You don't have Murdoch to kick around any more...

Murdoch gets huffy.

Rupert Murdoch insists that the decision to split publishing away from the rest of the News Corp empire has nothing to do with the hacking scandal.
But nonetheless, it is difficult not to be reminded of Richard Nixon’s last press conference when looking at the announcement. The disgraced US president memorably told the press: “you don’t have Nixon to kick around any more”.
And similarly, after a year in which Murdoch has faced a savage backlash from the politicians who spent so long courting him, he appears to be withdrawing from interest in the UK altogether.
Asked by US-based broadcaster Fox News whether he was pulling back from the UK he said: “No, but I would be a lot more reluctant to invest in new things in Britain today than I would be here.”
I’ve always defended Murdoch because of the huge amount he has invested in British journalism. There was something comforting about the fact that hundreds of millions made on films like Avatar were helping prop up the brilliant but massively loss-making journalism of The Times. Not any more.
Announcing the break-up of News Corp last week, he revealed he would not tolerate print losses anywhere: “Each newspaper will be expected to pay its way”.
The published accounts suggest Times Newspapers lost £12m in the year to July 2011, £45m in the year before that and £88m in the year previous to that. But the true figure could be even higher because the figures that reach Companies House provide only a partial account.
It is tempting to conclude that Murdoch subsidised his UK press operations to an extent because of the political clout they gave him, and now that clout has gone forever, he is going to run on them on less sentimental lines.
He will be chairman of both News Corp divisions but only chief executive of the entertainment division, which makes ten times as much money as the publishing side. This means that he must be planning to reduce his hands-on involvement in The Sun, Times, Sunday Times, Wall Street Journal and Australian titles.
Interviewed by Press Gazette seven years ago, Murdoch (then 74) appeared concerned about his legacy. He spoke about his pride at the union-smashing move to Wapping in 1986 which he said was an “absolute turning point for Fleet Street and the whole of the newspaper industry…I’m very proud of it and it will be part of my legacy.”
It now looks like Murdoch’s hands-on launch of the Sunday edition of The Sun in March was his last throw of the dice in the UK newspaper market. It is a remarkable story which began with his acquisition of the 6 million-selling News of the World in 1968 and which may now conclude with the sell-off of the unrivalled newspaper empire he has built up.
Newspapers, and journalism operations full-stop, always seem to do better when they are run by someone with a long-term vision which extends far beyond the immediate bottom line. Hence the success of the likes of Murdoch and Rothermere versus the managed decline at Trinity Mirror and Express Newspapers where titles appear to be seen as short-term cash generators.
If that ethos is now to extend to the NI titles, then Murdoch’s exit from the UK journalistic stage will be a sad day for Fleet Street.

This article first appeared in Press Gazette.

Murdoch, Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder