that embraced sports, celebrity, prize giveaways and sex — most infamously with The Sun’s topless “Page 3 girls.”

In a 1989 BBC interview, Murdoch put his success down to his antipodean roots, saying Australians came to the U.K. with “greater determination and greater energy,” unfettered by respect for “the rules of the ‘old world.’”

“We did things that people said couldn’t be done,” he said.

Populist, pomposity-puncturing and patriotic, Murdoch’s tabloids undeniably had flair. Critics deplored headlines like “Up yours, Delors,” directed at then-European Commission President Jacques Delors, and “Gotcha!” — the Sun’s reaction when a British submarine sank the Argentine cruiser Belgrano, killing more than 300 sailors, during the 1982 Falklands War.

The Sun’s coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, in which 96 Liverpool soccer fans were killed, sparked outrage by making false allegations against the victims. More than three decades later, many Liverpudlians still refuse to read The Sun.

But politicians from both right and left courted and feared Murdoch, who added The Times and Sunday Times to his stable in 1981.

An arch-conservative who also hates the establishment, he was an enthusiastic supporter through the 1980s of Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, who shared Murdoch’s enmity toward powerful trade unions. After Thatcher’s Conservative successor John Major unexpectedly triumphed in the 1992 election, the tabloid boasted: “It’s the Sun wot won it.”

Tony Blair’s success in securing Murdoch’s backing helped Blair’s Labour Party win a landslide victory in 1997. Like other politicians, Blair denied giving Murdoch anything in return for his support — though plenty of skeptics doubted that.

“There was no deal on issues to do with the media with Rupert Murdoch, or indeed with anybody else, either express or implied,” Blair told a 2012 inquiry into media ethics, sparked by revelations that rocked Murdoch’s U.K. empire.

In 2011 it emerged that employees of the News of the World had eavesdropped on the phones of celebrities, politicians, royals and even a teenage murder victim. Murdoch was forced to shut the newspaper, several executives were put on trial and former editor Andy Coulson went to prison.

Since then, Murdoch’s News Corp. has paid tens of millions in compensation to alleged victims, including many who say they were targeted by The Sun. Prince Harry is among celebrities currently suing The Sun over alleged hacking, which the paper has never admitted.

Murdoch has condemned the phone hacking and other media misdeeds but claims he was unaware of its scope and blamed a small number of rogue staff.

A newspaperman at heart, Murdoch sensed by the 1980s that the media was changing and that pay television would be a central plank of the future. He launched satellite broadcaster Sky Television from a London industrial estate in 1989 on what he admitted was a “wing and a prayer.”

Sky nearly collapsed early on but was salvaged when Murdoch secured the rights to show live Premier League soccer matches in 1992. Sports helped the company, later known as BSkyB, become a British broadcasting behemoth.

But the phone-hacking scandal forced Murdoch to drop a bid to take full control of Sky, in which he held a roughly 40% share. He sold his stake in the broadcaster to Comcast in 2018.

Murdoch still owns the Times, Sunday Times and Sun newspapers and struggling news channel Talk TV, but many industry-watchers suspect Lachlan Murdoch, who has much less interest in newspapers than his father, will eventually jettison the British papers.

For now, Rupert Murdoch remains a magnet for the powerful, and those who seek power, in Britain. The guest list for his summer party in June included Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, many members of his Cabinet and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer.

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Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives funding from the Quadrivium foundation, founded by James and Kathryn Murdoch. More information about AP climate initiative can be found here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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