A World Without Murdoch

A world without Murdoch might well be a very different place - in some ways perhaps better; in many ways much worse. His most violent opponents must realise that how we judge him is a measure of our capacity for reason: if they instantly condemn the culture of his newspapers as divisive and detrimental to public debate, they too are guilty of what they denounce.

One Saturday in May

Deansgate, Manchester. A mild Saturday lunchtime in May earlier this year. Down the street walks Phil, a self-employed TV repairman from Gorton down towards the south-east of the city centre. He only had a small job in town that morning, but has now finished for the weekend so he stops off for a sandwich and a cup of tea.

First, he pays a visit to WHSmith to pick up a newspaper. They have only a small choice of papers and magazines near the counters beside the entrance. The Guardian (which was published two minutes' walk away at Cross Street until the sixties) and the Telegraph are the heavyweights - the only two competing national broadsheets. The Times folded years ago, having been running at a huge loss for too long.

The tabloids still do well however. Having long appealed to a populist and typically working-class readership, they enjoy a decent trade. Many readers buy the regional papers too, mostly because they have the best sports coverage for the local teams.

Phil buys one of the tabloids and the Manchester Evening News, and walks off for something to eat at the Church Street market. It's the same old news on the front page of the red-top; he lets out a resigned sigh. Another married England cricket player has got some girl pregnant; another mega-millionaire rap star has been arrested after starting a fight at a club; some woman in Northumberland has been caught cheating the benefits system for tens of thousands.

These rags don't even make pretences to cover the serious issues of the day - not even big-bosomed Poppy on page 3 has a thoughtful political insight to share. Journalists, as always, generally have a bad name - tabloid reporters especially. They're said to get away with all sorts of tricks in pursuit of a scoop: dressing up as doctors to get access to people's medical records; hiding in bins to root through what has been thrown out; even phone hacking. The papers will do anything they can to make money - they have to. There was once some talk in Parliament about banning hacking and regulating investigatory powers after the papers had exposed politicians' misdemeanours, but it was never followed through.

The media has never had the commercial power to break the old divides, to both reflect and impact public opinion.

The broadsheets do talk politics, however. The big titles are divided along ideological lines like the political parties at Westminster: the left reads The Guardian; the right reads The Telegraph. A handful of media barons own all the papers. They are of course rich men, but they're not all that powerful. They have little sway over the political agenda, and they are certainly never secretly huddled into 10 Downing Street through the backdoor. Politicians after all have no need to court their favour, and the broadsheets rely on a loyal market to which they appeal - everyone is either Tory or Socialist, as they have been all the way back to 1945. The media has never had the commercial power to break the old divides, to both reflect and impact public opinion.

People still find most of their news in the papers, however. The BBC has its heavily-subsidised 24-hour news public service channel; others have tried to compete, but like the newspapers it's a money-loser. Phil has only been on the Internet for a few months since he started advertising his repair services to companies around Greater Manchester. More and more people are online, but it's still mostly businesses, students, and lonely cranks. Besides e-mail, all it offers is a random multiplicity of heavy-in-opinion light-in-substance blogs, illegal TV streaming, and hardcore porn. There is no content-aggregating site like The Huffington Post because there's not all that much content to aggregate.

Phil only bought it for the sport: the back page is covered with the build-up to the semi-final of the Heineken Cup. He looks for the football pages inside, and reads the coverage of Man United who are about to play their final title-deciding game of the season that afternoon.

Afternoon at the Match

He finishes up, leaves his van in the car park, joins his mates with whom he always goes to the football, and gets the bus to Old Trafford. He goes along most weeks, as he has since he was a child. It only costs fifteen pounds for a seat in the Stretford End, and under a couple of hundred for a season ticket. In football's hey-day, the ground could stand as many as eighty thousand people. Nowadays however, about half the seats fill up regularly - still a bigger gate than most clubs across the country.

Back in the nineties, after the cataclysm of the Hillsborough disaster, the Football League ruled that clubs in the top two leagues in the country had to improve the safety at their stadia with seating in place of the old terraces. However, with no television money and hence no sponsorship or advertising, most clubs couldn't afford it. Even the big ones collapsed. The ruling was quietly dropped, but it was too late.

Man United has always been a big name - it survived. However it remains in desperate need of investment. The sponsors pour the big bucks into rugby and the cricket: gentlemanly, globally-respected sports instead of yobbish football. The closest thing they have to a club superstore is an old bearded bloke selling MUFC badges, scarves and hats at a stand on Sir Matt Busby Way. The sugar daddies and the big businessmen hang out at Twickenham and the Oval: Roman Abramovich just bought Middlesex County Cricket Club (known as the Middlesex Panthers across the world), whilst the Glazers are about to sell St Helens RLFC. The atmosphere at Old Trafford is intimidating, often violent: like at all the other grounds, they can't afford the stewards or the security. Most wouldn't dream of taking their kids like in the old days. Nowadays - like Phil - most people only come to the football for entertainment and nostalgia.

Today though, he leaves happy. Man United win their match, and with it the First Division. As the evening draws near, he heads back into town with his mates and joins them for a drink - but only one, as he has to drive his van home. The pubs are doing well: even at a time when prices are rising and everyone is desperate to save, nobody stays at home in front of the telly. They go out and meet all their old friends; everyone puts fifty pence in the juke box and dances the night away. It's very rare to see a television screen in a cafe or a pub; indeed, when he goes to his local, he jokes that the landlord should buy one just so Phil can increase his business.

Home Again

Phil stays and has another pint for the road, of course, but leaves after that. He drives back to his home in Gorton, makes himself and his wife a cup of tea, and they relax with the kids in the living room. It's the typical trashy Saturday evening fare on the television: they watch the rest of The X Factor - quite a popular show, drawing a few hundred thousand viewers every week. There is little quality programming on British TV - apart from what the Americans export - because there are so few channels, and hence no platform for the output.

There is no satellite television. Someone did have the idea once upon a time to send a signal nearly a hundred miles up to a rented satellite in outer space, which then fires the signal back to the Earth where it would be picked up by dishes on top of everyone's houses. It was meant to revolutionise television, transform the media, bringing hundreds of different channels into people's homes. But nobody was ever barmy enough to invest money in a scheme like that.

Still, I suppose, who needs news channels broadcasting from all over the world, cultural and arts programmes broadening millions of people's horizons, or the whole gamut of modern film-making talent in your front room when you've got Simon Cowell's bleached smile blinding you every Saturday night? (Although it's rather more yellow and jagged on Phil's standard definition screen.) When the nightly news comes on, Phil and his wife put the kids to bed. He follows them soon after. Even though it will be a Sunday when he wakes up, he's got a couple of jobs on in the wealthier parts of the county. He especially has to take all the work he can find these days.

Meanwhile, in a small house in the outskirts of Melbourne down under, a frail old man is getting out of bed. When his grandchildren visit in the afternoon, he'll regale them with the same stories he always tells them about his father Sir Keith, a great Australian journalist and newspaper magnate. Despite his dad's best efforts however, he never made much of a name for himself. Instead, Rupert - now 80 - sits in quiet and peaceful retirement in the autumn of his days.

Devil incarnate

For decades, Rupert Murdoch has been portrayed by some as the devil incarnate, and his News International like a global, corporate Ministry of Truth feared by the puny politicos of all parties who would never dare take him on. The anger of the public spewed forth at long last this week - like so much shaving foam on a paper plate.

Years before anyone knew that phones could even be hacked, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie had a great sketch portraying a world without Rupert Murdoch. Guardian angel Stephen Fry shows Murdoch - Scrooge-like - around Wapping where he finds people enjoying themselves down the pub and everyone is nice to each other (even the cabbies).

There is no doubt that his newspapers wield enormous popular power; the journalistic culture his business presides over is competitive, intense and sensationalistic. But a world without Murdoch would be no heaven on earth. Love him or (rather more likely) hate him, his business has kept The Times in print, brought disgraceful corruption all over the world to justice, and given us the nearest we may be able to get to a vibrant free press.

Ever since tabloid hacks (in the old literary meaning of the word, derived from Hackney, a person - typically a writer - who hires out his cheap services) were scurrying around Grub Street penning scaremongering stories about jailbreakers and highwaymen, stirring up trouble about Jews and witches, journalists have clamoured violently for a good scoop. Ask anyone at the Daily Telegraph, which revealed scandalizing corruption amongst the political classes after buying stolen documents detailing MPs' expenses. Journalist culture is far longer in the tooth than Rupert Murdoch.

Culture War

But that's not why he has been described as the world's most hated man. Jonathan May-Bowles (better known to you and me as that moron who threw the pie) was also detained whilst trying to bring down the system by smashing things up at Fortnum & Mason back in March. To many, Murdoch is another face of today's culture war between the rich and powerful - whether the bankers, the politicians, or the press barons - and everyone else. Murdoch is the picture on the dartboard, the focal point of anger from intellectuals who see him as the enemy of a free press to the bloke down the pub who only wants to be able to watch the football on telly without losing a fat chunk out of his thin pay packet.

A world without Murdoch might well be a very different place - in some ways perhaps better; in many ways much worse.

By strengthening the economic muscle of the media in this country and across the world, Rupert Murdoch has given newspapers and broadcasters the kind of clout and competition they need in order to hold power to account and build the cultural life of people far and wide. A kneejerk populist reaction to the revelations of an array of illegal practices by journalists within Murdoch's corporation, dismantling his empire and building in its place a complex and burdensome structure of media ownership regulation, would hoover up a handful of votes at the next election. But it would be to the detriment of the country's press, the struggling newspapers and competing media outlets, and the thousands of journalists whose work - at its best - calls power to account, roots out corruption and wrongdoing, and connects man with man, reminding us of the stake we all have in one another's lives through the stories of people and places about which the best journalists write.

A world without Murdoch might well be a very different place - in some ways perhaps better; in many ways much worse. His most violent opponents must realise that how we judge him is a measure of our capacity for reason: if they instantly condemn the culture of his newspapers as divisive and detrimental to public debate, they too are guilty of what they denounce.


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