Watching the hysteria and escalating media on media clusterfuck that was surrounding News International, and inparticular its founder Rupert Murdoch and his unfeasibly Pre-Raphaelitesque and now ex-Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks, over the last few weeks has been akin to watching a kind of Inquisition style Burn the Witch frenzy, with Tom Watson MP playing the role of WitchFinder and the Guardian and other dubious high-moral tone acolytes backing him up as his Papal Tribunal. That is not to decry or mediate either the seriousness or vileness of the phone hacking of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone or similar outrages perpetrated by the News of the World but rather to comment on the massive amount of cant, hypocrisy, sexism, agism and general ghastliness that were unleashed in its wake. In fact, what had begun as a wave of righteous outrage and moral indignation at journalism’s descent into a sulphurous pit of, to quote Shakespeare, ‘burning, scalding, stench, consumption’, to which can now be added ‘ and phone-hacking’, ended with few angels and many demons on display.
I worked for a Murdoch subsidiary once, News International / Hatchet, in the mid 1980’s where a magazine concept I had proposed had been taken up for development. It was in 1986 and Murdoch at that time was locked in an almost life and death struggle with the dinosaur-like luddites that made up the newspaper print unions. This was an era when newspaper print jobs were sold on, the wages and perks being so good that when a vacancy came up backhanders and money, not skill and worth, secured the position and the threatened introduction of new technology, that is computers, had made the print workers apoplectic with rage and for weeks and months Murdoch’s Wapping headquarters and the location of his newspapers and print presses, had been the focus of bitter picketing and often serious violence. The miners may have failed in their clash with Margaret Thatcher’s ideologically driven policies but the battle to stop Murdoch and his technologically driven capitalism would not fail or so the bastions of the old left had decried.
I mention this as my brief six months or so working in this small outpost of Murdoch’s then embryonic empire gave me some insight in the Murdoch way of doing things and how focussed he was. I had been taken out to lunch during this time with the specific purpose of being briefed and prepared for meeting Rupert Murdoch on the following Monday where, I was told, he would either like me and my magazine concept, in which case I was in, or… well there was no other option, if he didn’t like it I was out. I was told that he wasn’t a man to waste his time on frippery and sycophancy and that he would just be in London to sort out business issues and would be out again on the next plane. So no partying for him.
That weekend there was yet another very violent demonstration at Wapping, one of the worst, and Murdoch was said to be furious and was considering closing The Sun and pulling out of the UK for good. My meeting was cancelled and with no end in site to the dispute I was advised to take my concept title to another newspaper mogul, also expanding into magazines, his name, Robert Maxwell… And that’s a whole other story!
What I did glean from this was just how close to the line Murdoch would go to win a battle and equally just how hated a man who chose to take on entrenched values and old orthodoxies could become. For Murdoch, the Wapping battle was about winning and about money, politics were secondary. For monetarists and free-marketeers Murdoch’s almost pugnacious resistance to the unions was the stuff of which heroes are made and for a while Murdoch was not just the darling of the capitalist Right, but a champion, whether he liked it or not, of the Thatcherite revolution. To the Left Murdoch was an anathema and a figure to be hated and destroyed.
It has taken a generation, but now 25 years later that old Left is taking its revenge and like any sense of wrong that has had too long to gestate it has become bitter and much of the indignation of the last few weeks has had little to do with the very real wrongs of phone-hacking and everything to do with settling old scores. A lot of those old scores came about because Murdoch eventually won his battle and introduced computers into the running of his papers, with the rest of the UK’s newspaper industry following suit and introducing them as well. But in winning Murdoch defined himself as an enemy of the Left and a champion of pure, unmitigated captitalism, a capitalism that was defined by Murdoch’s own prejudice’s and which paradoxically are as anti-establishment and anti-Royalty as those of any Marxist driven revolutionary.
Now two decades later Murdoch presides over a multi-state, multimedia empire with revenues and worth stretching into the billions and is courted by celebrities, politicians, the business world and by the vast multitudes that have, like fungi, sprouted and grown in the dark tributaries that feed his media organs. I have no doubt that many of the accusations of phone-hacking, deceitfulness and trickery that have been banded around over the last few weeks are true, though equally true, I am sure, are some of the denials from the Murdoch clan of culpability in them. Indeed it was exciting for a while to picture the ‘flame-haired’ Rebekah Brooks as some sort of Borg Queen whose News of the World minions fed her brian a constant diet of malicious gossip and tittle-tattle while her aged protector stroked her hair and whispered, over and over again, my precious, my precious…
But this is a fairy tale that has yet to reach its end, and the witch may yet become an angel and the covetous old King may end his days in peace and comfort. Yet equally the witch may be found to have used dark magic in pursuit of her dreams and be burned at the stake, the aged one and his brood may be cast out of the empire and usurped by stern-faced Inquisition types intent on upholding moral values. As a saga it is now worthy of becoming a top TV series and it is perhaps appropriate that in the midst of the scandal about News of the World, phone hackers, corrupt policemen, red-haired temptresses and the Murdoch family, that it was announced that Dallas was returning for a new series. JR is now an octogenarian patriarch trying to keep control over the Texan equivalent of the Borgias. Art imitating life or life imitating art? Who knows, but as I started with a quote from Shakespeare I’ll end with one as he usually knows best: ‘Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all’.
© Nigel Wingrove 2011