What will be Rupert Murdoch’s legacy in terms of newspapers in Britain? With the Sun, Times, Sunday Times and News of the World he had the most powerful newspaper group in Britain. He’s a throwback to the great twentieth century Fleet St barons – I’ve read of Northcliffe describing the young Murdoch as his favourite newspaperman.
He fought off Robert Maxwell to win control of News of the World and use it as the international stepping stone to form the world’s first global media group. His reputation for media innovation is unrivalled. However, today’s Machiavellian decision to close the News of the World throws a 168-year history, 200 journalists – and some legendary campaigning journalism – on the scrapheap.
Yet, even though Murdoch has acted with unprecedented speed to try to halt the damage, more is undoubtedly still to come. The fallout – a Rupertgate or Jamesgate – could leave the Murdoch name lying alongside those of Maxwell and a corrupt media mogul of the early 1900s, Horatio Bottomley.
But Rupert brought us the topless redtop style of the Sun with its Page 3, along with Kelvin MacKenzie, and headlines such as ‘Gotcha’ and ‘Freddie Starr: I ate my hamster’ – as well as the later ‘Freddie Starr: I ‘ate my wife’ . And England team manager Graham Taylor as a turnip. How many other front or back pages are as well known? But that paper also plumbed the depths with its Hillsborough coverage – an example of falling in with the police – and is still paying the price in terms of its sales on Merseyside.
Murdoch took over the Times (on a Friday, the 13th), and took it downmarket, shafting Harry Evans in the process, though he has bankrolled it to the tune of tens of millions a year for a while now.
His papers helped to turn round the fortunes of Margaret Thatcher when she was unpopular in her first years in power. The Sunday Times was hagiographic here, portraying her on the front of its magazine as Joan of Arc. Murdoch’s HarperCollins book arm later published Thatcher’s memoirs. And the Sun is seen as having saved John Major from electoral defeat in 1992 with its vitriolic campaign against Neil Kinnock – ‘If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’ ran the front page on polling day.
Andrew Neil, looking on BBC TV these days as if his whole body is on botox, was working for Murdoch when he bought us never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width journalism at the Sunday Times and adverts to recruit reporters who could write at length on any topic. That has certainly done journalism no good. As Matthew Engel writes in the British Journalism Review, ‘Over the past ten years the quantity has remained relatively stable,’ but ‘what worries me now is the quality.’ He was writing about newspaper sports pages in general, but it’s an argument that can be made for the rest of the Sunday Times.
Murdoch failed to make much headway in magazines (remember the embarrassing Mirabelle?), but brought us Sky TV and the Simpsons – though ruined the game of football in the process.
He is also one of the world’s most successful tax avoiders, managing to make billions in profits but using complex offshore company structures to avoid paying tax.
But the activities at the News of the World take us back to Hillsborough in terms of awfulness. For the editor and executives to say they did not know what was going on is no defence. They should have known. The paper was, as Rosie Boycott said on Newsnight, ‘200 miles into illegality’. To be paying £100K to private eye Glen Mulcaire and not know what he was doing just beggars belief. Phone-hacking comes under the RIPA Act – Regulation of Investigatory Powers 2000. It’s what was used to jail News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and Mulcaire.
Boards of directors are paid to be responsible and ignorance is no defence under the law. It’s difficult to see Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson going quietly. Bigger fish than Mulcaire and Goodman are going to come into the frame.