By Vexen Crabtree 2016
Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp have gained a reputation for being powerful political players. The desire to win the favour of his news publications have allowed him to stand up and knock down entire governments. In 1968 he done a secret deal with the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia ('Black Jack' McEwen) to destroy the political career of Billy McMahon, a rival1. The Secret Service were told to investigate fake claims, and Murdoch ran the story, causing an outcry against Billy McMahon. He also played with the careers of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. In 1969 Murdoch swapped favours to get the law changed so he could export business assets, and began his global career1. He engaged in the same political chess in the UK, dealing with Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Woodrow Wyatt and then Tony Blair. A deal with Thatcher exchanged positive reporting in the news for the securing of Murdoch's purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times2,3. A Government investigation in 2011 and 2012 saw Murdoch reveal that when he switched his paper's support from Labour to the Conservatives the Prime Minister (a close personal friend) called him with bitter threats. The true story is that these politically corrupt relationships with Murdoch shouldn't have developed in the first place. Murdoch's staff also frequently developed close personal relationships with key senior police officials, skewing and preventing some police investigations into journalistic misbehaviour4.
Murdoch's papers were caught in an epic series of scandals for using large-scale criminal and hacking techniques to invade people's privacy in order to get stories. It resulted in the closure of News of the World in 20115. The police's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers said that The Sun had a "culture of illegal payments"6. In 2011 the UK Prime Minister said "all party leaders had turned a blind eye to warning signs, because they were so keen to win the support of newspapers"7. The result was a 2-year government investigation, The Leveson Inquiry8. It noted that the Leaders of all three main UK political parties spoke for politicians in general in sounding the alarms and declaring that the relationship between senior press staff and politicians had become dangerously close. The evidence "clearly demonstrates" that this has been true over the last 30-35 years, and that this has worked against the public interest9.
The warnings of academics about the institutional biases of Murdoch's news outlets are longstanding and the bias is so great that it has a statistically detectable effect. In the USA, a University study from 2011 found that those who watched Murdoch's Fox News channel were less knowledgeable about current events even than those who watched no news at all - in other words, Fox News spreads misinformation10.
“Rupert Murdoch [...] has come to acquire for his News Corporation a vast array of newspapers, TV channels, radio stations, film companies and websites. In the UK he owns a large amount of BSkyB. [...] In July 2011, News Corporation owned a significant share in ITV and BSkyB as well as The Sun and The Times. In the US, Murdoch owns the Fox Broadcasting Company, 20th Century Fox, The New York Post, Dow Jones, HarperCollins, National Geographic and a range of pay TV channels. [...] The multinational also owns significant media activity in Germany, Italy, Australia, China and broader South East Asia and India. The dividends amount to about $30 billion. [...] With its global reach News Corporation has always been the subject of much concern [and Rupert Murdoch has] become so powerful that he now has influence over the way political events in particular are reported.”
In addition, some other assets include:
In 2012, as a result of public outcry against the antics of his news outlets, shareholders forced him to split him company in two. News Corp was renamed "21st Century Fox" and contains most of the apolitical entertainment and media outputs, whilst News Corp contains the news media (and Australian holdings).
Rupert Murdoch began his 'media empire' in Australia in the 1950s. But growth, although great, was slower than he liked. Australian law was preventing him expanding his empire and moving its assets around internationally. It turned out to his advantage that media moguls, who influence the public, can also bribe politicians.
In 1968 the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, 'Black Jack' McEwen, struck a deal with Rupert Murdoch to destroy the political career of a rival. He had the Secret Service investigate an associate of Billy McMahon, the next potential leader of the Liberal party. They found nothing. 'Black Jack' then contacted his friend Rupert Murdoch and told him about the existence of the file. Murdoch's paper ran the story that Billy McMahon's close friend was a Japanese agent.1
The biggest story of the day should have been about the conspiracy of Murdoch and Black Jack McEwen to overthrow a party leader - that scandal would have lost the conspirators their jobs, reputations, and maybe even earned them a criminal record. Journalism is a broken enterprise, however, when the ones behind the spreading of propaganda and lies are the journalists themselves. Even if there were bodies to expose the misadventures of journalists, their pronouncements would always come too late, after the public has been made subject to disinformation. What are needed are stronger international laws against the public spreading of disinformation.
Murdoch used his political ally to have the law changed (in 1969) to benefit his business1. Nick Davies devotes more than a few pages to the historical entanglements between Murdoch and politicians, reporting on how he uses his gullible readers to play games with politics:
“This is how the man works. He uses his media outlets as tools to secure political favours, and he uses those political favours to advance his business. But his politics are never as big as his wallet. [...] When he wanted the left-wing Gough Whitlam to become Prime Minister of Australia, he abused the Australian to help him and then sought favours from Whitlam in return. Three years later, when he decided that the right-wing Malcolm Fraser could do more for his business interests, he abused the Australian again with great crudeness to support the bloodless coup which ousted Whitlam.”
Murdoch engaged in the same political chess, complete with stories aimed at deluding the masses in Britain, dealing with Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Woodrow Wyatt and then Tony Blair. The Leveson Inquiry and then The Guardian12 reported on Thatcher's entanglements with Murdoch after a 30-year denial was finally exposed. In 1981, Thatcher was looking for a boost to her ratings during a time of recession and unpopularity. She done a deal with Murdoch to receive positive coverage. She secured him rights to buy The Times and The Sunday Times2,3.
“Rupert Murdoch [...] has come to acquire for his News Corporation a vast array of newspapers, TV channels, radio stations, film companies and websites. In the UK [Rupert Murdoch] owns a large amount of BSkyB. [...] In July 2011, News Corporation owned a significant share in ITV and BSkyB as well as The Sun and The Times. [...] When the phone-hacking scandal came to public attention, UK politicians clamoured to condemn Murdoch when months before (and for years preceding) that had allowed a 'cosy relationship' to work in Murdoch's favour.”
Some of those papers were owned via News International, infamous for its poor ethics and aggressive personal attacks often based on falsehoods. It is now renamed to News Corp UK and trades simply as News UK.
“Addressing the Leveson inquiry, Mr Murdoch told how relations with Mr Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, soured after his newspapers switched their support from Labour to Mr Cameron's Conservatives. Once he and Mr Brown swapped tales of Scottish ancestors and their young children played together, he said. When his papers turned, Mr Murdoch claims that Mr Brown called to declare war on his companies. [...] As for Mr Cameron, when the furore about press abuses took off in 2011, he declared that all party leaders had turned a blind eye to warning signs, because they were so keen to win the support of newspapers. [...]
Newspaper campaigns clearly influence policy-making. Former Blair aides have credited Mr Murdoch, a tireless Eurosceptic, with helping to keep Britain out of the euro.”
The kind of influence that is wielded damages democracy in that large-scale misinformation and bias genuinely prevents the fair exercise of democratic choice. See "Democracy: Its Foundations and Modern Challenges" by Vexen Crabtree (2017).
The UK Government instigated a full scale inquiry into the ethics and practices of newspapers outlets, which ran for 2 years and reported to Parliament in 2012. It mentions at the outset that the entire review was instigated partially because of concern about the political ties of Murdoch's News International (now renamed to News Corp UK/News UK). In particular, there were worries about the closeness to Police officials, and as a result of recent scandals there emerged a "political consensus [...] that politicians had been too close" to Murdoch's press.14
It was phone hacking in particular that started the inquiry. One single phone hacker, Glenn Mulcaire, had 829 likely victims identified15 from list of several thousand possible people he had phone-hacked for Murdoch's News of the World, and there was clearly widespread knowledge that this information was coming from illegal sources.
The report also covered the inappropriate closeness of press officers to the police and to politicians. For example, Neil Wallis, deputy editor of News of the World, was personal friends with the Assistant Commissioner John Yates. Combined with police dismissal of serious evidence against News International, there was growing public concern over a number of years especially after investigative journalists at The Guardian published allegations.4.
The Sun: The police's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers said that The Sun had a "culture of illegal payments" and this included "regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to public officials"6. This behaviour was well beyond the realm of journalistic investigation, and into the realm of bribery and organized crime. Murdoch, when forced to admit that this was rife in The Sun, stated these practices were "of the past"6.
In most companies, if it was discovered than employee behaved criminally to further the ends of the company, he would be dishonoured and sacked. His name would be tarred. His workmates would distance themselves from him. But at Murdoch's News of the World, when Clive Goodman was convicted of phone hacking, police were "confronted and driven off by the staff at the newspaper. Cooperation, if provided, was minimal. The two that were sentenced to terms of imprisonment were paid very substantial sums as compensation for loss of employment when they were released"15.
How did such anti-police attitudes become so prevalent in the News of the World and in The Sun? Its owner Rupert Murdoch accidentally revealed the answer when he was recorded saying that the investigation was "blown out of proportion" and asks "Why are the police behaving in this way? It's the biggest inquiry ever, over next to nothing".16. He was talking in private to a room full of his journalists from The Sun who had been arrested during police investigations. He clearly has no interest in the public good:
“"You guys got thrown out of bed by gangs of cops at six in the morning, and I'm just as annoyed as you are."
"It would be nice to hit back when we can", one journalist suggests later in the meeting.
"We will", replies Mr Murdoch. "We will". [...]
"I will do everything in my power to give you total support, even if you're convicted and get six months or whatever," he says.”
Channel 4 News (2013)16
And that's why those who were convicted received such large payments. Leveson reported in his inquiry that there is an entire culture 'or, perhaps more accurately, a sub-culture, within some parts of some titles' of criminality17.
HarperCollins is owned by News Corp5, a company deeply mired in complaints about poor publishing methods. Some of the same behaviour surfaces in HarperCollins itself. In 1997 it blocked the publishing of a book about Hong Kong that was critical of China because Murdoch was expanding into China and so wanted to court the Chinese government, and bizarrely in 2015 it removed Israel from the Collins Middle East Atlas to appease schools in the Middle East who didn't like Israel. HarperCollins is a massive enterprise with many subsidiaries, it suffers very few misdemeanours and is in the whole a respectable outfit but allowing such typically-Murdoch strategies to interfere with the facts presented in factual books has damaged the reputation of HarperCollins both in terms of its intellectual values and trustworthiness of its books.”
Current edition: 2016 Nov 13
Last Modified: 2016 Dec 15
Parent page: The Worst of the Modern Mass Media
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The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.
Leveson, Lord Justice
(2012) The Leveson Inquiry. Subtitled: "An Inquiry Into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press". Published by The Stationary Office, UK. Dated 2012 Nov. Official UK government document. Available for download from www.official-documents.gov.uk . The full report is spreadh across 4 volumes, totalling 2000 pages. I've used the 48-page Executive Summary which contains numbered paragraphs and these as referenced directly. Accessed 2016 Nov 09.