A defence of Murdoch and News Corp

I’ve had a comment that my review of the revived Hare and Brenton play Pravda (Chichester, 2006) was wrong-headed in its defence of Rupert Murdoch and that I should, in the light of current events, apologise for it. I see my critic’s point, I hope, but I don’t agree….


It is interesting to speculate whether we’d prefer Rupert Murdoch and News Corp to get out of British media. As a snob, I would mourn The Times and the Sunday Times, a little. I would mourn Sky News. I would mourn some of the American TV shows which Sky re-broadcasts and the arts channel which Sky originates.  It is not certain that any of these would survive abandonment by Murdoch. I wouldn’t mourn the troublesome red tops which have paid for the indulgence of my elitist tastes, but that’s hardly noble of me.

Below is my case about Murdoch and News Corp. But first, here’s Paul Hoffman’s comment which spurs this entry:

“In the light of recent events I decided to look up Pravda on the web and came across your 2006 review of its revival. My comment is here because I can’t find anywhere else to leave it. I saw the original production and remember it vividly perhaps not least because I rarely share any opinions with Brenton or Hare. But your review of the revival was so dismissive of their warning about Murdoch that you surely have to retract what you said ( in effect that their claims were hysterical left-wing blather).  You’ve been proved wrong about the decline of the press in 2006 and wrong about the play. I think a detailed explanation and apology is required of about the same length as your criticism. Good faith demands it.”

The burden of my review was that the British media is in good health though a bit trashy; that Murdoch hasn’t dented it; that Murdoch has contributed to the survival of a popular quality press. I should have added that Murdoch’s invention of Sky News was a good development.

Here are some tentative remarks about where the current scandal leaves us.

“In the light of recent events”, there must be great doubt that News Corp’s current leadership can be thought “fit and proper” in the special sense required for media ownership, or even for ordinary directorships. We’ll see. It is also clear that anyone – especially any politicians – who recently schmoozed the upper echelons of the Murdoch world is now at least a bit tainted.  It is also very possible that fear of News Corp produced too much schmoozing over many years.

But we can back up a bit. As Gordon Brown told the House of Commons on the 13th July, News Corp didn’t have a free run in his time. I’m not sure it ever has, or ever would have. I doubt Rupert Murdoch’s influence on politics and policy: he seemed to follow the political weather rather than make it.

We need to split things out. The Sunday Times and Times, and maybe even the Sun, operated their journalism within the ordinary modern codes and mores of their bit of the market. These may be inadequate in some ways, and in need of reform, but they are not necessarily especially Murdochian. (Good luck with any reform, by the way: liveliness and scurrilousness are close cousins.)  Sky News seems excellent.

If News Corp had not owned and been responsibile for the News of the World it would have seemed to me a proper owner for the whole of BSkyB. I am not even sure that the Murdochian malfeasances at the NoTW (whatever they were) were of a sort which necessarily impinge on the matter of News Corp’s ownership of BSkyB. Suppose the wrong-doers in News Corp are punished, and maybe leave the firm – would we then have a case against its owning BSkyB?

I have never really understood why the issue of journalistic plurality is thought to impinge on the issue of potential monopoly power which is raised by BSkyB’s sway over the paid-for satellite TV market. As a producer of broadcast material, Sky is a small player. If it grew, how do we know that would be bad for plurality until we saw whether its material contributed to diversity or to dreary orthodoxy? Indeed, if Rupert Murdoch were to influence the broadcast media in the useful way he shook up print journalism in the 1980s, then he might yet prove a force for good, if a flawed one.

But the point surely is that you could take Murdoch or News Corp out of the equation (whether they were saints or sinners) and you would still have the problem of regulating BSkyB’s relationship with other broadcasters and other platforms such as cable (not least as they compete over sports rights). And there the problems are not journalistic but commercial, and that’s a whole different kettle of fish from hacking and allegations about buying material from policemen.

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Publication date

14 July 2011