Return of the nasty, wily old fox
Wednesday 21st December 2016
The challange to halt Rupert Murdoch’s bid to grasp yet more control over the media will be huge in 2017, writes GRANVILLE WILLIAMS
RUPERT MURDOCH conjures up one of those sequences in television wildlife programmes of a predator stealthily moving in to seize its prey. Forget that crafted image of the feeble, penitent, “humble” figure appearing before the Commons media select committee in 2011 at the height of the phone-hacking scandal. Murdoch is a voracious media mogul with lots of form.
Take these examples solely from Britain: false promises of an independent board for the Times when he was handed both that paper and the Sunday Times as a political reward by Thatcher in 1981; the move to Fortress Wapping after the brutal sacking of over 5,000 Fleet Street print workers in January 1986; the use of predatory pricing in 1994 when he dropped the price of his newspapers to weaken his competitors. And now he moves in on his latest and most lucrative target — full control of Sky.
Murdoch apologists are wheeled out — former Sun editor David Yelland, former culture secretary John Whittingdale — to present slick arguments supporting the £11.7 billion bid for full control of Sky. The media landscape has changed since 2011, they say. News International is now broken up with only 21st Century Fox bidding for full control of Sky, while all the newspapers are in a separate company, News UK. And anyway, there’s more competition — look at Netflix, Amazon Prime and BT — and newspapers are a weakened force, undermined by Google and other online competitors.
Whittingdale is hardly an impartial observer. Back in 1996, he voted against his own [Conservative] government’s Broadcasting Bill by supporting an amendment that would have allowed a publisher with more than 20 per cent of the national newspaper market to buy an ITV company. He must have thought News International’s interests were more important than his job as a parliamentary private scretary, from which he was forced to resign for this rebellion.
Yes, times have changed. Wendi Deng has gone and Jerry Hall is the new Mrs Murdoch, but the fundamentals of Rupert Murdoch’s media power, and how he operates, haven’t.
The first point is that both 21st Century Fox and News Corp are owned by the Murdoch clan. At present, it’s a family affair and that’s why, when Murdoch wanted to bid for another global media group, Time Warner, the company wasn’t interested because of the lack of transparency into who actually pulls the strings in the Murdoch empire.
It’s illusory to suggest that Murdoch and his two sons don’t have day-to-day control over all of their media assets. James Murdoch, for example, is both chief executive of 21st Century Fox and chairman of Sky, and Rupert Murdoch is executive chairman of News Corp and his son Lachlan co-chairman.
Second, while media companies often spend enormous sums of money lobbying to influence media policy, the Murdoch project is very different: politics and business are central to it. Murdoch’s world view is right-wing, anti-trade union, interventionist and opportunist and he deploys the power he has accrued through his global media group to promote his destructive political agenda.
In Britain this has meant support for both Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative and Tony Blair’s New Labour governments.
But the key point is that such support is conditional on reciprocal favours. Thatcher’s government waived any reference to the Monopoly and Mergers Commission when he took over the Times and the Sunday Times. Murdoch comments in a footnote in Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher: “Probably because of the political stance of the Sun, she knew where I stood. I’m sure [John] Biffen [the then trade minister] must have gotten instructions or just read the tea leaves.” In fact Murdoch met Thatcher at Chequers on January 4 1981 to clear the deal. It wasn’t tea leaves but a face-to-face meeting with Mrs T that clinched the deal. This pattern of surreptitious, behind the scenes lobbying was exemplified during the BSkyB takeover which revealed the close links between David Cameron, the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and the Murdoch machine.
This September, Theresa May met Murdoch privately during a 36-hour flying visit to New York. Nothing has changed.
Murdoch waits for the opportunity and pounces. It is frankly grotesque for him to assert: “I have made it a principle all my life never to ask for anything from any prime minister.”
We have to be clear. We are not in the same situation as 2011. Then, on a wave of revulsion over the industrial-scale use of phone hacking by a media organisation nominally under the control of James Murdoch, the bid for BSkyB was blown away.
The timing of the new bid is not accidental. Murdoch has launched it during the post-Brexit slump in sterling and also at a time of political uncertainty.
The bid proposal announced late on December 9 was followed up six days later with 21st Century Fox’s formal bid. Once the Culture Secretary Karen Bradley has been notified she will have 10 days to decide whether to issue a public interest intervention notice and refer the matter to Ofcom. We need to campaign on a number of fronts.
First, it is essential that the second part of the Leveson inquiry into police and press corruption goes ahead and is not stalled by the Culture Secretary.
At the same time online activists, media reform organisations, trade unions and unaligned individuals uncomfortable with the disruptive role Murdoch’s media play in our democratic life need to mobilise quickly.
We have to block the Murdoch takeover of Sky and that requires a political intervention. The Labour Party leadership can play a key role in building opposition to the bid.
The bid must be referred to Ofcom. It’s essential that real political and regulatory concerns about a Murdoch controlled Sky are addressed.
These include the fact that Sky is headed by James Murdoch, who Ofcom criticised in 2012 for poor standards of governance; the market power that Sky, as part of a global media group, will be able to deploy to bid for top-flight sport, TV shows and movies; the cross-promotion between the Murdoch broadcast and newspaper interests and, crucially, the fate of Sky News which would be part of a media group closely aligned with the conservative, politically partisan Fox News.
This case raises key issues about media diversity and plurality. We already have a powerful bloc of right-wing media owners in Britain’s national newspaper market.
Handing full control of Sky to the Murdoch empire will be another boost to their power and influence over our media, politics and culture. This will be a key battle we have to fight and win in 2017.
Granville Williams is editor of Big Media and Internet Titans and a member of the national council of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.
Five years after the billionaire media oligarch Rupert Murdoch and his key personnel got away scot-free in the phone hacking scandal, their rehabilitation by the British ruling elite is complete. This month, an £11.2 billion deal was agreed between Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox and the UK TV company Sky: here.