Conspiracy Theories

Blows Against the Murdoch Empire


The London-based contrarian Brendan O'Neill doesn't like Rupert Murdoch -- "I am not a fan," he writes, "and I believe that the phone-hacking antics at the News of the World were deplorable and indefensible" -- but he doesn't like the paranoid narrative that has dominated the British reaction to the scandal either:

Grace Slick! thou shouldst be living at this hour

The childlike glee with which respectable hacks have greeted Murdoch's travails speaks to their belief that he was singlehandedly holding back British democracy. In recent years, their attacks on the 'Murdoch Empire' have sounded borderline David Icke-like. Murdoch has 'extraordinary power' which he uses to 'manipulate officialdom', said Polly Toynbee in 2009. She writes of 'the malign influence this man has had on our politics for the past 30 years'. Other commentators describe the links between Murdoch and politicians as 'a shadowy influence-mart' ('shadowy' is a favourite word of conspiracy theorists). One goes so far as to say that 'the huge failure of my generation' was to 'allow Murdoch to enmesh our politics, media and police'….

Of course it's true that Murdoch is influential, and it's also true that in the 1980s and early 90s his British papers supported Thatcher and, far more reluctantly, John Major, before switching their allegiance to New Labour in 1997. Yet the notion that he exerted an authoritarian 'malign influence' was simply a way for left-wing thinkers to dodge getting to grips with some profound shifts in the British political landscape at the end of the twentieth century. It wasn't Murdoch who stole working-class tabloid readers from Labour and handed them to the Tories; Labour had been losing working-class support for years before the 'Murdoch invasion'. Labour's support amongst the manual working classes (many of whom read tabloids) fell from 62 per cent in 1959 to 38 per cent in 1983. Bashing Murdoch became a way for Labourites to avoid analysing their own disarray….

It's the Sun wot won it!

Murdoch was only as powerful as politicians allowed him to be. Consider his relationship with Tony Blair, easily the cosiest of all his hook-ups with PMs. It wasn't that Murdoch used Derren Brown-style powers of persuasion to co-opt Blair; rather, Blair, being the leader of an aloof political PR machine that was utterly bereft of meaningful grassroots support, saw in Murdoch a way of connecting with 'the public'. It was Blair's distance from ordinary people, his instinctive (and correct) feeling that New Labour was cut off, which led him to see Murdoch and his papers as some kind of conduit between him and us, a magic channel between the political elite and the little people. In the late 1990s and the 2000s, Murdoch's so-called power wasn't a product of his own warped ambitions - it was a byproduct of the desperation of a political class which believed the only way it could connect with the blob of unusual people 'out there' was by publishing occasional columns in the Sun titled 'WHY I AM JOLLY ANGRY ABOUT PAEDOPHILES'.

Which brings us to the present day and the harebrained idea that loosening Murdoch's alleged grip will liberate and re-populate with principle the British political sphere….The respectable commentariat has effectively declared war on a man who was merely the beneficiary of historic political fallout, not the orchestrator of it. Remove him from the picture and those various profound problems - the emptying out of both left and right ideologies, the aloofness of the political class, the transformation of politics into a purely elite pastime - will still exist. Our politicians will still have nothing of substance to say, just fewer tabloids in which not to say it.