What Rupert Did

I wrote this piece several months ago but didn’t post it. I offer it now as Rupert Murdoch returns to the UK to attempt to rescue the Sun.

It’s been a frabjous time watching the heads roll at News International only marred by the realisation that the Metropolitan Police have been so complicit in not pursuing the criminal activity before now. There is plenty out there on the investigation into phone hacking etc. so I want to go further back to explain why Murdoch is so hated by so many.

It all begins in 1969 when the Australian press entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch bought his second title in the UK, the Sun. During the 1950s and 1960s the overall political allegiance of the British press had gradually shifted to the right. The first big casualty  amongst the daily papers was the demise of the News Chronicle in 1960. This broadsheet mid-market paper was generally recognised as a supporter of the UK Liberal Party. It was bought by the right-wing Daily Mail group.

In 1964 the Daily Herald, which for more than 50 years had been an important broadsheet with a working-class readership, was rebranded as the Sun (still as a broadsheet). The Herald had been created by trade unionists in 1911 and the Trades Union Congress finally sold its 49% stake in the paper in 1960. But in the developing consumerist society of the 1960s advertisers began to drift away. (Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks radical makes this observation in a New Statesman article). The rebranding failed (it involved an orange-yellow masthead, an unusual design feature for a UK newspaper) and in 1969 IPC, which had acquired the title as part of its takeover of the Odhams Press in 1961, sold it to Murdoch. IPC still owned the Daily Mirror.

Murdoch had bought the News of the World a year earlier and he is quoted as saying that he was amazed at how easy it was to gain entry into the UK market. He quickly turned the Sun into a tabloid and began to ape the biggest selling newspaper of the period, the Daily Mirror. The Sun took many of the familiar features of the Mirror and trivialised or sensationalised them. At this time the Daily Mirror was both a ‘popular’ and a ‘serious’ newspaper. It was known for investigative reporting and its feature pages and columnists were highly respected. Murdoch’s paper, edited by a former and seemingly disgruntled Mirror employee Larry Lamb, gradually undermined its rival forcing the Mirror to respond in order to hold onto readers tempted away by the Sun‘s sex and sensationalism. One of the first charges against Murdoch was thus role he played in trivialising the tabloid press in the UK. Gradually the Mirror faltered, losing its radical edge and succumbing to the sensationalism of the Sun.

When he bought the Sun, Murdoch is said to have promised to keep the paper as a supporter of the Labour Party and to keep as many printing jobs as possible (i.e. more than the rival bidder for the title in 1969, the equally controversial Robert Maxwell – who would later buy what became the Mirror Group). The Sun did indeed keep supporting Labour during the general elections of 1971 and 1974 but its stance was unconvincing and by 1979 it was firmly behind Margaret Thatcher. Once Thatcher was in power, the true colours of the Murdoch Sun were revealed under the editorship of Kelvin McKenzie. It gloried in the killing of Argentinian sailors in the sinking of the Belgrano with the headline GOTCHA! and it attacked Labour politicians mercilessly. In 1986 Murdoch was ready to defy the print unions and move out of Fleet Street to a new press in Wapping literally locking out those (print workers and journalists) who didn’t want to make the move. The sheer hatred of Murdoch by significant portions of the UK reading public dates from this period in the early 1980s. The boycott of all Murdoch’s papers and also of Sky began at this point.

On the other hand, Murdoch’s supporters would argue that he broke the print unions and enabled the modernisation of newspaper production in the UK. But those changes would have come anyway: Murdoch’s brutalist tactics were designed to make his popular papers more profitable not to create better journalism. The Sun and the News of the World did indeed turn into the cash cows that fed the loss-making Times and helped to sustain Murdoch’s investment in BSkyB. Now that the News of the World has gone, scuppered by the phone-hacking charges, Murdoch is trying to save the Sun by starting a Sunday version. But as some commentators have pointed out, the shareholders of News Corporation (the media corporation that owns News International in the UK) back in the US may not be too keen to pump more money into the ailing Sun – print is seen by many as a dead media carrier. Will Rupert fall at the last hurdle? It’s too early to say and it seems like tempting fate too much. He won’t go quietly.

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