Over the decades, each phase in Rupert Murdoch’s rise to media dominion has taken on a dreamlike quality, with the central players acting and speaking in ways that are simply incredible.A lordly British minister would describe his decision to let Murdoch gobble up The Times and Sunday Times of London as quite independent of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, though colleagues could plainly see the lady alongside, urging him on.
Reagan officials, examining U.S. media law, could see no obstacle to Murdoch becoming the boss of Fox—though the relevant provisions were perfectly visible to informed observers.
More recently, Britain’s culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has made a habit of claiming that his decision to let News Corp turn its effective control of British satellite TV into a 100 percent monopoly had nothing to do with Prime Minister David Cameron’s close links to certain squalid outriders of Emperor Rupert’s horde. Until a week or so ago, no one but Hunt’s mother could believe it; now even Hunt himself has reconsidered.
The standard explanation for these unpersuasive performances is that political movers everywhere are peculiarly terrified of Murdoch. But that’s misleading nonsense.
Politicians aren’t usually cowards. Fear does play a role, but chiefly as the aversion all political elites feel for authentic journalism—and from which Murdoch actually protects them by anesthetizing those media enterprises that fall into his hands.
Over the years I’ve joined several campaigns against the inflation of Murdoch’s power, and these always require interaction with an upright, influential member of the current political class. This person’s affection for Murdoch rates at about the level for a person’s affection for the gum stuck on the sole of his shoe. And yet, invariably, nothing happens. Why? Because members of this class want above all to avoid being “misunderstood,” which is the likely result of becoming embroiled in a ghastly public scandal. Much better to deal with Murdoch behind the scenes, with discretion.
Murdoch gets the approval of politicians, then, not by frightening them—anyone frightened by Fox News would be best off staying indoors all day—but by making their professional lives so pleasant and easy, by insulating them so thoroughly from journalistic scrutiny, that they dread the removal of the protection.
Consider the actions of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) when some of Murdoch’s holdings were in bitter strife with the Fairfax group’s Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald—two newspapers with a long record of professional fairness in covering the country’s left and right factions. This to the committed partisans of the ALP meant the papers were unreliable, unpredictable, and treacherous. By contrast, any deal with Murdoch, they knew, would make their lives infinitely easier. Murdoch, naturally, got what he wanted.
Today’s politicians accept Murdoch’s baubles out of deep insecurity. Their (in)actions may seem cowardly, but in certain respects present challenges that surpass those of Roosevelt, Churchill, Truman, and Attlee—men who became giants through a scarcely expected triumph over totalitarianism and who held office at a time when the stranglehold of disease and poverty over human life was beginning to be reversed. Such victories are hard to repeat when nobody knows, or even agrees, what procured them. The result is the perception of comparative political underperformance—and a catastrophic fall in the status of politicians.
It’s true that recovery won’t come through sharper, freer, and riskier media investigations, but neither will it happen without them. Self-indulgent rhetorical food fights, which are all that Murdoch’s organs offer, accomplish nothing useful. They merely provide cover for whatever political faction News Corp. cares at the moment to manipulate.
So what can politicians do if they really wish to exit the mess they’re in? Obviously, the first step is halting the BSkyB grab, which has already been accomplished, at least temporarily. But beyond that, politicians must forever withdraw from regulating the press. The point is that it simply can’t be done fairly: free speech, as Rosa Luxemburg tried to teach Lenin, is indivisible. It can’t be regulated away from anyone, and certainly not denied to Murdoch just because he only uses it to seek monopoly and truckle advantageously to power.
Competition and diversity in media must be encouraged. Maintaining profitable competition doesn’t guarantee democracy, but it comes closer than any other alternative. The essential requirement is that the law must be administered with cold objectivity by experienced commercial judges, not by politicians with partisan—and personal—agendas, wielding ill-defined, quasi-judicial powers.
Our politicians are no more frightened of Murdoch than drug addicts are of the candy man. Both just need to break their habits. Investigative journalism might be distasteful, but it is indispensable to a democracy’s sociopolitical hygiene.