Murdoch poisoned public life for 70 years—but we still owe him a debt

It was deeply unwise to allow one old man to wield such extraordinary power. But the billionaire media mogul was an innovator, however warped his ethics were

September 24, 2023
Murdoch, Wapping, 1986. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Murdoch, Wapping, 1986. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

There are positives. Unlike Robert Maxwell or Conrad Black, he was not a crook. Unlike Lord Northcliffe, he didn’t go completely insane. Unlike Richard Desmond, he understood, defended and cherished journalism.  

He turned the Sun into an immensely successful and profitable title in the UK. He virtually single-handedly created Sky News, which is an impressively professional and (albeit by law, rather than Murdoch’s choice) independent broadcaster. He has ploughed untold millions—probably billions—into propping up struggling titles, thereby giving employment to thousands of journalists over the years.  

And—however brutal and ugly the Wapping dispute was in the mid-80s—someone had to find a way to move newspaper production from the 19th-century methods of newspaper production to the computer typesetting now used the world over. Many tried and failed. It took a Murdoch to succeed. 

Rupert Murdoch employs a great many decent journalists—and even the ones who have sold their professional souls to him know how to produce popular and crowd-pleasing newspapers and programmes. At their best, Murdoch’s editorial employees are as good as any on the planet. 

He took giant risks. He innovated. He had a healthy scepticism towards establishment power. And he inspired two of the greatest fictional newspaper barons—Lambert le Roux in David Hare and Howard Brenton’s 1985 play Pravda (played by Anthony Hopkins); and, of course, the domineering Lear-like Logan Roy in Jesse Armstrong’s Succession.  

But these positives are eclipsed, in the minds of many, by the negatives. The Sun, once a formidable cash cow for the Murdoch empire, declared pre-tax losses of £127m in 2022—partly due to the chill economic winds blowing through journalism which not even Murdoch can prevent. But the main blow to the Sun’s finances came from almost £100m spent on ongoing legal fees and damages from the phone hacking scandal which closed the News of the World in 2011 and has been rumbling on ever since. 

That ethical catastrophe—costing Murdoch more than £1bn—was itself eclipsed by the scandal surrounding Fox News earlier this year. The most fundamental duty of any news organisation is to tell the truth—yet here was a leading broadcaster spewing out lies and conspiracy theories which it knew were rubbish.  

How do we know? Because it was sued by the manufacturer of the voting machines which Fox News programmes said were doctored against Donald Trump’s election chances—and because, during the course of litigation, numerous internal documents and emails showed that Murdoch’s flagship news channel was knowingly misleading the public.  

In normal companies, where disastrous ethical and professional (not to mention criminal) failings come to light, heads roll. The CEO is out of the door so fast their feet barely touch the polished parquet.  

Not on Planet Murdoch. News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks was acquitted by an Old Bailey jury of knowing about the crimes that were going on in her own company—and was promptly back in the job.  

Lachlan Murdoch has not paid for the abysmal ethical and journalistic failings at Fox, which are likely to cost well north of $1bn: he’s just been promoted to the role of executive chairman. Even Jesse Armstrong wouldn’t have dared to script that.  

Lachlan Murdoch was accused by the Australian publisher, Crikey, of having been an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the attack on the US Capitol on 6th January, 2021. He promptly sued for libel, only to drop the action once the documents in the Dominion voting machine case spilled into the public domain.  

Rupert Murdoch, in other words, created a company with its own particular form of quasi-hereditary governance which was immune from the rules covering normal businesses (though its legion of editorialists and columnists would flay any other organisation which behaved in such a fashion).  

Murdoch’s instincts veered to the monopolistic. He relished creating overwhelming market dominance: it was ugly seeing him try to crush the life out of the nascent Independent newspaper in the early 1990s by slashing the price of the Times in a brutally predatory fashion.  

He used his market dominance to behave with impunity. When the Guardian first broke the phone-hacking scandal it was apparent to me that large swathes of British society were unwilling to upset this man. Politicians, other media organisations, regulators, even the police, knew that Rupert Murdoch was a bad enemy to have. Better to keep your head down.  

Politicians on three continents came to believe that they couldn’t be elected without Murdoch’s backing: it may not have been true, but that’s what they believed. And the boss’s views—on climate, on Brexit, on elections, on Iraq, on capitalism, on the BBC—seeped, as if by osmosis, into columns and editorials.  

Though he gave up being a citizen of his birth land for pragmatic business reasons, he had huge influence on both Australian and American elections. Though he wasn’t British, and increasingly rarely visited these shores, he had an outsized voice in our domestic affairs—regardless of party. A Labour minister once told former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil: “Rupert Murdoch was the 24th member of the Blair cabinet.” 

Neil himself told the Leveson Inquiry: “I understand that in the last days before the Iraq invasion began Mr Blair spoke to Mr Murdoch more often than he spoke to his defence or foreign secretaries. All Mr Murdoch’s British papers supported the PM’s pro-war stance. Indeed, Murdoch papers across the globe spoke with one voice on this contentious matter.” 

Paul Dacre, former Daily Mail editor, was of the same view, telling Leveson: “I’m not sure that the Blair government or Tony Blair would have been able to take the British people to war if it hadn’t been for the implacable support provided by the Murdoch papers. There’s no doubt that came from Mr Murdoch himself.”

Another former Murdoch editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, told the same inquiry: “An American with a disdain for Britain, running a declining industry in terms of sales, profitability and influence, was considered more important than a meeting with any captain of industry no matter how big their workforce or balance sheet.” 

More than 70 years of living with the Murdoch media oligarchy has doubtless blunted us to the sheer oddness of allowing one old man such extraordinary sway over civil and democratic life and processes on three continents for decades. 

No rational system of informing the public about political choices would tolerate such a polluter of public discourse and honest evidence—let alone on the mass scale at which it operates. But we allowed it to happen.  

So, yes, journalism does owe him some sort of debt. It also has the absolute duty of holding him and his family to account. If the general public ever confused Murdoch’s general idea of news values and ethical standards with what journalism should be, then the news business really would be in trouble.