This city is now recovering from the November visit of a global tyrant, on whose rampages the sun never sets. His name is not George Bush but Rupert Murdoch.
Bush, acknowledged as their legitimately elected leader by at least some of his fellow citizens, presented so frail a political physique that it seemed faintly ludicrous to impose on him even the conventional honorific, "leader of the free world", let alone the robust dignity of "tyrant".
The president’s arrival in the United Kingdom was preceded by interviews with British newspapers in which he paid humble respect to those democratic traditions permitting Britons to assemble in vast numbers and to cover him with ridicule and abuse. He allowed himself to be scheduled for a possibly humiliating session with relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq.
The entire state visit, the first by an American President since Woodrow Wilson visited these shores in 1918, was depicted in virtually every newspaper as an vast political embarrassment to prime minister Tony Blair who issued it many months ago when he supposed that the two could preen over a successful operation in Iraq. It most certainly represented a low point in the esteem here for the United States, at least as a nation led by a man regarded by a third of all Britons as perilously ignorant, running neck and neck with North Korea’s Kim John Il as a threat to world peace.
How different has been the brief tour of his British assets by Rupert Murdoch, on hand to crush a rising by some shareholders in British Sky Broadcasting claiming that the company was being run by Murdoch as a private fiefdom in a manner injurious to their interests.
At BskyB’s annual general meeting on Friday November 14, Murdoch conducted himself in a manner that would have won the approval of Vlad the Impaler, snarling at one dissident that if he didn’t like it he should sell his shares, bickering openly with BskyB’s chief executive, his son James. Investors irked by a share price dead in the water for six years and virtually nothing offered in the way of dividends, did make their views clear. Murdoch was quoted by the Guardian’s man Jeremy Warner as complaining to his wife at the end of the session that some had been "bloody insulting" and "seriously nasty", but he carried the day, at least for now.
The global tyrant still had time that Friday to grant an interview to the BBC in which he placed Tony Blair on notice that the loyalty of Murdoch’s newspapers was not to be taken for granted.
Referring to himself respectfully in the first person plural, Murdoch was kind enough to intimate that "we will not quickly forget the courage of Tony Blair" but then made haste to emphasize that he also enjoys friendly relations with the new Tory leader Michael Howard.
On the mind of the global pirate is a topic in which one would have thought he would have had scant interest, namely national sovereignty. Murdoch professed himself exercised by the matter of the EU constitution. Slipping on the mantle of Britishness, Murdoch pronounced that "I don’t like the idea of any more abdication of our sovereignty in economic affairs or anything else."
The Guardian found this altogether too brazen and editorialized the following Monday that "Rupert Murdoch is no more British than George W. Bush. Once upon a time, it’s true, he was an Australian with Scottish antecedents. But some time ago he came to the view that his citizenship was an inconvenience and resolved to change it for an American passport. He does not live in this country and it is not clear that he is entitled to use ‘we’ in any meaningful sense of shared endeavor. To be lectured on sovereignty by someone who junked his own citizenship for commercial advantage is an irony to which Mr Murdoch is evidently blind."
Then the Guardian got a bit rougher: "Readers have to be put on notice that the view expressed in Murdoch titles have not been freely arrived at on the basis of normal journalistic considerations."
For a very extended gloss on what the Guardian editorialist was driving at we can turn to The Murdoch Archipelago, (just published by Simon and Schuster in the UK) by Bruce Page, a distinguished, Australian-born journalist who has lived and worked in England for many years, perhaps best known for his work leading the Insight team at the (pre-Murdoch) London Sunday Times.
Page’s detailed and compelling case, based on his investigation of Murdoch’s operations in Australia, Britain, the USA and the Chinese People’s Republic, amounts to this: as an international operator, Murdoch offers his target governments a privatized version of a state propaganda service, manipulated without scruple and with no regard for truth. His price takes the form of vast government favors such as tax breaks, regulatory relief, monopoly markets and so forth. The propaganda is undertaken with the utmost cynicism, whether it’s the stentorian fake populism and soft porn in the UK’s Sun and News of the World, or shameless bootlicking of the butchers of Tiananmen Square.
There was something so megalomanic about Murdoch’s interview with the BBC that one wonders hopefully whether it has all gone to his head and soon he’ll be gnawing the carpet like other moguls before him. Probably not. Murdoch is too focused a predator for the wasteful extravagances of insanity, and he’s perhaps a shade more careful than his fellow media czar, Conrad Black, now evicted from control of his empire because sufficiently powerful stockholders took a dim view of Black and colleagues easing $73.7 million out of Hallinger under the guise of non-competition fees.
The Sun won a White House interview with George Bush, probably as a consequence of desperate pleading from 10 Downing Street to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Robert Thomson, editor of The (Murdoch-owned) London Times was invited to meet Bush at the White House Sunday night, two days before Bush’s flight to London but, so the Financial Times later reported, had to send Regrets. He’d already promised to attend an party in London hosted by Murdoch, the annual gathering of his top 70 global executives. As the FT asked, ".. well, what would you do?"
Footnote: For more extensive reflections on Murdoch and my interview with Bruce Page about the world’s most powerful media mogul, see (and if necessary, subscribe to our newsletter, which features a detailed examination of Murdoch in the current issue).