Smooth operator

The Murdoch Archipelago Bruce Page Simon & Schuster, 580pp, £20 ISBN 0743239369

This is an important and timely book. Its thesis, remorselessly maintained, is that Rupert Murdoch's newspapers are "pseudo-newspapers", sustained by a "kitsch ideology" of bogus anti-establishment rhetoric; that Murdoch himself has built a career, like his father before him, on relationships with government that are an unedifying mixture of intimidation and toadying.

At a moment when the Blair administration (to judge from Tessa Jowell's latest pronouncements) seems to be adopting Murdoch's self-interested campaign against the BBC, democrats in Britain need to wake up to the danger of the alliance between Murdoch and Blair. Bruce Page's book is full of original perceptions on the historical relationship between journalism and politics, in Australia and America as well as in Britain. It is also a sharp warning that the guardians of our city are about to open its gates once again to a man who has shown that he cannot be trusted.

I should declare an interest: I have counted Bruce Page as a close friend for 35 years, and I learnt much from him as a colleague and co-author. Criticisms of his book can be made. It is poorly edited. The pub where Times journalists met to resist Murdoch's takeover was the White Swan, not the White Hart. It is full of digressions, on everything from Australian land law to American newspaper history. I find them interesting, but some will find them distracting. Many may feel that Page is too relentless, that his Murdoch is too one-dimensionally unpleasant, that he goes too far in arguing that the success of the Sun, for example, was almost accidental.

Page demolishes the founding myth of the Murdoch dynasty: it was not Rupert's father, Sir Keith Murdoch, who bravely told the outside world how the Australian troops at Gallipoli were being sacrificed to the conceit of British officer toffs, but one Major Guy Dawnay - just the kind of well-connected soldier that Murdoch Sr pilloried. "Keith's heroic national status," writes Page, "depended on secret, untruthful smears against an English officer class he actually toadied to when convenient."

Page unpicks the shabby machinations that allowed Rupert Murdoch to acquire the Times. He shows how the dramatic move of the Murdoch papers to Wapping in 1986 was caused by the immense sums Murdoch borrowed to buy Fox. The battle with the unions, Page judges, "had little to do with the reform of the British media system and much to do with the financial desperation of News Corp".

Page contends that Murdoch owes his over-mighty influence not to journalistic talent, nor even to business genius, but to the smooth skills of the courtier. (One can swear a lot, and still be smooth.) All his life he has sniffed out where power lay and flattered it. He has always been adroit at changing sides at just the moment when a shift of allegiance could be sold on the highest market. So he plotted (with the Queen's representative) in Australia to replace Labor's Gough Whitlam with Malcolm Fraser. So he was as thick as thieves with Margaret Thatcher and Woodrow Wyatt, whose diaries Page has mined for examples of how devious Murdoch could be. So he then abandoned John Major, once he could get what he wanted from Tony Blair. You have to laugh at the contrast between the Australian patriotism he professed there, and his indecent haste to become an American citizen so he could buy into American television.

The strongest theme of all in Page's portrayal of Murdoch is the absurdity of his twin claims to be the enemy of the establishment and the champion of freedom. Murdoch grew up in a comfortable post-colonial elite, proud of its contacts with the British governing class and even of its titles. He went to the Australian Eton, and to the real Oxford. One of his complaints about Britain when he left for richer pickings in America was that he and his wife were not admitted to what his friends quaintly called "good society", presumably that of courtiers and earls. He has promoted his children in the best traditions of Ruritanian nobility.

There is something ridiculous about a billionaire with access to No 10 and the White House portraying himself as the arch-enemy of established power. As for political and economic freedom, this champion has shown himself the uncritical defender of the worst remaining communist dictatorship on earth, in China.

This is the man whose Sunday Times campaigned to prove that HIV was not the cause of Aids, and lied about the Gibraltar documentary Death on the Rock. His Fox TV has become a byword for chauvinistic ranting, yet his publications have the chutzpah to lecture the BBC about the quality of its journalism. Now he seems to have acquired the same influence over Blair as he did over Thatcher. He calls anyone who stands in his way an elite snob while he picks our political pockets. We have been warned.

Godfrey Hodgson is a former editor of the Sunday Times's Insight section