Main content


Adam Curtis

Tagged with:

Rupert Murdoch doesn't like the BBC

And sometimes the BBC doesn't seem to like Rupert Murdoch either.

Following the principle that you should know your enemy, the BBC has assiduously recorded the relentless rise of Rupert Murdoch and his assault on the old "decadent" elites of Britain.

And I thought it would be interesting to put up some of the high points.

It is also a good way to examine how far his populist rhetoric is genuine, and how far its is a smokescreen to disguise the interests of another elite.

As a balanced member of the BBC - I leave it to you to decide.

Murdoch first appears in the BBC archive in a short fragment without commentary shot in 1968. It shows him ambling into the City of London on his way to see Sir Humphrey Mynors who was head of the City Takeover Panel

Murdoch was going to ask Sir Humphrey for permission to take over the News of the World. Then he is interviewed afterwards.

The News of the World was a salacious rag, but it was run by Sir William Carr who was a member of an old establishment family. He had already received a hostile bid from the publisher Robert Maxwell. Carr hated Maxwell because he was not British (he was Czech).

Then Murdoch arrived. He wasn't British either, but he told Sir William he would buy the paper but they would run it jointly together.

Maxwell warned Sir William not to trust Murdoch. He told him - "You will be out before your feet touch the ground".

Sir William replied - "Bob, Rupert is a gentleman"

But Lady Carr began to worry. She took Rupert Murdoch out to lunch in Mayfair. She reported that he had little small talk, no sense of humour and that he had lit up a cigar before the first course.

The BBC got interested in Murdoch - and they put out a profile of him. It was shot with him at work and at home in Australia. It has a great interview with Murdoch's secretary about what a sensitive man he is - and how upset he gets when he has to fire someone.

The News of the World battle ended at a showdown at the shareholders meeting in January 1969. The BBC had a camera inside. Here are some of the shots - again without any commentary.

The shareholders were being asked to accept Murdoch's offer.

It has great bits with Robert Maxwell huffing and puffing about how Murdoch hasn't played by the rules. Murdoch's response - "Yesterday Mr Maxwell called me a moth-eaten kangaroo. I'd like to point out that I haven't yet got to that stage"

Robert Maxwell would go on to become one of the greatest criminals in British business history. And then he would fall off a boat in the Atlantic and drown in 1991

But Robert Maxwell was right in his warning. Within three months Murdoch forced Sir William Carr out - and took over complete control.

Carr died in 1977. Murdoch offered to pay for a memorial service. But a proud Lady Carr refused.

The British establishment decided Murdoch was not a gentleman. And then he did something much worse. He announced he was going to publish the memoirs of Christine Keeler in the News of the World. Keeler was a "model" whose liaison with a government minister John Profumo in 1963 had ruined Harold MacMillan's government.

But since then Profumo had redeemed himself in the eyes of the establishment by going off to work for a charity in the east end of London. So when the News of the World published the sordid details of the affair, the whole of London society was scandalised. Murdoch was unearthing a scandal that should have been dead and buried, and destroying one of their own.

And, they said, he was doing it with the sole interest of lining his own pocket. Murdoch was seen as sleazy and destructive.

And this is where his monstrous image began. The man who had first taught Murdoch journalism on the Daily Express in the 1950s summed it up:

"The trouble is - Rupert was regarded as the Supreme Satan"

And he had also just bought the Sun.

So the BBC decided to make a longer, more probing profile. And to do it they sent a key member of the broadcasting elite - David Dimbleby.

The film is surprisingly fair - given the outrage. Dimbleby puts the accusations to Murdoch, but he also flirts with him, and with Murdoch's wife Anna. It is fascinating to watch Murdoch's face as Dimbleby does this. You can see him beginning to realise just how the British establishment really operates.

The Canadian in spectacles who appears first is Lord Thomson of Fleet - head of a global newspaper empire. He owned the Times in Britain.

The man chairing the editorial conference with Murdoch is the News of the World editor Stafford Somerfield. He was a legendary Fleet Street figure. A few months later Murdoch would sack him.

Somerfield then went off and edited a magazine about pedigree dogs - and became a judge at Crufts.

This rejection by the British establishment was one of the main reasons why Murdoch decided to leave Britain in 1973. He took his family and went to live in New York while still running the News of the World and the Sun in Britain. He talked about his reasons in an interview he gave to a left-wing journalist called Alexander Cockburn in 1976 in the Village Voice.

Although, as the consummate newsman, Murdoch turns it round and portrays it as him rejecting them. And you can see his guiding myth beginning to take shape here - the revolutionary outsider against the decadent British system.

Then in 1981 Rupert Murdoch returned to Britain and took his revenge. He bought the Times.

It was an act that united both the liberal elites and many old Tories in shock and outrage. This got worse when Mrs Thatcher's government allowed the takeover to proceed without it being referred to the Monopolies Commission. Under law this should have happened, but the government excused it with the flimsy excuse that neither the Times nor the Sunday Times actually made money.

There was a growing sense that Murdoch was now manipulating British politicians for his own personal gain. So the BBC decided to investigate Murdoch's business and personal background.

A Panorama was made called "Who's Afraid of Rupert Murdoch?" It was in two parts. First is a film which tells the story of Murdoch's rise to power in Australia, Britain and America. And then he is interviewed live in the studio by yet again - David Dimbleby.

The film is tough. And Murdoch is made to sit and watch it in the studio as he waits for the interview. It lays out and reports all the accusations that would become the foundation for future criticism of the way Murdoch both built and ran his media empire.

-That he takes over intelligent newspapers and turns them into trash. As the ex-editor of the New York Post says - "he took it towards a readership we believed didn't exist"

-That his critics say he turns the news reporting in his newspapers into a propaganda wing of his chosen editorial line, and then uses that to destroy politicians he doesn't like and help elect those he does.

- It describes the scandal in America when Murdoch got a massive favourable loan from the US government just after he had endorsed Jimmy Carter in the New York primary. Murdoch denies there was any connection.

- And it reports the outrage in New York over the sensational way his newspapers reported the serial Killer Son of Sam. Headlines personally overseen by Murdoch that seemed, it was alleged by other journalists, to turn a brutal killer into a celebrity.

- And it gave the American liberals a chance to reveal that they too now hated Rupert Murdoch as much as the British elites. "He is a force for evil" says the head of the Columbia Journalism review rather smugly.

And then Murdoch is given a chance to respond. Here are the parts of the interview where Murdoch takes on those allegations and responds with what was now his central argument.

That he is engaged in a war on elitism - both on journalism in America and the "typical piece of slanting and elitism" that he has just had to watch. Made by the BBC.

It now became his mantra. Anything that was "elitist" could be a legitimate target.

In 1986 Murdoch moved all his operations out of Fleet street to Wapping. The print unions went on strike - only to discover they had fallen into his trap. Murdoch promptly sacked them. The unions, he said, were another part of the decadent elites that were preventing Murdoch performing his proper role - making sure the market system served the people properly.

There was massive TV coverage of the outrage. But the BBC made an interesting programme that looked beyond Murdoch's rhetoric and linked the move to Wapping to what Murdoch was doing in America.

Murdoch had bought Twentieth Century Fox and then, in the months before Wapping, a chain of TV stations called Metromedia (they would become Fox TV). He was massively in debt, and the only way for his empire to survive, it was alleged, was to get more money out of his original purchases - the News of the World and the Sun.

The BBC programme was made by Robert Harris. He went and interviewed one of the American bankers involved in the deal - from Drexel Burnham Lambert - who says that the move to Wapping immediately increased the value of the British papers by over 300%.

Or as one of the union men says in the programme - "British workers are being forced to lose their jobs to fund his investments in America"

In 1989 - on the 20th anniversary of buying the Sun - Murdoch helped write an editorial that trumpeted his vision of himself as a revolutionary:

'The Establishment does not like the Sun. Never has

There is a growing band of people in positions of influence and privilege who want OUR newspaper to suit THEIR private convenience. They wish to conceal from readers' eyes anything that they find annoying or embarrassing.



But the liberal elite were already fighting a counterattack. It had begun with the chat-show host Russell Harty the year before as he lay dying in a hospital bed from hepatitis.

Harty was a homosexual who had been hounded by the News of the World. With his illness this had turned into a media frenzy - with reporters from all the tabloids pursueing him in hospital, posing as junior doctors demanding see Harty's medical notes, and photographers renting a flat opposite his hotel room.

At Harty's funeral in 1988 the playwright Alan Bennett publicly accused the tabloid press of accelerating his friend's death. "The gutter press finished him"

The Sun chose to reply:

'Stress did not kill Russell Harty. The truth is that he died from a sexually transmitted disease.

The press didn't give it to him. He caught it from his own choice. And by paying young rent boys he broke the law.

Some - like ageing bachelor Mr Bennett - can see no harm in that. He has no family.

But what if it had been YOUR son Harty had bedded?'

The BBC decided to quiz Rupert Murdoch. And they chose not David Dimbleby but their main attack dog.

Terry Wogan.

Murdoch was agreeing to interviews at the time because he was promoting his new Sky TV.

It is a very odd episode. Wogan starts off in an embarrassed way - asking Murdoch "is it difficult for you to keep a grasp of reality?". Then he attacks him in a chat show way about his behaviour towards "other chat show hosts" and he manages to get the audience to boo Murdoch.

The only other guest on the programme was someone from the very heart of the British establishment. The Duke of Westminster. Wogan interviews him in a creepy way about the Duke's good works for charity.

A balanced programme.

Here are some parts of the Murdoch interview.

And then came the Sun's distorted reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy which disgusted even some of Murdoch's most fervent supporters .

All this was a disaster for Murdoch the revolutionary. When the 1992 general election began Labour announced that if they won they would introduce new cross-media ownership rules - and force Mr Murdoch to break up his empire.

This would mean he would either have to give up his new dream - the satellite TV station Sky - or he would have to sell his newspapers.

One of Murdoch's biographers says that no other company in Britain stood to lose so much from a Labour victory in 1992 as News Corporation.

And the Sun launched a massive campaign against Labour. Ending on the day before polling with a famous cover. While inside on page three there was an overweight old woman in a swimsuit with the caption - "Here's what Page Three will look like under Labour"

When Murdoch heard the news that John Major had been re-elected he was on the lot at Twentieth Century Fox. He said two words:

"We won"

The key to Murdoch is how you interpret the word WE. Did he mean "We the people" - and that he truly is a populist revolutionary?

Or did he mean by "we" the new financial elite that had risen up in the 1980s that was using debt and junk bonds to break into the old corporations and businesses?

One man who thought he had the answer was one of Murdoch's closest allies who a few years later would come to believe he had been ruthlessly betrayed by Murdoch.

He was the journalist Woodrow Wyatt. Wyatt had been very close to Mrs Thatcher throughout the 1980s and he had become what he proudly called "Rupert's Fixer". But secretly Wyatt was writing a diary every day recording not just his life within the establishment but also his day to day dealings with Rupert Murdoch.

The diaries are wonderful. And in them Murdoch is a dark, silent figure - always listening on the other end of a phone somewhere in America or Australia as Wyatt tells him the inner secrets of the powerful people who run Britain.

But then - in 1995 - Murdoch begins to change. He decides he likes Tony Blair and tells Wyatt he may support him at the coming election. Wyatt can't believe it. He had thought that Murdoch would always support the Conservatives.

And then Murdoch does something worse. He tells the editor of the News of the World to cut back on the column that he had allowed Wyatt to write every week.

Wyatt is in despair. There is a wonderful moment in the diaries when Wyatt sleeps all night on the floor of his study next to the phone waiting for Murdoch to ring.

He never does.

And then - towards the end - Wyatt pours out the truth (as he sees it) about Murdoch. It is in a diatribe to one of Murdoch's American advisers, the economist Irwin Stelzer.

Wyatt cannot believe the treachery. He was the man who fixed it so Mrs Thatcher wouldn't refer the Times purchase to the Monopolies Commission. And now Murdoch is betraying him and turning to Blair.

Like a flash of lightning on a dark night Wyatt believes he sees Murdoch's true relationship to power.

And then in 1997 when Murdoch comes out for Blair, Wyatt has only one line.

Tagged with:

More Posts