Murdoch: cheerleader of the neo-liberal right brought low

Front page of The Sun newspaper 11 April 1992

By Jane West

It is entirely good news to see the convulsions shaking the British end of Murdoch’s global media empire and to bid farewell to the unlamented News of the World. Murdoch has of course created a stable of publications and news channels that are cheerleaders for an extremely right-wing politics, both in the Britain and the US.

Its leading outlet in the US, Fox News, set new standards in the development of the ‘shock-jock’ – encouraging evermore prejudiced, illiberal and reactionary views from its audience. It was the key media channel supporting Bush and the Iraq war, it is viciously opposed to Obama and promotes the ‘Tea Party’ wing of the extreme Republican right.

In the UK, Murdoch shifted the traditionally pro-Labour Sun over to support for the Tories in 1974, symbolising its direction with the introduction of the ‘Page 3 girl’ – semi-naked women in provocative poses.

Alongside sensationalist stories about celebrities – often really libelous – The Sun became the key mouthpiece of Thatcherism in the ‘80s. Its headline when the Belgrano was sunk during the Falklands War with the loss of 320 lives – Gotcha! – was typical of its reactionary and populist style.

The Sun particularly demonised the Labour Party, and those associated with its powerful left-wing of the 1980s. In 1981 it famously described Ken Livingstone, then leader of the GLC, as ‘The most odious man in Britain’. At the 1983 General Election, when Michael Foot led the Labour Party, its banner headline asked ‘Do You Really Want This Old Fool To Run Britain?’ In 1984 it claimed psychiatrists had found that Tony Benn was ‘insane’.

Murdoch then set out to smash the print unions on his publications in 1986. Murdoch built a new printing plant in Wapping, pretending it was for a new London title. He then provoked a dispute with the print unions, sacked all 6,000 of them when they went on strike, and moved the publication of The Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World to the new Wapping plant using scab labour.

The dispute continued for a year. But the mass pickets at Wapping could not stop production, and with strong support from Thatcher, Murdoch succeeded in breaking the strike and the print unions.

However, despite this unswerving support for the right, the actual political influence of the Murdoch media has been significantly overstated. The Blair years were dominated by the claim by ‘New Labour’ that the party could not win without the support of the Murdoch press, and therefore major concessions had to be made to Murdoch’s political agenda.

This was fed by the wide credence given to the claim that ‘It’s The Sun wot won it’ following the defeat of Labour and Kinnock in the 1992 General Election.

The Sun had campaigned against Labour in that election, as it had in every election since 1974. In 1992 the fact that the widely anticipated victory for Labour did not take place on the day the country’s biggest circulation newspaper ran with the banner headline ‘If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain turn out the lights’, was taken as evidence supporting the Sun’s claim.

In fact, as a slew of leading Labour politicians have admitted in the wake of the current scandal sweeping through News International, Kinnock had already lost the election by the time the real campaign started, and Murdoch’s Sun in fact played a marginal role. That the mass media very far from controls the situation was shown, for example, in 2000 when Ken Livingstone won the Mayoralty of London against the opposition of every newspaper.

That is why it is disingenuous for Peter Mandelson to claim in the Guardian that it was ‘fear not principle’ that led New Labour to concede to the Murdoch press. On the contrary, the ‘fear’ was a threat wielded by New Labour itself to force an unwilling Labour movement to accept a radical move the right on the basis that Labour could not win without the support of the Murdoch media.

So it has been fantastic to see the Murdoch juggernaut brought low, and also good to see a Labour leader leading the charge against it.

On this issue Ed Miliband has done an excellent job of forcing the hand of the Tories. The government was trying to maintain its support for Murdoch in the face of a wave of public outrage, colluding with News International to find a means to push the BSkyB decision off the immediate agenda by creating the grounds for a referral to the Competition Commission.

It was determined leadership from Labour, plus the threat of both LibDem and Tory defections, that led to the joint call for News International to withdraw the bid entirely. Devoid of political support, the Murdoch empire had no choice, passing up a company that, according to Enders Analysis, stands to be making £8bn in revenue and profits of £1.6bn within a few years. ‘One of the most profitable and fastest growing pieces of media real estate anywhere on the planet’, according to Will Hutton.

It is a pity that the Labour leadership has not put up the same level of determined struggle against Osborne’s disastrous economic agenda. But that would require the development of some clearer alternative policies – Ed Balls has begun to sketch out the first steps in such an approach, but Labour’s policy as a whole is not adequate – and then a determined fight for them.

On News International, we will have to see whether the Murdoch press and their supporters can bring this crisis to an end, or if there are more sensational revelations to come. Enough has already been revealed about the criminal activities sanctioned by those employed by News International to make clear it is not ‘fit and proper’ to run any media organisation.

It remains to be seen whether Rebekah Brooks, and the scion of the Murdoch clan, James Murdoch, can survive in their positions. And whether Andy Coulson can avoid criminal charges, with all the further damage to Cameron that would entail.

But it is certain that those who benefit from Murdoch’s right wing agenda will be working out how to defend his position, not overturn it.