News Corp without the Murdochs?

"We will see the separation of the Murdochs from this company," says Michael Wolff at the LSE.

To the LSE last night to hear Murdoch Kremlinologist Michael Wolff discuss what the future holds for News Corp. The answer, according to him, is a world without the Murdochs.

"I think this is the endgame for the Murdoch family's relationship with News Corp," he said. "In the next 90 days we'll see that play out." The chance of the "discredited" James Murdoch succeeding his father as chief executive was "nil", he added.

Wolff, who interviewed Rupert Murdoch at length for his 2007 biography The Man Who Owns The News, predicted that in the near future we would see the "separation of the newspapers from this company". If News International wants to salvage some respectability, he suggested, it should sell the Sun and use the proceeds to set up a not-for-profit trust (akin to the Guardian-owning Scott Trust) to safeguard the future of the Times and the Sunday Times. However, he added, he was reluctant to publicise this proposal. When he wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007 that Murdoch was set to endorse Barack Obama, the News Corp head was so angry that he switched sides to John McCain.

Elsewhere, he dismissed the claim that Murdoch didn't know what was going on at his newspapers as "totally bogus". "Everybody in the company is doing what they think Rupert wants them to do. It all flows down from not just trying to please Rupert but from the way that Rupert wants things done - especially the newspapers."

But for all his criticisms of Murdoch, Wolff retains no little affection for the media mogul. "I like him. Very much," he said. "He is incredibly human, he is a man without pretence. He is a man who's done what he wants to do. There is a warmth. You kind of have to dig around for it a bit. And if you turn around he's going to stab you in the back of course."

He contrasted Murdoch with Conrad Black, who craved approval from the British establishment and was made a life peer. Murdoch, he said, "doesn't need affirmation."

Wolff agreed with the chair Charlie Beckett that Murdoch had had, in some ways, a "positive" effect on the media world, not a popular argument to make in the current circumstances but an accurate one. Murdoch's epic victory over the print unions saved Fleet Street in the 1980s and enabled, among other things, the creation of the Independent. His decision to pour money into Sky was widely derided at the time (News Corp was almost bankrupted) but the company now has 10.3 million subscribers and has changed British broadcasting for the better. Nor, as Peter Wilby has argued in the New Statesman, would a newspaper industry without Murdoch necessarily be cause for celebration.

He wrote:

For all his faults, Murdoch is, to most journalists, a less obnoxious proprietor than the Express owner, Richard Desmond, or even than Trinity Mirror, owner of the Daily Mirror, which cares for little except the profit margin. Murdoch, it has been said, is the last of the great newspaper barons, one who, despite his contentious views of its purposes, genuinely cares about journalism.

Those who long for the day when the sun sets on the Murdoch empire should be careful what they wish for.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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