It has taken a former Conservative cabinet minister David Mellor writing in the Guardian today to state what broader commentary has avoided saying, which is that Rupert Murdoch is Margaret Thatcher’s creation. Before Thatcher, Murdoch was the owner of two uninfluential tabloids, the Sun and the News of the World. Both were considered a fun read by the largely male working class readership that bought them. They attracted such readers not because of their politics but because of their cheerful exuberance, easy writing and girlie photos. They did not at this time possess the air of menace for which they are famous and which they have today.
The “Murdoch empire” as we know it today emerged during the 1980s. In 1981 Thatcher set aside competition law to hand over to Murdoch the Times and the Sunday Times. Contrary to what Murdoch’s admirers say he is not the “saviour” of the Times or of the Sunday Times. When Murdoch bought the Times it was still considered the best and most authoritative British newspaper whilst the Sunday Times had shortly before experienced a glorious era under the brilliant editorship of Harold Evans. Under Murdoch the Times has suffered an astonishing eclipse, losing influence and readers so that it is today a shadow of its former self. No one today would count the Times as a leader in global news or would claim that it has the international reputation or influence of the Guardian or of the Financial Times. As for the Sunday Times, though its circulation has increased it too has suffered a dramatic loss in reputation and prestige.
Ownership of these two titles however gave Murdoch a dominant position in British newspapers. As the owner of the Times and of the Sunday Times he was taken seriously in a way that he simply had not been before. The prestige that Murdoch gained by acquiring these two titles also undoubtedly helped him as he began his assault on the US media market. The Times was by far the best known British newspaper in the US at this time and as its owner Murdoch possessed a credibility that he would simply not have had if he had come to the US as just the owner of two down market tabloids.
Thatcher’s support was also crucial in enabling Murdoch to get his Sky venture off the ground. Central to the success of the Sky venture was Murdoch’s acquisition of exclusive football rights, someting that again could not have been achieved without the Thatcher government’s support.
As for the claim that Murdoch and Sky improved the quality of British television by allegedly increasing its diversity, the claim is bizarre. On the contrary until the 1980s and the appearance of Sky British television was universally acknowledged to be the best in the world, something which no one would seriously claim today.
What the emergence of Sky and the relentless war Murdoch has waged against the BBC and the other terrestial broadcasters has done is sap the self confidence and morale of the BBC and the other terrestial broadcasters and undermine their public service ethos. In the case of the two commercial terrestial broadcasters, ITN and Channel 4, they also lost advertising revenue as viewers were drawn off to Sky as a result of its possession of exclusive football rights. In order to try to preserve their audience share and in the case of the terrestial broadcasters some of their advertising revenue the BBC and the other terrestial broadcasters were forced into a ferocious ratings war with Sky in which Sky had an immense built in advantage as a result of its possession of the exclusive football rights. What suffered was the quality of British television, which experienced an immediate and sustained collapse. Broadcasters such as Channel 4, which had made their name as quality producers, had to move down market embracing such things as reality television with programmes such as Big Brother.
As for Sky (or BSkyB as it eventually became), its most notable characteristic as a broadcaster is its failure to spend money on programme making. Sky’s business model is largely based on imports from the US where Murdoch’s eventual ownership of Twentieth Century Fox gives it a further advantage. In this way it keeps down its costs and increases its profits. In order to compete the terrestial broadcasters, ITN and Channel 4 and eventually Channel 5, found themselves obliged to copy this model. Failure to do so would have put them at a disadvantage in attracting outside investment. As a result programme making budgets and activity across the whole range of British television have been slashed. The effect has been demoralising with a general impoverishment of British television, which has gone from thinking of itself as a public service into becoming a mere business driven purely by profit making. Even the BBC has been affected by the general malaise, a condition exacebated by the perpetual war Murdoch wages against it in which he can count on the support of those politicians who for whatever reason are in his pocket.
Overall as one looks at the effect Murdoch has had on British television the conclusion has to be that his effect has been overwhelmingly negative. The tradition of brilliant and sustained programme making and exceptionally high production values that was once British television’s glory has been lost. There has been a general coarsening and a loss of diversity, not its increase. Anyone who remembers what British television was like before Thatcher, Murdoch and Sky knows that this is so. For those too young to remember I challenge them to compare old serials like Quatermass, The Prisoner, I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited with anything made today.
Thatcher’s support also enabled Murdoch to win his battles against the print unions and to transfer his newspaper operation to Wapping. In the realm of right wing folklore this squalid dispute distinguished above all by Murdoch’s ruthless methods towards the strikers and the intimidation and harassment of the strikers by the police, has been invested with a sort of Homeric quality. It is falsely represented as some sort of existential struggle in which Murdoch allegedly broke the stranglehold of the print unions thereby liberating newspapers from their grip and enabling them to survive.
It should be said outright that this fantasy, like all the other anti union fantasies of the 1980s, has no basis in fact. New technology made change inevitable whilst the claim that but for Murdoch’s victory in the Wapping dispute newspapers in Britain would have died out is ridiculous. Newspaper circulation post the Wapping dispute is lower than it was before and continues to fall whilst newspapers are actually less profitable today than they were then. The mythology of the Wapping dispute serves as yet another example of the right wing tendency to blame Britain’s economic problems not on the incompetent managements that run its businesses but on the hapless workers employed by them.
In return for this help Murdoch gave Thatcher the unstinting support of his media group. This went far beyond the usual expressions of support for her and for her policies. It was during the 1980s that the Sun under the brutally effective editorship of Kelvin Mackenzie developed its bullying tone and its technique of character assassination. It was also during this period that the Sun developed its method of crude news manipulation and distortion of news.
Murdoch placed these dark arts at Thatcher’s disposal. Throughout the 1980s she was their beneficiary and her political enemies, whether Labour or Conservative, were their victims. The reason Thatcher never had an Alistair Campbell is because she did not need one. Murdoch did the job for her. The two became so close that they routinely spent Christmas in each other’s company, a fact conspicuously not mentioned by Thatcher in her memoirs where in fact she does not mention Murdoch at all.
Following Thatcher’s fall Murdoch was left in the immensely powerful position he had built up with her help. He has never had the same kind of close relationship with subsequent Prime Ministers that he had with Thatcher. What he has instead done is trade the techniques he perfected on her behalf in the 1980s in return for ever growing political influence, which he has used to advance his private commercial interests. This means that he has effortlessly switched support between Conservatives and Labour whilst inciting both to engage in a bidding war against each other for his favour. Following the May 2010 election his influence reached its apogee with the appointment of Andy Coulson, one of his key lieutenants, to the post of the government’s Director of Communications. This set the stage for his intended takeover of the remaining shares of BSkyB.
The irony is that as Murdoch’s political influence has grown the actual sway of his newspapers has declined. It is probably true that Labour support was affected in the 1980s and early 1990s by the vicious press campaigns he waged against it. The effect was not however as great as was widely supposed. Labour lost support in the 1980s not because of Murdoch’s hostility but because of its vicious civil war, which did the party’s reputation immense damage and from which it took a full decade to recover. Labour’s recovery and its landslide victory in 1997 owed nothing to Murdoch. On the contrary Murdoch’s decision in the mid 1990s to throw his weight behind Labour was based on his calculation that Labour was going to win. As a seasoned political blackmailer Murdoch realised that he could not afford to be seen to back a loser. By backing Labour he was able to take undeserved credit for its victory whilst keeping his reputation as a kingmaker intact. The lack of Murdoch’s real influence on the political allegiances of the British electorate is shown by the fact that notwithstanding all the shifts and turns in Murdoch’s political loyalties the greater part of the working class readers who buy the Sun have consistently done what working class voters normally do, which is vote Labour.