Some years ago, at a management retreat held by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, the senior managers and their distinguished guests returned from lunch to find freshly minted copies of the Times — the original London Times, that is — lying on their chairs. This was slightly odd because the afternoon speaker was Kelvin Mackenzie, then the imaginative editor of its much less respectable neighbor, the noisy, populist tabloid Sun.
Still, Mr. Mackenzie bounded up to the lectern and genially invited his audience to look through his rival’s stories. What did they think of them? Solid responsible reporting? Or dull conventional stuff? Which was it?
The audience, doubtless suspecting a trap, indicated cautious approval.
Whereupon Mackenzie expressed unfeigned delight since, as he told them, the paper they were reading was composed word for word from stories originally written and published in the Sun and then re-printed for the occasion in a Times broadsheet format.
Managers from the Times present were not best pleased, but everyone else was amused and, more important, thoughtful. Mackenzie had taught them several valuable lessons, including “don’t judge a book by its cover” and “give a dog a bad name (and you can get away with hanging it”.)
Denunciations of tabloids in general and of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids in particular have been crowding both the front pages and the airwaves since the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World broke in earnest over the summer. The attack has gradually widened to include the entire News Corporation stable of news providers — the Times, the Sun, Fox News, Sky News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, more than 150 Australian newspapers, etc., etc., etc. And until this weekend the attacks had gone largely un-resisted, or answered with high-minded assertions of corporate and editorial responsibility — which is much the same thing.
An apologetic attitude was probably inevitable because the phone-hacking scandal is a real and serious one. NewsCorp (News International in the UK) had to make clear it regretted that the NOTW had both hacked into the mobile phones of celebrities and had paid police for information. Closing down the NOTW — where these practices were most egregious — established that regret. So did setting up a Management and Standards committee to sift through internal memos and pass along anything damaging to the legal authorities. Arguably, however, these steps went too far — costing jobs at NOTW, perhaps revealing the names of sources, cooperating with a police “fishing expedition,” and conceding widespread criminality too readily.
Above all, this stance of constant apology effectively meant that the company was unable to make certain key points in its own defense. For instance, all newspapers pay police for information; there would be no good crime reporting unless they did so. Nor is the practice necessarily illegal even in Britain if the newspaper can demonstrate that revealing the information was in the public interest. Both those points also apply, if less strongly, to telephone hacking.
Any editor worth his salt will press the paper’s lawyers to find a way through the legal thickets to allow him to publish an important story even if he has uncovered it dubiously. Sometimes both editor and lawyer will blunder.
But these things were unsayable.
For the NOTW had blundered wholesale, using such methods quite promiscuously to uncover the adulterous affairs of soccer players and other celebrity tidbits as well as genuine stories such as the “fixing” of international cricket matches. Celebrities embarrassed by these gossip stories have been collecting legal apologies and large checks, amounting to a million dollars or more, from News International in a series of continuing lawsuits. These civil penalties seem both a suitable compensation to those injured and, since proprietors dislike losing millions, an effective disincentive to future misbehavior.
But government, politicians, and police all seem to want to go further — toward criminal penalties for past offenses and tough government regulation of the media in future. Last summer all major parties agreed to establish a judicial investigation, the Leveson inquiry, to investigate tabloid excesses and to consider how to restrain them. It is now holding daily public hearings. The police have launched a massive investigation staffed by 171 officers — allegedly the largest single police investigation in British history — into both phone hacking and payments to police contacts. They are now examining an estimated 300 million e-mails provided to them by the Management and Standards Committee — a fishing expedition of trawler proportions. And there have been a series of “dawn raids” at which senior NOTW and Sun journalists (including a chief picture editor, a chief foreign correspondent, and a chief news editor) have been arrested, detained, forbidden to talk to each other, their homes searched, and their computer equipment confiscated.
At almost any other time such an official crackdown would have been seen as wildly excessive and even sinister. But in the current climate of hostility to tabloids and “the Murdoch press,” fueled by daily revelations at the Leveson inquiry, anything goes.
Last week saw the first sign of resistance to this climate. Rupert Murdoch flew into London, sent a message to Sun employees that the arrested journalists were innocent unless proven guilty, and announced that a new Sunday paper — the Sun on Sunday — would be launched to replace the NOTW. It was duly launched on Sunday with the paradoxical effect, as its columnist Toby Young pointed out here, that liberal critics complained of its respectability and lack of typical tabloid scandals. It also sold a very healthy 3 million copies. And for the first time in months, Murdoch enjoyed moderately favorable press coverage.
On February 27, the police struck back: at the Leveson hearings, Sue Akers, the London police chief in charge of the investigation, alleged that “a culture of illegal payments” to police and other public officials was endemic at the Sun. She gave details of the sums involved — some of which rivaled the civil penalties that News International has had to pay out. She implicitly promised more damaging revelations. But she also made it easier for the arrested Sun journalists to claim that her public statements have hopelessly prejudiced any trial they might face. And there matters currently stand.
This battle is not a faraway dispute of which Americans know nothing. It is an event of real importance in American politics. For it may well determine the future of Rupert Murdoch’s worldwide media empire. Were News International to be found collectively guilty of some corporate malfeasance, then the political and media elites in the U.S. would seek to hold its parent company guilty of the same offense here; to make it adopt media-industry “professional standards” — i.e., liberal opinions — under the guise of business regulation; and perhaps to compel it to sell off its main news operations.
The Left on both sides of the Atlantic desperately wants this to happen. Many left liberals will only be content if News Corporation eventually perishes under a thousand attacks from lawyers, celebrities, politicians, regulators, official enquiries, the BBC, and the remnants of the cozy liberal British establishment.
As they realize, there is a lot at stake here. Most people in Britain receive their news from an institutionally leftist BBC, most in America from its dispersed equivalent in ABC, NBC, CBS, Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. To be sure, their influence has declined relatively owing to the rise of the Internet and talk radio. But the news agenda of most professional media outlets is set by their morning stories. They disseminate the same cultural values and “attitudes.” They all drink from the same ideological streams. They are a media establishment in themselves.
The Murdoch media in both countries have broken this ideological oligopoly. Murdoch’s news media break different stories, cite different facts, quote different experts, cover the same stories from different angles, and retrieve those stories that embarrass the Left and that the establishment media has therefore spiked. Is Fox fair and balanced? Not entirely. But it is probably fairer and more balanced than its liberal rivals because it is more likely to be held to account for any errors. And the different news agenda it represents is a particular threat to the liberal Left which relies disproportionately on the establishment media for political strength and cultural dominance.
Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, however, have been slow to see the risks to them in this assault — in part because many of them dislike the tabloid press, in part because the phone-hacking scandal is a genuine one, in part because they have internalized the Left’s critique of tabloids, and in part because they are frightened of their own shadows. Thus David Cameron’s appointment of the Leveson inquiry to avoid embarrassment (he was a friend of the NOTW’s editor, Rebekah Brooks) will end in his being continually embarrassed by a string of revelations — and, conceivably, in the elimination of a crucial long-term ally of conservatism in Britain and America.
For the Murdoch media are all but indispensable for the preservation of a patriotic and traditional political culture that underpins popular electoral support for conservatism. If the Fox News Channel and the Sun were to disappear, so would a daily reinforcement of patriotism, free-market economics, and commonsense morality, all expressed in a lively, forceful, and accessible (not to say vulgar) style. How many Reagan Democrats would be left a year or two later? Or working-class Tories? Or social conservatives? Or tea-party enthusiasts? Fewer than now certainly.
The worst impact, however, would be on journalism — more so in America, interestingly, than in Britain, where there are major national conservative newspapers such as the Telegraph outside the Murdoch stable.
Whatever the outcome of the phone-hacking scandal, the impact of Rupert Murdoch on world journalism has been overwhelmingly positive. In Britain his defeat of the obstructive print unions in the 1980s gave all newspapers there another 30 years of prosperity and (almost) all journalists better prospects. As Margaret Thatcher said in a party conference speech in the late eighties: “Count the number of newspapers that didn’t exist in 1979 — and weigh the ones that did.” In America his creation of the Fox News channel served a niche market that turned out to be the majority of cable viewers.
Not all his news ventures are tabloids, of course. He founded The Australian and sustained it through 20 years of losses before it established itself finally. Today it is a world-class broadsheet newspaper — the equal of the Times, Le Monde, or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The Wall Street Journal was a great newspaper — my favorite among U.S. papers — before he bought it. But it is undeniable that Murdoch has greatly improved it, giving it a brilliant weekend section on culture, a sharper edge to its political reporting, a cleaner and more elegant look. It is plainly en route to replacing the New York Times as America’s national newspaper.
But Murdoch’s tabloids have no need to rely on his broadsheets for justification. They have their faults, but they also have real virtues, notably crisp readability and sharp witty wordplay. The New York Post is famous for its clever punning headlines and its well-informed gossip columns; it should also be famous for revolutionizing political reporting from City Hall and Albany which, before Murdoch’s arrival, was distinctly somnolent. The Sun has perhaps Westminster’s best political correspondent, feisty populist editorials, strong coverage of entertainment, and as Kelvin Mackenzie demonstrated, good all-round writing and reporting. If those arguments don’t impress, try this test: Which newspaper — the Financial Times or the Sun – consistently gave better and more prescient coverage of the euro from its foundation onwards? The answer is very embarrassing to the (all too accurately named) “Pink ’Un.”
Above all, whatever the shortcomings of the Murdoch press, its demise would mean depriving ourselves of the competition that leads to good, lively, and honest journalism. Here’s another test: just pick up any edition of a newspaper in a one-newspaper town. Is it not cautious, dull, and lacking in enterprise, seeking to avoid offense rather than to create excitement, soothing rather than informing, reinforcing the town’s local prejudices rather than challenging them, running the best stories on page five? Well, that’s what our major national news media would be like without Murdoch.
Oh, yes, and uniformly, monoculturally, suffocatingly liberal too.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.