What is the value of a promise from Rupert Murdoch?
Even more crucially, what is the value of a promise from Murdoch when it involves protecting the diversity of opinion in a free press?
This has become a question of immense importance in Britain.
The new government, a delicate coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has to face up to a challenge. Should it permit News International, Murdoch’s empire, to get control of a major television broadcaster, BSkyB?
Murdoch already controls 37 percent of the British press. Because of this, successive governments, left, right, or center, have courted his support, at times cravenly. Nobody in London right now is sure which way David Cameron will go with the BSkyB decision.
The promise Murdoch has apparently made to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, is that if he wins control he will not interfere with content. In return, the News International deal would not be referred to the competition authority.
If the government is persuaded (or coerced) into this deal they would be buying fool’s gold.
Among many pieces of evidence of how Murdoch views undertakings not to interfere, I have personal experience of two: one in television and one concerning the newspaper where I was managing editor.
Murdoch arrived at the studio looking cocky and eager for combat.
Murdoch’s early history in British television reveals traits that Hunt should bear in mind today.
In the late 1960s, as he was applying his tabloid gifts at the News of the World (the same News of the World now caught in the contagious phone-hacking outrage), Murdoch decided to serialize the story of the comely strumpet Christine Keeler and her fling with politician John Profumo. He claimed that Keeler would reveal new details of this famous scandal.
I was producing David Frost’s current affairs show for London Weekend Television. We could see nothing new in Keeler’s story and we decided to invite Murdoch to face Frost, live, to explain his decision to publish it.
Murdoch’s early success in shaking up Fleet Street with the Sun and his equally dynamic impact on the News of the World made him the most intriguing newcomer to British media ownership and, we felt, someone the country should get to know better.
I took care that he was briefed in advance on our skepticism about the “revelations” in the Keeler account. As it happened, I had been the author, with my two colleagues from the Sunday Times, of the first book about the Profumo Affair, Scandal 63. ( Published in the U.S. as Anatomy of a Scandal.)
Murdoch didn’t seem too interested in the briefing. He arrived at the studio looking cocky and eager for combat. In the first half of the interview, this confidence seemed to wobble. Frost, as usual, was armed with formidable research. He had more grasp of the Profumo Affair than did Murdoch.
In the commercial break that divided the program, I went down to the set and, again, alerted Murdoch to the problem of how familiar Keeler’s story already was. And, again, he didn’t seem bothered.
However, by the end of the interview he had cut a poor figure—unconvincing in his case for rehashing the Profumo Affair. Using a familiar ploy, he said he had published the story in the public interest, rather than simply to boost sales. He became truculent in his argument that Keeler deserved another hearing—presenting himself, as he often does, as champion of the underdog. As he walked from the set, Murdoch made straight for me and hissed: “You have just made an important new enemy.” (It was unclear whether the “you” was singular or applied to the company.)
The next day he sent a note to Frost accusing him of an “unscrupulous ambush.”
A few years later, London Weekend was an unhappy place. Its ratings were poor and the managing director was replaced. Murdoch was known to want to get into commercial television. He circled LWT like a predator and finally was able to buy a controlling interest.
By this time I was working in New York with David Frost, who had a nightly talk show there.
I had a call from LWT’s new managing director. Murdoch, he said, was acting like a proprietor and involving himself in program planning, clearly trying to go after ratings at whatever cost. I pointed out that under the terms of the Television Act, the legislation that then governed commercial television in Britain, no newspaper proprietor was allowed to have a direct influence on programs.
“But how do we stop him?” asked the managing director.
There was soon to be a meeting of the custodians of commercial television in Britain, the ITA. I arranged with an editor at The Times that on the morning of this meeting they would publish a letter from me about Murdoch’s intervention at LWT.
Consequently the ITA—despite a reputation for being supine—issued an edict that effectively removed Murdoch from any involvement in programs. Later, complaining of having his hands tied at a company he thought needed all the help it could get, he sold his interest.
This was a long time ago. But I believe that it does serve as a clear illustration of the Murdoch hands-on approach to anything he owns, which has been in his genes from the beginning, and is impossible to regulate. Therefore when it comes to the case of BSkyB, the idea that he can restrain his natural inclinations to preserve the diversity of opinion in Britain is absurd. Declarations by Murdoch that he will not impose his views or influence on companies he controls are accepted only by the credulous. Take, for example, the case of his behavior with newspapers.
In 1981, Murdoch sought to gain control of The Sunday Times (where I had been managing editor) and of The Times, then two of the most prestigious titles in the country. These acquisitions required a reference to the Monopolies Commission.
Since Murdoch already owned the biggest selling Sunday paper, the News of the World, and the biggest selling daily tabloid, the Sun, a reference would have been appropriate.
But Murdoch escaped that test by making a series of promises to Parliament that editors would be free from his influence. Within a year, he had broken them all (a saga documented definitively in Good Times, Bad Times, by the former editor of the Sunday Times, Harold Evans.)
As the Murdoch takeover of Times Newspapers was being prepared, I called the editor in- hief, Denis Hamilton, and told him the story of LWT’s experience, and warned him that Murdoch would not be able, for reasons of character, to keep his hands off the papers. Hamilton (to whom I owed an enormous debt as a mentor) wasn’t persuaded. “Rupert has given me his word,” he said.
Later, in the wake of damage done to the reputation of The Times by Murdoch’s acquisition of the bogus Hitler diaries, he was discussing the undertakings he had given to leave his editors alone. He told the news editor, Fred Emery, “They are not worth the paper they are written on.”