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I agree with Hugh Grant on hacking, but I’m still a fan of Rupert Murdoch

Will the younger Murdoch prove he’s inherited Rupert’s sharp instinct for running newspapers and und

I admire Rupert Murdoch. That may not be a sentence you read in the New Statesman very often. I admire him for good reasons, too - I have worked for him and have seen from the inside how a Murdoch newspaper operates. I also happen to know and like Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. And sometimes I read the Sun, too.

There. That wasn't too bad, was it? Now let me explain why. I worked for Murdoch for a decade at the Times. I was comment editor for some of that time, a columnist for all of it. And not once, not ever in ten years, did anyone pressurise me not to write something for political reasons. There was no censorship, no leaning on columnists. Compared to the effective censorship and the personal denigration of dissenting voices that routinely occur on the left, the Murdoch newspaper was a temple of liberalism. Columnists disagreed with one another. They argued, in person and in print. And they remained friends. They - we - were never not free to air our views.How very different from what we journalists hear goes on at the Guardian, for instance, with the vilification of columnists who deviate from the mainstream left.

Grubby instincts

As an executive on a "Murdoch paper", I was barely aware of the terrible Rupert's existence. He never sought to influence a single article I ran on those pages. Occasionally one would hear that he was tickled by something; but never that he was angered. I once heard that he was particularly pleased with an article by John le Carré. The column argued against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its headline ran, "The United States of America has gone mad".

Described by one protesting Times reader as "an anti-capitalist, anti-American left-wing polemic", it began: "America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam war."

Le Carré's opinion went against the Times's editorial line, against American and British foreign policy at the time, and it outraged the Israelis. Murdoch can hardly have agreed with a word of it.

But it caused trouble, and that is what he enjoys. It's not a bad instinct in a newspaper owner. Nor do I go along with the view that Murdoch has somehow defiled our public space and debased political debate. That's like arguing that if you didn't have page-three girls in the Sun, men wouldn't think about women's breasts. You have only to look at online forums today to see that the tabloid pursuit of gossip, scandal and cheap titillation reflects rather than drives people's naturally grubby or lowbrow instincts. I don't believe he "loses" Labour elections either - I think Labour loses elections all by itself. The result in 2010 showed that even when all the Murdoch papers lined up with the Conservatives, they couldn't swing it for them.

Fox News? It's an American thing. It would never work in this country (it doesn't work in this country: Glenn Beck's show couldn't attract advertisers in Britain). Aggressive debate of the sort you do not hear here is part of public discourse in the US. And there are outlets in the American media for centrist views as well. (The US doesn't have many left-wingers - which the British left thinks is Murdoch's fault, too.)

Better out than in, I think; and look what has happened to the crazy right in the US - Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party - as a result. It has shouted itself to death. Died in a diatribe.

So, yes, I'm a fan. Murdoch dislikes the English class system and is impatient with monarchy and its associated flummery. I think he's a feminist, too - by breaking open the male-dominated print unions, Murdoch made space on newspapers for women that did not exist before. That those women are now condemned to spend careers writing drivel about high heels or nappies is the fault of uninspired editors, not Murdoch. And he is overseeing an expensive experiment with paywalls from which all other newspapers, which didn't dare try it for themselves, will profit. What's not to applaud?

Bug the buggers

Murdoch now finds himself - through his London papers - in a battle for public opinion and probably for some of his executives as well. I'm not going to defend the behaviour of journalists who spent their time eavesdropping on other people's phone calls - the prying priggery of it, the cheap, vicarious titillation. How shameful of them that they couldn't think of a better way to spend their lives.

The sort of personal embarrassment in which these people specialised is the reason why this scandal isn't going to die just yet. Precisely because it is personal. Famous people who have been bugged and followed for years are determined to turn the tables - the "bugger bugged", as Hugh Grant put it in his piece for last week's New Statesman. They want those journalists in court, publicly humiliated, like they humiliated them. And that includes Andy Coulson and probably Rebekah Brooks, too.

I wonder how long, once Murdoch Sr is out of the picture, Murdoch Jr will put up with these troublesome priests - his expensive, difficult,embarrassing, old-fashioned London papers. Now the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation Europe and Asia, James Murdoch failed to wrestle this story under control earlier. It is a sign, I think, of a lack of interest in the papers. Murdoch Jr is not a newspaperman like his father. My impression at the Times was that he was more of a businessman first.

It's a messy and costly business, running papers. But Rupert Murdoch will probably have to be in his grave, and his newspapers as well, before his critics realise that they should have thanked him for it.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide