Rupert Murdoch is not simply a great newspaperman; he is also one of the greatest businessmen of the second half of the 20th century. For 50 years he has taken breathtaking risks, created new business out of nothing, and destroyed his rivals. Courted by presidents and prime ministers, he is a living symbol of capitalism at its most creative and destructive.
If he had retired five years ago, he would be remembered as a buccaneering media magnate in the tradition of Lord Northcliffe and William Hearst, and probably greater than either. However, Rupert Murdoch, now 83 years old, has never showed any appetite for retirement.
He has paid the price, because the last five years have been the worst of his career. In 2006 an obscure Murdoch employee was found guilty of illegally intercepting telephone messages concerned with the British royal family. Clive Goodman, royal editor of the News of the World, was sent to jail, but Murdoch newspapers insisted that Goodman was a rogue reporter, and his conviction an isolated case.
This claim was proved to be false thanks to a brilliant and painstaking investigation by Nick Davies of the Guardian. It eventually emerged that News International, holding company for Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper interests, was to all intents and purposes a criminal concern. Its reporters used methods of intrusive surveillance (including phone-hacking, bribery and illegal access to bank accounts) worthy of an intelligence agency in order to get stories and sell newspapers. Victims ranged from cabinet ministers to celebrities and ordinary people caught up in newsworthy tragedies.
In the fall-out, Rupert Murdoch was forced to close the News of the World. Scores of his employees have been arrested, including the News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Mr Coulson (who had been hired by David Cameron as Downing Street director of communications) and Mrs Brooks are, at the time of writing, answering charges in the Royal Courts of Justice in the most high-profile British criminal trial of the 21st century. Both deny all allegations made against them.
No charges have been made against Rupert Murdoch, and nobody claims that he knew of the criminal activity going on inside his company. However, critics maintain that lack of scruple at the top of the business, accompanied by a ferociously competitive business attitude, created an atmosphere where criminality could flourish.
So the phone-hacking scandal has inflicted profound damage on Rupert Murdoch’s reputation. This is the context for a new study of the Australian-bred tycoon by emeritus professor Rodney Tiffen of Sydney University. Professor Tiffen does not attempt a chronological account of Murdoch’s long career, instead he isolates a number of episodes which, he suggests, cast an especially revealing light on Murdoch’s methods and morality. Overall Professor Tiffen is highly critical; he ends with the damning conclusion that Murdoch’s power ‘has more often diminished rather than benefitted the quality of our democratic life.’
Many of Professor Tiffen’s points, though hardly original, are valid. Professor Tiffen reminds us of the record of the Murdoch press in the Iraq war, when it became the propaganda arm of the pro-war party. After the publication of Tony Blair’s error-filled dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in September 2002, Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the Australian, stated that: ‘The Blair dossier should transform the debate over the Iraq threat. Either Tony Blair is a monstrous liar or Saddam Hussein is. Take your pick.’
According to Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun, opponents of the war were ‘in effect, pro-terrorist’. Even three months after the invasion, hapless Greg Sheridan still argued that ‘WMD doubts are ludicrous.’ Professor Tiffen quotes the famous declaration made in 1852 by John Delane, editor of the Times (now owned by Mr Murdoch) that ‘the press can enter into no close or binding alliances with the statesmen of the day.’ There is no argument with Professor Tiffen’s assertion that during the Iraq war the Murdoch press ‘failed Delane’s first test for journalism’.
Professor Tiffen excavates numerous other episodes of skullduggery or cynicism. These range from the publication of the faked Hitler diaries to Murdoch’s purchase of Star TV, and the subsequent disreputable attempts to suck up to the Chinese government, for instance by banning the BBC from using Star’s satellite.
I have been one of the strongest British critics of Rupert Murdoch (and ahead of the 2010 general election warned David Cameron that he would be making a very serious moral error if he brought Andy Coulson into 10 Downing Street as his media adviser). Yet the more I read Professor Tiffen’s book, the more I found myself reluctantly admiring and even liking the Australian media tycoon.
Part of the problem is that Professor Tiffen’s account is so one-sided. For example, he tells with relish the story of how the Sun newspaper pounded the singer Elton John over his private life, a campaign which eventually led to a sensational front-page apology. Professor Tiffen fails to note, however, that this was a genuine turning-point and from that moment on the Sun has handled homosexual issues with far greater compassion and humanity. The professor heavily relies on media critics of Rupert Murdoch’s empire without properly disclosing their credentials. For instance, Roy Greenslade, now a British professor of journalism, is quoted as an authority throughout the book. But at no point does Professor Tiffen provide his readers with the relevant information that Roy Greenslade was once editor of the Daily Mirror, the greatest commercial rival of Murdoch’s Sun, and a close associate of the late newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, against whom Murdoch fought many vicious battles.
There are many errors of fact. The Sun was not, as the professor claims, ‘Britain’s top-selling newspaper’ from 1978 onwards (that was the News of the World); there was no British general election in 1982. It will come as a sharp surprise to Nigel Havers, the British actor probably best known for his role as Lord Andrew Lindsay in Chariots of Fire, to learn that he played a central role in the Westland affair which convulsed British politics in 1985. Professor Tiffen is probably referring to Lord (Michael) Havers (who was not, however, a cabinet minister during the Westland affair, as Professor Tiffen suggests). Professor Tiffen also mocks the scientific coverage of the Murdoch papers. In fact the Times’s scientific coverage has often been exemplary.
Above all Professor Tiffen displays what can only be called a wilful blindness to the sheer scale and brilliance of Rupert Murdoch’s achievements. When I entered British national journalism as a young reporter in the 1980s, our newspapers were on their last legs. There is no doubt that by taking on the printing unions Rupert Murdoch saved British journalism. This took immense guts and courage. Loath though po-faced professors of media studies might be to admit it, the Sun was a superlative achievement, which gave a voice and identity to millions of working class readers. Again and again Murdoch — especially through the Sun and with his massive investment in satellite television — has risked everything to create and build new markets.
There is, however, no question that in the 1990s something started to go horribly wrong with Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire. Distracted by his huge international commitments, Murdoch took his eye off the ball. The collapse can be dated precisely to the moment Murdoch sacked the Sun editor Stuart Higgins and replace him with David Yelland.
Yelland (who long predates the phone-hacking scandal) soon abandoned the iconoclastic brilliance that had been the hallmark of the Sun, replacing it with a policy of deference to the political class, a path that was followed by others. One of the beneficial side effects of the phone-hacking scandal was that another old-fashioned newspaperman in the tradition of Higgins, David Dinsmore, is now in charge at the Sun.
It is still too soon to attempt a final assessment of Rupert Murdoch’s legacy. He has been a life force, transforming international media many times. I believe that at heart he remains a newspaperman — one of us and not one of them. Was he a force for good? It is too soon to say, and the argument will rage for decades. One point is beyond dispute. With enemies like Professor Tiffen, Murdoch has no need of friends.
Peter Oborne, a former political editor of The Spectator, is a columnist with the Daily Telegraph and a documentary journalist with Channel 4 in the UK