The Rotten Heart of the British Press
Saturday 23rd January 2016
Your reader-owned daily paper squares up to the many muck-mongers, despicable dealers and arch-hypocrites of the 2016 media landscape…
WHAT’S wrong with the national press? It’s made up of bullies and creeps, that’s what’s wrong. At the top are some sinister and unpleasant businessmen. At the bottom are a bunch of wannabes and sycophants who will write anything to please the boss and get promoted. In the middle are a bunch of pompous Oxbridge twerps who believe their narrow conformist view of the world represents some eternal truth.
The men at the top actively want to suppress a lot of news: they don’t want bad news about tax evasion, privatisation, exploitation or abuse of working people’s rights to leak out because they are deeply involved in tax evasion, privatisation, exploitation and the abuse of working people’s rights.
At the bottom, the public school riff-raff willingly go along with this, and would much rather write voyeuristic celeb drivel than publish any real news. In the middle, the dullard columnists pump out reheated small-and-big-C conservative drivel, convinced it is intellectual gold. Sometimes good journalism gets out, but it is despite the owners and their hangers-on, not because of them.
Two of the least offensive groups, the Mirror and Guardian — with 13 per cent and 2.5 per cent of the national newspaper market respectively — are governed by organisations not individuals: the Mirror by a corporation, the Guardian by a trust.
They aren’t free of sin, but less drenched in it than other papers, suggesting ownership by the press barons is a big part of the problem.
Rupert Murdoch is the most rotten press baron of all. His papers have 33 per cent of the national readership. He’s used them to do favours for right-wing governments, which in turn twisted the rules to keep him in business.
His Wapping fortress was guarded by Maggie Thatcher’s bootboys, and in return his papers did everything to support Thatcher and cover up police misbehaviour.
Tory and Blairite governments allowed his business to grow by getting past monopoly rules and retaining laws to keep the unions out of his titles. So he backed Tory and Blairite governments. The relationship was up-close and personal, whether it was Murdoch’s children and employees becoming part of David Cameron’s Chipping Norton set or Tony Blair putting on a white robe to help baptise Murdoch’s children on the banks of the River Jordan.
Truth was the main casualty of the relationships, whether it’s Murdoch’s papers claiming Michael Foot was a KGB agent called “Comrade Boot,” or lying about Hillsborough because attacking dead football fans was seen as a favour to Thatcher and her cops, or printing absurd lies about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction to help Blair make the case for a false war or claiming Jeremy Corbyn said things he just didn’t.
Former Sun editor David Yelland made clear that Murdoch liked him at his worst. Yelland, a recovering alcoholic, says of his job at the Sun: “I was actually paid to rush to judgement, paid to lash out and attack — it was perfect territory for the drunk.” Chris Bryant, an MP who faced down Murdoch’s smears, says the “Dirty Digger’s” henchmen act as if they were in “Godfather IV,” and the Murdoch machine feels like a protection racket, using smears to win favours.
The spell was almost broken over the hacking scandal, but Cameron has brought Murdoch back into the centre of government.
Richard Desmond’s Daily Express and Daily Star have a combined five million circulation. That’s 12 per cent of the newspaper market in the sweaty hands of a porn baron. Desmond’s company Northern and Shell took off in 1982 by becoming the British publisher of Penthouse and other “top-shelf” magazines.
In 2004 Desmond sold off the magazines, but he’s still an active pornographer — it’s very disguised on its website, but Desmond’s company Northern and Shell has a television arm, Portland TV, which runs “softcore” porn channels and explicit websites under the “Television X” name. Desmond likes to talk up his own riches-to-rags-to-riches story.
His ad-man dad gambled away the family fortune, so Desmond had to crawl his way up by selling sex. In his autobiography Desmond explains how he likes to bully or buy people. He had eye problems and told his surgeon: “Look you don’t really know who I am. To you I am just a bloke off the street. But I can be very helpful to you or I can be a complete bastard. If I go fucking blind I will kill you. But if it goes well you’ve got the best friend you could ever have.”
The operation was a success, so Desmond supports Moorfield Eye hospital, and didn’t have to kill anyone. But his proud boast of threatening surgeons tells us what kind of man runs the Daily Express and Daily Star, which he bought with his porn money in 2000. Desmond backed Tony Blair, but thinks David Cameron is a snob. So instead he gave Ukip £1m in 2014. Desmond’s Express has a very Ukip feel, while the Daily Star has flirted with backing the hard-right EDL. His papers attack minorities but his porn websites seek to exploit them, with “Asian,” “black” and “interacial” prominent “categories” of pornography. The sensationalist extremist politics, self-promotion and cheap celebrity are all alternatives to actual investment in news, as cost-cutting is a classic Desmond trait.
The tax-dodging ‘patriots’
The Daily and Sunday Mail is owned by Jonathan Harmsworth, the fourth Viscount Rothermere, who lives in a historic looking country house in Wiltshire.
It seems right for a newspaper group whose fierce patriotism means it will lash out ferociously at any deviation from “British values” which, for the Mail, means an English Home Counties morality of 30 years ago, which it peddles to its six million readers — a 25 per cent share of the total. But it is an illusion. The Daily Mail and General Trust’s annual report says its “immediate parent company is Rothermere Continuation Limited (RCL), a company incorporated in Bermuda.”
The “patriotic” Mail is owned by a family firm based offshore in a tax haven. This will help Rothermere — whose Mail-based fortune is around £800 million — avoid British tax. Leaving Britain to avoid tax is a family trait. Jonathan’s dad, Vere Harmsworth, lived in Paris as a tax exile. Jonathan inherited “nondomiciled” tax status from his dad, so can also avoid British tax using a variety of offshore trusts.
British newspaper bosses don’t like attacking each other, so the story of Rothermere’s non-dom status has been exposed by Private Eye magazine, a publication outside the proprietors’ club. Rothermere’s country house is a fake as well — it was built in a mock 18th-century “Palladian” style, but the £40m building was actually erected in 2001.
According to Private Eye, the house was built through a system of loans which would have kept more of Rothermere’s money out of the hands of the British tax man. When the Mail attacked then Labour leader Ed Miliband’s father as “the man who hated Britain,” it revived memories of the darkest side of the Rothermere family. While Ed’s dad served in the navy in WW II, Rothermere’s great-grandad, the first Viscount, made the Mail actively support fascism in the 1930s.
The 1934 headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” is well known, but under the Harmsworths the Mail did much worse than promote Mosley’s British fascists — it also actively promoted Hitler. The first Viscount Rothermere argued in 1930 that Hitler was a great man opposed by “wealthy Jewish individuals” and “Bolshevists” of the “Hebrew race.” Even in 1937 the Mail was reporting Rothermere’s friendly visits to Hitler.
The Tax-dodging Weirdos
The Barclay Brothers are 81-year-old secretive identical twins who came to big media ownership late. Some minor press interests expanded into ownership of the Telegraph and Spectator in 2004, giving them 7 per cent of the newspaper market and control of some key Tory titles.
The Barclays made their billions through a variety of retail and leisure businesses — if you’ve ever lost a parcel thanks to Britain’s worst delivery firm, Yodel, that’s the Barclay brothers too.
It’s a sign of how bad the British press is that the Barclays got the Telegraph because the former owner, Lord Black, went to prison following fraud charges.
The Barclays have kept the Telegraph Tory, but slashed jobs so badly it struggles with publishing hard news. BBC’s Panorama dubbed the Barclays the “tax haven twins” because their business used offshore schemes to avoid tax. They actually live offshore, in a castle on the tiny Channel Islands crop of rock called Brecqou.
Islanders on neighbouring Sark accuse the Barclays of bullying, because the brothers closed down businesses on the island when residents refused to vote for their preferred candidates in Sark’s government.
The Barclays’ “Sark Newsletter” was also accused of bullying. This miniature picture of press bullying and self-interest was recreated on a bigger scale at the Telegraph, according to its former chief political commentator, Peter Oborne. The respected journalist dramatically resigned from the Telegraph last February. He attacked staff cuts but most importantly said many bad stories about HSBC bank were supressed because the Barclays’ newspapers wanted HSBC advertising.
Oborne said: “The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers.”
The Barclays’ Telegraph put ads from HSBC over news. They may have also felt more sympathetic to HSBC because the stories often involved tax avoidance, and they too relied on HSBC financial support.
The Ex-KGB man
It says something about the state of the British press that the son of a former KGB boss isn’t the worst of the proprietors. Evgeny Lebedev’s London Evening Standard and Independent have 4.5 per cent of national readership.
Lebedev got his money from his dad, Alexander Lebedev, who until 1992 was the KGB’s top man in London. Lebedev used his KGB experience to become one of Russia’s top bankers, investing in Russian airlines, aeroplane-making and gas businesses.
The oligarch and his son jointly bought the Standard and Independent in 2009-10. The Independent has long produced very strong stories on a shoestring budget. Lebedev has invested some millions into the papers, but they don’t feel rich.
Evgeney is seen as a bit of a poor-little-rich boy aesthete — liberal but dilettante. Apparently keener on partying with pop stars than politics, Lebedev has still made his money talk at the paper. Lebedev senior said his political “influence would be next to zero” when he first bought the Standard.
But his son’s intervention is widely seen as persuading the Independent to back a vote for the Lib Dems and Conservatives over Labour in 2015, reflecting Evgeny’s political friendships more than the readers’ views.
British local and regional papers are being plundered by shorttermist fatcats who’ve failed to invest, writes TIM GOPSILL: here.