Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rupert Murdoch and the political influence of his newspapers

No one should doubt Rupert Murdoch's ability to make or break political parties at election time. The following article comes from The Economist of August 13, 1994, wherein Murdoch claims credit for having helped Paul Keating win the 1993 federal election. The ability of an unelected owner of numerous media outlets to actively and deliberately try to influence people during election campaigns about who should be their next government frightened me in 1994 and it still worries me today, especially in light of the grubby News of the World involvement in phone hacking.

In the following article, I've added emphasis to certain sections to highlight what I consider to be the real attitude of Murdoch and some of his staff about their role in national politics.


ON THE morning of polling day in the 1992 general election, a senior editor at The Times took a call from Kelvin MacKenzie, then the kick-'em-in-the-goolies editor of The Times's Murdochian stablemate, the Sun.
“What's your polling showing?”
“Same as last night, Kelv; Tories and Labour level-pegging.”
“Well, they can't have seen our front page yet.”

The Sun front page in question showed a picture of Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, inside an unlit electric bulb. "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights" said the headline. In the event, the Tories won the election with an overall majority of 21. Labour leaders grumbled that the Sun had cost them 20 seats. "It's the Sun Wot Won It", said the paper's immodest post-election headline.

Against this background, Mr Murdoch's recent remarks to Der Smegel, a German news magazine, must have tipped John Major from his holiday chaise-longue. “Only last year we helped the Labour government in Canberra," said the Antipodean, when charged with always backing conservatives. "I could even imagine supporting the British Labour leader, Tony Blair.

What did he mean? According to The Times and the Sun, neither of whom reported his remarks at the time, nothing. According to News International, his company, not much. These were, it says, off-the-cuff remarks. Mr Murdoch's editors make up their own mind on the political line to follow.

Phooey. Mr Murdoch did not get where he is today by making half-baked remarks about governments and opposition parties. As for Mr Murdoch's editors, The Times's Peter Stothard is an independent-minded Tory. John Witherow, acting editor of the Sunday Times, is not very political. But one is reminded of the line attributed to Charles Wilson, a Murdoch editor of The Times, in conversation with a reporter: "When I want your opinion, laddie, I'll give it to you." And reminded, more seriously, of the remark made by the late Peter Jenkins when he moved his renowned political column from the Sunday Times. He had seen, he said, "how good newspapers, and once independent spirits, withered in [Murdoch's] presence—or at 3,000 miles removed."

A more plausible assessment comes from Labour itself. Whereas the old Labour leadership of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley demonised Mr Murdoch, the new Labour leadership discerns a pragmatic businessman. As such Mr Murdoch knows Labour to be reconsidering policies which could threaten the British outpost of his empire.

The most recent Labour manifesto promised to refer “concentration of media ownership” - for which read Mr Murdoch - to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. That has been quietly dropped. Under Mo Mowlam, its media spokesman, Labour now takes a more sophisticated attitude. It recognises that technology makes it impractical to ban cross-ownership between newspapers, television and telecommunications. It still rejects Mr Murdoch's argument that technology transfers power from media proprietors to consumers. The proprietors, it points out, will continue to decide the menus from which consumers can choose—and, if Mr Murdoch's track record is anything to go by, the fare on offer will be more Happy Eater than Le Gavroche. But the Labour Party is "consulting widely" on its policy, making this a good time for Mr Murdoch to woo it with warm words.

As a pragmatic businessman, however, Mr Murdoch would have to hesitate before shifting the political posture of his papers. Were he entirely devoid of political views, each of his papers might well take the position it now does. The Times is engaged in a no-holds-barred price war with Conrad Black's Daily Telegraph. It needs to be broadly Conservative to pick up "Torygraph" readers. Today, by contrast, is trying to establish a smallish middle-market niche against two rabid-right papers, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Hence its pinkish politics. The Sun's position is potentially moveable. Its constituency is the brasher populist end of what used to be called the working class, which was traditionally Labour. Even in 1992, only 38% of its readers voted Tory. Its rival, the Daily Mirror, is strongly Labour. If Mr Major goes on being unpopular, the Sun would be risking a great deal if it backed him too firmly.

Such calculations will be at least as important as ideology in influencing the stance of the Murdoch papers. But before Mr Major and Mr Blair waste more time trying to double-guess them, they should ask a prior question: does it make a blind bit of difference?

"Labour's Last Chance", the most thorough academic study of the 1992 general election, contains a chapter by John Curtice and Holli Semetko on the role of the newspapers. Here are its conclusions. "Neither the Sun nor any of the other pro-Conservative tabloid newspapers were responsible for John Major's unexpected victory in 1992. There is no evidence in our panel that there was any relationship between vote-switching during the election campaign and the partisanship of a voter's newspaper. And, while we have found evidence that over the longer term (between 1987 and 1992) newspapers did have a little influence over their readers, this appears to have had no effect on the size of the Conservatives' lead over Labour." Or, as Mr MacKenzie might more succinctly put it, It Wozn't the Sun Wot Won It. Mr Blair's best response to Rupert's half-proffered bear-hug would be amused indifference. For Labour needs to worry, as the Curtice-Semetko chapter concludes, "not so much about what the papers say as about whether it has something to say that the electorate wishes to hear."

The Economist, August 13th, 1994

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