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The Strings of Power

Rupert Murdoch and the Levenson Inquiry

by BINOY KAMPMARK

One commentator observed that he seemed like a potentate disputing an arrangement of borders and obligations.   Others noted that he was back to his calculating best, having abandoned his previously doddering manner after the closure of The News of the World.  But there was little doubt about it – Rupert Murdoch’s influence, with all its pestilential power, not only remains, but was confirmed in London as he jousted with the legal advocates of the Levenson inquiry.

Barrister Robert Jay, QC, the pondering lead counsel for the inquiry into press ethics has been praised for his diverging questioning into the machinations of the Murdoch clan.  One of his bright moments against the mogul was to have happened when Jay probed the decision of The Sun in 1997 to back Tony Blair in the elections.  Suddenly, it seemed, the shock jock rag had turned its hand away from the Tories and placed it firmly on the shoulders of New Labour.  The spin doctor love affair thereby became a marriage.

Jay had his impressive moments but to what end?  Martin Kettle strikes an optimistic note, claiming that the appearance of the Murdochs before the Levenson inquiry and the Commons media select committee in 2011 ‘mark the first time that the Murdoch dynasty has ever been compelled to account for itself to the system of democratic government that it does so much to influence’ (Guardian, Apr 25).  Kettle ignores the ingratiating political forces that allow such a lack of accountability to thrive in the first place.

Murdoch remains a grand vizier, pulling the strings and being the ventriloquist of political puppets, a figure who exerts a control over public opinion that is always hard, if not impossible, to gauge yet all too apparent.  Media analysts claim otherwise, seeing the Murdoch dynasts as dinosaurs awaiting their gradual extinction.  In the fractious, nebulous world of online media, such paper gods are not so much going to be shredded as bypassed, becoming museum pieces in high-tech environs.

Murdoch, quite rightly, disagrees.  As he made it clear in the third Boyer lecture delivered in 2008, newspapers will continue to exist.  Obsolescence will only come to ‘the editors, reporters, and proprietors who are forgetting a newspaper’s most precious asset: the bond with its readers’.

That bond has been a fetid one.  Press ethics, at least through the eyes of such media moguls, tends to be viewed through a municipal sewerage system, and Murdoch hardly let on that there was any ‘influence’ to speak of.  ‘I want to say, Mr Jay, that I, in 10 years of his power, never asked Mr. Blair for anything.  Nor indeed did I receive any favours.  If you want to check that, I think you should call him.’  Let us ignore, of course, Blair’s incorporation into the Murdoch family by becoming godfather to Rupert’s daughter Grace, or the more recent courtship of the current British Prime Minister, who visited Murdoch on his daughter Elizabeth’s yacht in 2008.

When Jay began pressing Murdoch on the ‘subtlety’ inherent in the alleged Blair-Murdoch interactions, the reply was blunt. ‘I’m afraid I don’t have much subtlety about me.’  That should have been evident in the Cameron government’s dealings with News Corp over its efforts to increase its stake in British pay operator BSkyB.  Culture minister Jeremy Hunt is the latest victim of the dynastic family’s influence, given allegations that he allowed the family a back channel to ‘influence’ the bid.  ‘This,’ he fumed, ‘is categorically not the case’ (First Post, Apr 25). Such is the nature of rage born of impotence.

Son James, ever in the shadow of his father, has adopted the same line.  The Sun was not in the business of backing different horses based on quid pro quos.  What Jay did do was to simply allow the Murdochs to reveal and expand upon their influence over their paper empire and the political forces they chose to influence.  News Corporation, at the end of the day, had only one person to answer to, and one family to pay homage to.

As Martin Dunn in The Guardian (Apr 25) noted, Murdoch has over the years managed to make the manipulation of power ‘seem as dull as chartered accountancy.’  The pregnant pause is his metier, and this was used against his inquisitors with effect.  Amidst the struggles before the committee, the patriarch remains in command, slightly blunted by the phone hacking scandal, but still uncompromising.  He has bonds to maintain, and levers to pull.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com