Lies, damn lies: Murdoch's assault on journalism

From Hillsborough to phone hacking, Murdoch’s papers have relentlessly opposed common truth and decency.

I met Eddie Spearritt in the Philharmonic pub, overlooking Liverpool. It was a few years after 96 Liverpool football fans had been crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, on 15 April 1989. Eddie's son, Adam, aged 14, died in his arms. The "main reason for the disaster", Lord Justice Taylor subsequently reported, was the "failure" of the police, who had herded fans into a lethal pen.

“As I lay in my hospital bed," Eddie said, “the hospital staff kept the Sun away from me. It's bad enough when you lose your 14-year-old son because you're treating him to a football match. Nothing can be worse than that. But since then I've had to defend him against all the rubbish printed by the Sun about everyone there being a hooligan and drinking. There was no hooliganism. During 31 days of Lord Justice Taylor's inquiry, no blame was attributed because of alcohol. Adam never touched it in his life."

Three days after the disaster, Kelvin MacKenzie, Rupert Murdoch's "favourite editor", sat down and designed the Sun front page, scribbling "THE TRUTH" in huge letters. Beneath it, he wrote three subsidiary headlines: "Some fans picked pockets of victims" . . . "Some fans urinated on the brave cops" . . . "Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life". All of it was false; MacKenzie was banking on anti-Liverpool prejudice.

When sales of the Sun fell by almost 40 per cent on Merseyside, Murdoch ordered his favourite editor to feign penitence. BBC Radio 4 was chosen as his platform. The "sarf London" accent that was integral to MacKenzie's fake persona as an "ordinary punter" was now a contrite, middle-class voice that fitted Radio 4. "I made a rather serious error," said MacKenzie, who has since been back on Radio 4 in a very different mood,aggressively claiming that the Sun's treatment of Hillsborough was merely a "vehicle for others".

When we met, Eddie Spearritt mentioned MacKenzie and Murdoch with a dignified anger. So did Joan Traynor, who lost two sons, Christopher and Kevin, whose funeral was invaded by MacKenzie's photographers even though Joan had asked for her family's privacy to be respected. The picture of her sons' coffins on the front page of a paper that had lied about the circumstances of their death so deeply upset her that for years she could barely speak about it.

Such relentless inhumanity forms the iceberg beneath the Guardian's current exposé of Murdoch's alleged payment of £1m hush money to those whose phones his News of the World reporters have criminally invaded. "A cultural Chernobyl," is how the German investigative journalist Reiner Luyken, based in London, described Murdoch's effect on British life. Of course, there is a colourful Fleet Street history of lies, damn lies, but no proprietor ever attained the infectious power of Murdoch's putrescence. To public truth and decency and freedom, he is as the dunghill is to the blowfly. The rich and famous can usually defend themselves with expensive libel actions; but most of Murdoch's victims are people like the Hillsborough parents, who suffer without recourse.

The Murdoch "ethos" was demonstrated right from the beginning of his career, as Richard Neville has documented. In 1964, his Sydney tabloid, the Daily Mirror, published the diary of a 14-year-old schoolgirl under the headline, "WE HAVE SCHOOLGIRL'S ORGY DIARY". A 13-year-old boy, who was identified, was expelled from the same school. Soon afterwards, he hanged himself from his mother's clothesline. The "sex diary" was subsequently found to be fake. Soon after Murdoch bought the News of the World in 1971, a strikingly similar episode involving an adolescent diary led to the suicide of a 15-year-old girl. And Murdoch himself said, of the industrial killing of innocent men, women and children in Iraq: "There is going to be collateral damage. And if you really want to be brutal about it, better we get it done now . . ."

His most successful war has been on journalism itself. A leading Murdoch retainer, Andrew Neil, the Kelvin MacKenzie of the Sunday Times, conducted one of his master's most notorious smear campaigns against ITV (like the BBC, a "monopoly" standing in Murdoch's way). In 1988, the ITV company Thames Television made Death on the Rock, an investigative documentary that lifted a veil on the British secret state under Margaret Thatcher, describing how an SAS team had murdered four unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar with their hands in the air.

The message was clear: Thatcher was willing to use death squads. The Sunday Times and the Sun, side by side in Murdoch's razor-wired Wapping fortress, echoed Thatcher's scurrilous attacks on Thames Television and subjected the principal witness to the murders, Carmen Proetta, to a torrent of lies and personal abuse. She later won £300,000 in libel damages, and a public inquiry vindicated the programme's accuracy and integrity. This did not prevent Thames, an innovative broadcaster, from losing its licence.

Murdoch's most obsequious supplicants are politicians, especially New Labour. Having ensured that Murdoch pays minimal tax, and having attended the farewell party of one editor of the Sun, Gordon Brown was recently in full fawn at the wedding of another editor of the same paper. Don Corleone expects nothing less.

The hypocrisy, however, is almost magical. In 1995, Murdoch flew Tony and Cherie Blair first-class to Hayman Island, Australia, where the aspiring war criminal spoke about "the need for a new moral purpose in politics", which included the lifting of government regulations on the media. Murdoch shook his hand warmly. The next day the Sun commented: "Mr Blair has vision, he has purpose and he speaks our language on morality and family life."

The two are devout Christians, after all.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.