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It’s been fascinating to watch from Australia as the News of the World scandal engulfs Britain.
Rupert Murdoch himself was, of course, originally one of ours, and those antipodean origins are often cited to explain his self-perception as an outsider in international media, a crass colonial pitting himself against the stuffy clubmen who once controlled London’s newspapers.
The flagship titles of the Murdoch Empire have traditionally expressed this brash populism, boldly declaring Jack just as good as his PC masters, if not a damn sight better. The late Paul Foot described how Murdoch’s Sun built its remarkable circulation around the image of a ‘cheeky chappy’, a fellow who liked a pint and a punt and a well-endowed woman, and wouldn’t be told there was anything wrong with any of them.
That last point was crucial. The Sun didn’t simply know what its readers wanted but also upheld their values (even, or perhaps especially, their prejudices) against censorious feminists and snooty academics and stuffy bureaucrats and out-of-touch judges and other condescending know-it-alls, displacing class resentment into a cultural antagonism directed against the Left.
Now, there’s a long history of conservative idealisation of the Tory workman, a fellow hailed as patriotic, royalist to the bone and genetically immune to political radicalism (unless, of course, he goes on strike, whereupon he’s knocked to the curb as lazy and pampered).
Murdoch’s populism distinguished itself not so much by the way it encouraged its readers to kick down (against immigrants, homosexuals, black people and so on) but by how it encouraged them to kick up. It drew upon the New Class concept developed by conservative intellectuals (Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, etc) in response to the sixties: a theory that posited the emergence of a white collar elite, identifiable by cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, liberalism and all the other notions that patriotic sons of the soil were said to despise. This New Class was supposed to have ensconced itself throughout society’s top echelons, particularly within the media and universities, a position from which it thereafter busied itself belittling and mocking the traditional pursuits of ordinary folk.
By expressing his outrage against, say, housing specially allocated to immigrants or the light sentences received by muggers, the cheeky chappy of a Murdoch tabloid cocked a snoot against the smug moralisers on his TV or in the upmarket papers, even as he aligned himself with the traditional priorities of the Conservatives.
You can see an updated and Americanised version playing out every night on Fox News, where the Aryan anchors perennially incite Joe Sixpack against the forces who would patronise him, from Hollywood liberals flapping their gums about gay marriage to pusillanimous Frenchmen who treacherously refuse to go to war.
By uncoupling the tropes of class from economics (indeed, from reaility), the schema facilitates a populist demagoguery sufficiently elastic so as to embrace almost anything. John Kerry might have actually been wounded in a conflict that George Bush assiduously dodged but Fox could still paint him as a pacifist elitist who sneered at patriots like W, largely on the basis that, though Bush didn’t fight, he looked like someone who would have.
The ‘Dirty Digger’ himself might have lacked the right accent, but even when he was first challenging the newspaper establishment, he was scarcely proletarian. Murdoch inherited his first paper, the Adelaide News, from his father, Sir Keith; he did his schooling at Geelong Grammar, a quintessential finishing college for the rich and entitled that also educated a young Prince Charles.
The journalist David Marr tells of attending a lecture in which Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s son, denounced the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for drawing attention to his shenanigans in the mobile phone business: the particular program in question was, he said, a ‘disgracful and biased attack’ by ‘our media elite’. So powerful has the peculiar vocabulary of New Class anti-elitism become that a man born into the most powerful media dynasty the world has ever seen can still present himself, without any trace of irony whatsoever, as an outsider being done down by society’s rulers.
All of this is worth mentioning because it shapes the response to the News of the World scandal by other elements of the Murdoch empire.
In Australia, the Murdoch papers have issued condemnations of the shenanigans taking place in Britain, with News Limited chairman John Hartigan has launching a review of editorial expenditure to ensure that nothing similar has happened here. Yet there’s also been more than a few suggestions that the outrage about the News of the World also represents an elitist attack upon democracy.
‘Is the News empire at risk of selling out the Murdoch spirit that has helped to democratise the press and challenge the smug group-think of the Left?’ asked Andrew Bolt, the most prominent columnist in Australia’s biggest selling tabloid, the Herald-Sun. ‘Is Fox News next?’
Bolt was citing Brendan O’Neil, the leader of the contrarian political cult that emerged from the ashes of the old Revolutionary Communist Party and its paper Living Marxism.
‘British journalism is having its cojones removed,’ O’Neil declared. ‘There will less risk-taking, muck-raking, daring.’
The Murdoch stable displayed both its cojones and its daring in 2003, when every single paper in the empire simultaneously decided that invading Iraq was a wonderful idea ? shortly after, of course, Rupert declared that oil at $20 a barrel was well worth other people fighting for. The ‘cheeky chappy’ of the British tabloids had, in other words, proved himself a ‘dodgy geezer’, long before he was busted creeping and peeping on murder victims and terrorism survivors.
‘Brash? Vulgar? Populist?’ wrote Paul Foot about the Sun back in 1988. ‘Maybe [it] is all these things. But with all three qualities goes another which puts the lot of them to flight: servility.’
That is, after all, the key element of New Class populism, an anti-elitism that will challenge any authority ? except that of those who actually wield influence. With the Murdoch press in mind, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating once memorably denounced the outrageousness of conservatives ‘cloaking their well-nourished frames in the rags of the powerless’.
Ironically, the gathering economic storm in both Europe and America means that there’s never been more need for unfettered campaigning journalism.
Consider the United States, where, after decades of the neoliberalism that Murdoch has unceasingly championed, an extraordinary ten per cent of the total personal income goes to the top 0.1 per cent of the populace, a disparity only rivalled by impoverished nations like Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. Strangely, those who belong to America’s gilded fraction are not refugees or welfare queens or pampered prisoners, nor even pretentious professors or fussy multiculturalists or the other easy tabloid targets. Rather, they are very much a traditional ruling class, made up of people who look very much like Rupert Murdoch, his sons and the rest of his corporate lieutenants.
And that, in a nutshell, is why the populism that comes from News International will always be so phoney.