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There’s only one Rupert” announced Donald Trump in June 2017. He was responding to an introduction given for him by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The two men have a relationship stretching back decades, and Murdoch and his media empire played a pivotal role in Trump’s election as US President, particularly via the television network Fox News.

Trump’s statement serves as a refrain in a new BBC documentary, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, which everyone should try to watch before it disappears off BBC iPlayer.[1] It examines the business activities and family – particularly Rupert’s children, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James – of one of the most powerful and influential figures in recent British and global history.

Murdoch and his mass media conglomerate News Corp have for decades wielded enormous political and cultural influence in the UK, the US and Australia. In recent years, aside from supporting Trump, Murdoch’s UK tabloid the Sun played a key role in Brexit while his Australian media organisations have led efforts to undermine recognition of climate change and to resist attempts to combat it, even as the country experienced horrendous bushfires. Leading politicians in both countries have also maintained close connections with Murdoch.

The documentary arrives in the wake of HBO’s critically-acclaimed drama Succession, which uses the Murdoch family as its main source of inspiration while also drawing on other controversial media dynasties such as the owners of the Viacom, the Redstones. Indeed, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty apes the style and aesthetics of Succession.

Rupert Murdoch has long been depicted as an antidemocratic despot whose media organisations subvert the democratic process, coarsen popular culture, and stray into illegality.[2] In the UK, his newspapers having bragged about swaying the outcomes of elections, their use of features such as page 3, and their involvement in scandals such as smearing the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and Phone Hacking offer plenty of supporting evidence.

During protests against News Corps’ attempt to gain overall control of the broadcaster BSkyB in 2010, a campaigner in a Murdoch mask manipulated puppets of the then Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt – the minister presiding over the decision.

Despite Hunt failing to refer the deal to the Competition Commission, the bid was ultimately withdrawn when the Phone Hacking scandal came to light. Subsequently, a raft of texts and emails exchanged between Hunt and News Corp were revealed, with one of the company’s lobbyists having told James Murdoch that Hunt “said we would get there in the end and he shared our objectives”. Hunt had publicly denied any relationship with the Murdochs, reinforcing the impression that they had far too much influence over leading politicians.

There is a long history of fears about the ability of the media to influence politicians and the public. This became particularly acute with the rise of the mass popular press at the end of nineteenth century, which reached much larger numbers of readers than ever before and which refined methods to grab the attention of the public, such as eye-catching headlines and layouts, emotive slogans, sensationalist stories, competitions, and gimmicks. While partly due to elite fears that the newly enfranchised masses could not be trusted to vote wisely, many of the critiques of the popular press were nevertheless well-grounded.

In the US, William Randolph Hearst became notorious for what his critics saw as the debasement of journalism and politics, while in the UK the same charges were levelled at the press barons, Lords Northcliffe, Rothermere, and Beaverbook. While such figures wielded less direct influence over the outcome of elections than they desired, the long-term impact of their newspapers over broader attitudes was significant. Indeed, tabloid values have seemingly taken root across the media and wider society.

The media environment has changed a lot over the last hundred or so years, and throughout Murdoch’s career. However, given the scale and international reach of Murdoch’s media concerns, it is reasonable to suggest that he has achieved a greater level of power and influence than the press barons ever managed.

Assessing the activities and impact of Murdoch is difficult because his modus operandi is secrecy”. As Rodney Tiffin notes, this is at odds with what should be the primary democratic purpose of news organisations: increasing public transparency. Murdoch operates outside of public view, exercising control via face-to-face conversations and phone calls that leave no paper trail.[3]

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty does a good job of surveying what we do know, and some of the insights from interviewees that worked within Murdoch’s media organizations are illuminating.[4]

One aspect of the documentary worth expanding upon concerns commonalities evident across Murdoch’s media organisations. As he stated in 1996, News Corp, “For better or worse, is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values”.

A series of articles published in the New York Times outlines the driving motivation of Murdoch’s activities: conquest. Following in the footsteps of his father, from the start of his career Murdoch used his newspapers to gain political leverage over and intimidate Australian politicians, lending them support in return for political favours and the relaxation of media competition laws. This pattern was repeated as he moved into the UK and then the US.

The undermining of journalistic standards and the creation of workplace cultures that have encouraged and concealed toxic behaviour – and even outright illegality – have been common features across many of Murdoch’s media possessions.[5]

Accompanying this has been a distinctive form of right-wing politics.[6] While at times Murdoch has lent the support of his newspapers to centre-left parties such as New Labour, this has always been dependent on concessions, and his media empire has consistently pushed political positions such as hostility to trade unions, jingoism, hawkish foreign policies, climate change denial, and various conservative social values.[7] Indeed, in recent decades many of Murdoch’s newspapers and television channels have played a key role in the emergence of what has been termed a “culture war”, even including highbrow newspapers such as The Times.

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty is a great overview of how the world’s most powerful media mogul has amassed and wielded power, and given recent events it is vital viewing.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley

Cover image: Protester in a Rupert Murdoch mask manipulates puppets of David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, London 2010. Courtesy of 38 Degrees, https://www.flickr.com/photos/38degrees/5887629591/ [accessed 06 August 2020].

[1] Episode 1 is due to be taken down on Saturday 15th August, so best hurry. Edit: This has now thankfully been extended, so you have plenty of time to catch it!

[2] This is a popular image that Murdoch himself is well aware of and has at times been willing to play up to. After first being depicted in the Simpsons –at the time owned by his 20th Century Fox production company – bedecked in a prison jumpsuit as an inmate as Springwood Minimum Security Prison, he later provided his voice for another appearance where he introduced himself as “the billionaire tyrant” – a line he apparently came up with himself.

[3] This has a precedent with previous media moguls; while the press barons Northcliffe and Beaverbrook donated their personal papers to archives, Rothermere ordered his own to be destroyed after he died and one of the papers he controlled, the Daily Mail, continues to deny public access to its internal archives, unlike most other surviving newspapers.

[4] Though this is variable. There are some eye-opening accounts of the illegal practices that were carried out at the Sun and the News of the World, including “darks arts” such as phone hacking, blagging and the bribing of police. Conversely, former News Corp executive Les Hinton’s contribution was largely a hagiography of Murdoch. In keeping with the expected pattern, the Murdoch family declined to contribute.

[5] This includes the covering up of sexual harassment at Fox News, and the macho bullying that occurred at the Sun, especially under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie.

[6] The packaging of this political viewpoint has been overseen by a number of key subordinates, such as the Sun editors Larry Lamb and Kelvin MacKenzie and the Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Lachlan Murdoch has recently displaced James to become the de facto heir to the Murdoch empire, and his political views seem even more right-wing  than his father’s.

[7] For how this played out at the Sun, see: P. Chippindale, C. Horrie, Stick It Up Your Punter!: The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper (London, 1999).

Aaron Ackerley

The author Aaron Ackerley

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