Henry Hill studies Journalism in Manchester and is a Contributor at TSJ. He is the 8th ranked Conservative blogger in the UK.
In 1986 Rupert Murdoch, Commander-in-Chief of News International, launched a battle that would determine the future of the printed press in the United Kingdom. Arrayed against him were the National Graphical Association, its allies in the Trades Union Congress, the assorted platoons of the hard left, and the Labour Party. At his back were the bulk of his journalists, the Thatcher government, and the police. For over a year, News International’s new printworks in Wapping were besieged by the serried ranks of the labour movement.
The Wapping Dispute takes its place alongside the Grunwick picket and the miner’s strike as one of the defining left-right battles of the Seventies and Eighties. Depending on your perspective, it was either an evil corporate empire rolling over the little guy, or a courageous assault on restrictive practices and labour monopolists who were strangling the newspaper industry to death. Either retelling casts it as a titanic struggle between primary political forces, replete with a full cast of heroes, victims and villains.
Yet like all history, both retellings consist of a factual skeleton which the historian fleshes out with the meat of their own prejudices. Real life, on the other hand, can rarely be divided so cleanly into black and white. While fortune might occasionally present a Mother Teresa or a Pol Pot, the vast majority of real people exhibit a healthy mixture of good and bad behaviour motivated by countless unique combinations of ethics and circumstances. Pantomime villains remain the stuff of, well, pantomime.
Yet in their treatment of the hacking scandal many commentators appear almost wilfully determined to engage with Murdoch the right-wing phantom, rather than Murdoch the man. To restore some sense of proportion to the debate surrounding News International, it is necessary to disinter the factual skeleton of the case from the mountain of prejudicial flesh heaped upon it by hostile commentators.
This uncomfortable fact – that even our ideological enemies are painted in shades of grey - is frustrating for many, but perhaps none more than journalist. After all, our entire trade consists of turning real life events into ‘stories’. Can we really be blamed for reaching for one of the crutches of story-writing: clear cut villains? Borrowing aspects of fiction writing allows us to construct a nice, easily explicable narrative for the reader (and, although few would care to admit it, ourselves as well). The downside is that it can lead to the substitution of considered character judgement with absurd caricature. Which brings us nicely to the Dark Lord of the Sith himself: Rupert Murdoch.
The reputation Mr Murdoch has acquired in his post-eighties career as the UK’s most fashionably detestable media baron is frankly extraordinary. Various people ascribe to him shadowy, almost sorcerous powers of manipulation and control, and the idea persists that Rupert Murdoch somehow dominates the British media. The Student Journal’s very own Tash Clark in a recent article defends the free press “despite how dominated it might seem by Murdoch and his sly empire”, and posits that this is “our only chance” to prevent Murdoch “dominating the media.” Let’s take a look at that.
News International operates three (it will be four when the widely anticipated Sun on Sunday materialises) national newspapers in the United Kingdom: two dailies (The Times and The Sun) and one weekly (The Sunday Times), though until recently The News of the World too. Yet it can’t be simply the fact of owning several newspapers that justifies the reputation of Murdoch’s ‘empire’, because Northern & Shell also operates four (the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, the Daily Star and The Daily Star Sunday) and both Associated Newspapers (the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Metro) and Trinity Mirror plc. (the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and The People) operate three apiece, more if one were to include non-national publications.
If not the fact of owning four papers, what then justifies the reputation of ‘the Murdoch press’ as a dominant force? The closest I can come to an answer is circulation. The Sun enjoys “the largest circulation of any newspaper in the United Kingdom” at almost 2.8 million (with an estimated 7.6 million total readership). The Times, while enjoying a much smaller circulation of roughly half a million, is still the second most popular ‘broadsheet’ behind the Telegraph and surveys suggest it is the leading newspaper for business people. It is not unfair to claim that ‘the Murdoch press’ consists of fairly influential titles.
But this is still insufficient. High as the Sun’s circulation is, it isn’t enough to carry News International comfortably into the lead in terms of total owned circulation. Two Associated Newspapers titles, the Daily Mail and the Metro, command readerships of over two million and 1.35 million respectively, giving them a higher total circulation than the competing Murdoch press. Furthermore, neither of the NI daily papers are the most partisan on the market. Can anybody suggest with a straight face that the Times and the Sun have been as loyal to the Conservatives as the Telegraph, or as the Guardian and the Mirror to Labour?
Taken collectively, News International’s newspapers are neither the most widely-read nor the most partisan on the market. Neither has he broken competition regulations, nor does he own an unreasonable amount of titles. What precisely do people mean when they say they want the press to be less dominated by Murdoch? Any ‘dominance’ exercised by the News International titles is a result of people freely choosing to buy them over the alternatives. Is it Rupert Murdoch’s fault that the Guardian’s readership is too small to be commercially viable, leading to it being propped up by the profits of Auto Trader and having to contemplate closing the Observer? Why should News International be subjected to more punitive regulations than other media concerns, or penalised for producing popular newspapers?
As far as I can see, calls to curb the ‘Murdoch Press’ are based less on a rational assessment of his (entirely legal) market share and more on personal and political antipathy to the man himself, News Corporation and the ‘big business’ they represent. Murdoch attracts this hostility for a couple of reasons. The first is that he was one of the big beasts of the Eighties and, unlike Thatcher and the other faded giants of that era, he still commands an active presence in British political life. For many, he is defined by the breaking of the print unions in ’86 or the knifing of Kinnock in ’92. For more still his British papers simply attract the reflected execration directed at his American concerns, in particular Fox News and its association with that paragon of hate-chic, George W. Bush. But Fox News being partisan and George Bush being unpopular are not good reasons to stop Murdoch owning The Times.
None of this is to negate the importance of the hacking scandal. If it turns out that Rupert Murdoch or another senior executive authorised the more detestable violations of personal privacy, I fully expect those people to be fired and prosecuted if the law requires it. But let’s not pretend this is just about the hacking scandal, or that people’s responses would have been the same if another, more anonymous newspaper operator had owned the paper charged with these allegations.
Once again, News International is under siege. Although the National Graphical Association has long since amalgamated its way into irrelevance, there’s a long queue of jealous media rivals and vengeful political opponents that have been waiting a long time to punish or destroy outright this man and his papers, and they’re joined by opportunist politicians willing to turn on the head of a pin in order to try to cash some cheap popularity out of an on-going criminal investigation.
Before we all join the trendy lynch mob, we should remember the great contributions that Rupert Murdoch has made to British journalism, perhaps none greater than his saving the very existence of print newspapers in Britain from extinction in the mid-Eighties. All of us who aspire to be journalists today owe some debt, whether we like the man or not, to Rupert Murdoch and News International.