Rupert Murdoch’s ruthlessness has helped to make him one of the most powerful men in the world, but, argues Sadie Robinson, it’s his wealthy background, and links to political elites, that explain his dominance
Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s motto is “Expand or die”—and it seems to have served him well. Murdoch is one of the most powerful men in the world. His News Corporation owns newspapers, television and radio stations spanning five continents, including the disgraced News of the World in Britain.
He’s worth £4 billion—and is rated as the 117th richest person in the world. Governments seem to be in awe of Murdoch and keep letting his power grow.
Murdoch is keen to portray himself as “anti-establishment”. He dismisses those who criticise the trash in his newspapers as elitist snobs.
In fact, Murdoch comes from the elite that he pretends to despise. And far from facing opposition from “the establishment”, Murdoch’s many friends in high places have helped him build his empire.
Murdoch has said, “My past consists of a series of interlocking wars.”
It’s true that he is renowned for sweeping aside anyone who gets in his way. But he didn’t start with nothing. Murdoch inherited a substantial media business, the Herald group, from his father, Sir Keith Murdoch.
The Australian Dictionary of National Biography described Sir Keith’s business as “the first national media chain” in Australia.
Rupert grew up in a wealthy home. He went to the Geelong Grammar school and then came to Britain to go to Oxford University. He got a summer job in the daily Birmingham Gazette—arranged by his father.
His friend Rohan Rivett wrote to Sir Keith of Rupert, “I am inclined to prophesy that he will make his first million with fantastic ease.” And so he did—when Sir Keith died and left him the business.
From the start Murdoch’s focus was acquiring more titles and cutting costs. He sacked editors he felt were too independent and brought in those he was certain agreed with him.
He imposed his views on other things too. Subeditors were ordered not to wear coloured shirts or suede shoes (to fit in with Murdoch’s bigoted view that only “homos” wore suede shoes). And he didn’t like women who wore trousers.
Murdoch quickly expanded out of Australia—into Hong Kong, New Zealand, Britain and the US. His aggressiveness infuriated his competitors.
Josef Barletta, general manager of Daily News in the US—a competing newspaper—complained, “I and my associates feel that there are some rules of good behaviour. In Murdoch’s world there are no rules.”
One Daily News writer went even further, calling one Murdoch publication “a force for evil”.
But in reality most of his competition are jealous of his success. Murdoch might be more extreme in his tactics, but he is no different in kind from other media owners.
Murdoch lost no time in building relationships with politicians.
In 1972, his papers backed Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party in the Australian general election. He donated more than $74,000 to the campaign.
When Whitlam won, Murdoch was quoted as saying that he had “singlehandedly put the present government into office”.
In 1975 the British governor-general outrageously dismissed Whitlam’s democratically elected government and replaced it with a caretaker administration under opposition leader Malcolm Fraser.
Murdoch simply got his papers to switch sides. His behaviour led journalists on The Australian to strike. They burned copies of the paper in the streets.
Seventy-five of them wrote a letter complaining that the newspaper was “a propaganda sheet” and had become “a laughing stock”. Murdoch later denounced the strikers as “rent-a-pickets” carrying “red flags”.
When Murdoch bought the New York Post in 1976, journalists again complained of political bias.
He is a right winger who has pushed right wing ideas and neoliberalism—but who he backs depends on his own business interests.
One Murdoch biographer, William Shawcross, stressed that Murdoch’s political choices are often about calculated self-interest rather than principle.
“Murdoch had always liked to be on the same side as the party in government,” Shawcross wrote. “He never wanted to be identified with a loser.”
Murdoch wanted to control the content and production of his papers. He said in 1969, “Since a paper’s success or failure depends on its editorial approach, why shouldn’t I interfere when I see a way to strengthen its approach?
“What am I supposed to do, sit idly by and watch a paper go down the drain, simply because I’m not supposed to interfere? Rubbish!”
When asked in 1981 how he chose his editors, the baron replied, “I will be very concerned that he’s not a communist.”
Murdoch is notoriously anti-union. At the New York Post, he struck a deal with the Newspaper Guild allowing him to sack workers who were “incompatible with the new management”.
The deal allowed him to get rid of 122 out of 460 Guild members.
But Murdoch is better known here for his union-busting during the 1980s.
The print unions on the national press based in London’s Fleet Street were enormously strong. They controlled who was hired and many aspects of the working day. Print bosses loathed having to negotiate every change in working practices with the workers.
By this time News International owned four Fleet Street papers—the Times, The Sunday Times, the Sun and the News of the World.
Murdoch hatched a plan to smash the print unions, secretly building a non-union printing plant in Wapping, east London. When printers voted to strike, Murdoch sacked all 6,000 of them—and activated his scab plant.
A year-long battle began. Striking printers, journalists and other trade unionists fought daily with police and scabs outside the plant. Union leaders eventually called the strike off. It was an enormous defeat.
Murdoch’s victory was helped hugely by Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union legislation. He has been grateful ever since. Murdoch described Thatcher’s name as “a synonym for liberty and strength” in a speech last year.
But Murdoch managed to keep close links with the government all through the New Labour years, and has maintained them under the coalition government.
Strong ties between Murdoch and the government still exist today. Just last month, BSkyB hosted a summer party—in the Foreign Office.
In 2008, David Cameron accepted free flights from Murdoch to hold private talks and parties on his yacht. The travel, in Murdoch’s son-in-law’s private plane, was valued at around £30,000.
Cameron was criticised for having dinner with News Corp executive Rebekah Brooks while his government was considering Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB. But the truth is, this is normal.
Politicians and media bosses attend dinners and parties together because they are from the same class.
When scandals emerge, like that engulfing The News of the World, politicians line up to condemn them. It’s hypocrisy. These are the people who prop up the Rupert Murdochs of the world.
Some feel Murdoch is all powerful. But lots of ordinary people see through the lies in his papers. And resistance to him is still continuing today.