ARNOLD SLATER/DAILY MAIL/REX. MONTAGE BY DAN MURRELL
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The case against the Murdoch empire

Why the billionaire’s bid for Sky should be opposed.

Water under the bridge? That was my gut reaction when – to no one’s great surprise – Rupert Murdoch announced last December that, once more, he wanted 100 per cent control of the broadcaster Sky. Murdoch’s media empire is, I thought to myself, less toxic than it was when it came within a whisker of securing the 61 per cent of the group that it did not already own in the summer of 2011. Then, parliament – in a wave of revulsion over the revelations about the extent of the criminal behaviour of journalists at News International, News Corporation’s British subsidiary – united to urge the parent company to withdraw its bid for what was then British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB).

Murdoch has since done some things that, on the face of it, make a bid less objectionable than it was half a decade ago. He has, at least to a degree, split his company’s publishing arm from the more profitable entertainment division – although, in the end, all roads lead to Murdoch.

His organisation may have been slow to realise the enormity of the crisis at the heart of its British operations, but to its credit, it spent several hundred millions of pounds on the clean-up operation over phone-hacking and associated legal actions (we can argue elsewhere about the methods it chose). Legacy print circulations are generally on the slide, dwarfed by the new digital giants, possibly softening some of the arguments about plurality.

And then there is Murdoch’s achievement in building Sky, while also putting together the biggest newspaper group in the UK. Sky is, indeed, an extraordinary company and only the most churlish would deny
the role of both Murdoch and his son James in creating it.

Maybe, I thought, it’s time to forget the past and insist instead on a number of cast-iron safeguards. No one in their right minds would want Fox News, or any­thing like it, in the UK. So perhaps a deal could be contingent on Sky being forced in perpetuity to operate by the same standards of impartiality and fairness that are required of other broadcasters, both online and offline. It would be important to ensure a minimal overlap of executive control between Sky and other parts of the Murdoch empire. And Sky should have an independent board. There should be editorial guarantees . . .

But then I looked at my mental list of safeguards and saw that I was doing what policy­makers, regulators and politicians have done for nearly half a century in their dealings with Murdoch: assume that there are “normal rules” or binding agreements that could guarantee his future behaviour. Many such assumptions have proved meaningless over the years. Why should we assume that, at the age of 85, this particular leopard will change his spots? And a better question might be: is there any evidence that the old leopard even wants to change his spots? If he does, he has a funny way of showing it.

The meltdown at the heart of News Corporation in 2011 was spectacular. It was, in scale, the media equivalent of Enron’s collapse; or the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill; or the bailout of HBOS; or Volks­wagen’s emissions scandal. Normal companies, if caught in the middle of crises of this magnitude, strain to demonstrate as forcefully as possible that they have changed. The most visible way of doing so is to get rid of the people who oversaw the calamity, crime or corruption.

That seemed to be the assumption in legislators’ minds in 2011, when both houses of parliament rejected the idea that Murdoch should be allowed complete control of BSkyB. The then prime minister, David Cameron, and the Conservative leader in the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, used identical language to insist that those who were ultimately responsible for the “disgraceful” behaviour within News Corporation should never again run a UK media company.

“The people involved, whether they were directly responsible for the wrongdoing, sanctioned it, or covered it up, however high or low they go, must not only be brought to justice,” said each leader to their respective chambers on 13 July 2011. “They must also have no future role in the running of a media company in our country.”

Cameron’s statement came as he announced a huge and expensive two-part inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson into the ethics and standards of the media. The second part is – theoretically, at any rate – still supposed to look into the “corporate governance and management failures at News International” and other newspaper organisations.

Who did Cameron and Strathclyde have in mind when vetoing any future role in running a UK media company? The subsequent culture, media and sport committee report damned both Rupert and James Murdoch for ignoring, or failing properly to investigate, evidence of widespread wrongdoing and for the subsequent cover-up. Its report, published less than five years ago, added witheringly: “The integrity and effectiveness of the select committee system relies on the truthfulness and completeness of the oral and written evidence submitted. The behaviour of News International and certain witnesses in this affair demonstrated contempt for that system in the most
blatant fashion.”

The regulator Ofcom went further, finding that James Murdoch, who was the CEO and chairman of BSkyB from 2003 to 2012, “repeatedly fell short of the conduct to be expected of him” as a chief executive officer and chairman of News International from 2007 to 2012: “We consider James Murdoch’s conduct . . . to be both difficult to comprehend and ill judged.” That was just four and a half years ago.

Initially Rupert Murdoch behaved as any normal business leader would: one or two key executives were fired, even as a few others went to jail. Yet the two dominant figures within the company were – temporarily – simply removed from sight.

James Murdoch left the UK to run another bit of the family empire. Rebekah Brooks, who was running News International from 2009 and who had previously edited both the scandal-torn News of the World and the Sun, received a pay-off reported to be well north of £10m when she resigned in 2011, admitting a “deep sense of responsibility”.

She was cleared of criminal charges relating to phone-hacking less than three years ago. Both she and James Murdoch suggested in their defence that, in essence, the company was out of control while they were running it. Their period in quarantine did not last long. In September 2015, Brooks was given her old job back at News International, now rebranded as News UK. And Murdoch’s son James was – despite protests from investors – restored as Sky chairman in January 2016, while remaining the CEO of 21st Century Fox, which controls Sky as the biggest single shareholder with a 39 per cent stake. The message was hardly: “We’ve changed.” This was a piece of corporate trompe d’oeil.

***

Nor have other parts of the Murdoch empire been a source of much reassurance. Fox News, which some credit with helping to create the conditions for Donald Trump’s presidency, has been rocked by allegations about its corporate culture, which, in some ways, recall those at the heart of Murdoch’s British tabloid operations a decade ago.

The CEO and chairman of the company, Roger Ailes, was forced to resign in July last year with a reported $40m pay-off, following allegations of sexual harassment by current and former employees. As with the British tabloid newspapers, the company initially tried to buy its way out of trouble by offering multimillion-dollar pay-offs rather than confront the issue. (Ailes denied the allegations.) As in London, there are internal investigations being conducted by a law firm. And as in London, there is much speculation about what the senior management did or didn’t know at the time about the allegations against Ailes and about who signed off the various settlements.

More worryingly for the organisation, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman recently reported that the FBI has been investigating Fox News for months, looking at how the company structured these settlements “to hide them”. These look very similar to the News International payment to Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, when the company realised its “one rogue reporter” phone-hacking defence could not possibly be true. An FBI finding against the Murdoch corporation would raise renewed questions about the “fit and proper” test of Sky’s directors.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch is cosy with Donald Trump, having backed him in the presidential election. The executive chairman of News Corp recently sat in on Michael Gove’s Times interview with Trump.

And, even while the embers of Leveson Part I are still lukewarm, Murdoch executives have enjoyed easy access with British government representatives. A recent study found no fewer than 20 such meetings over a period of as many months – 18 of them with the prime minister, chancellor or culture secretary. Seven involved Rupert Murdoch and a further eight were with the News Corp CEO, Robert Thomson. No other media group has anything close to that level of access. Has the Murdoch empire been completely transformed since 2011, when both houses of parliament were so resolutely against allowing it to take full control of BSkyB?

In fairness to James Murdoch, he is part of the clean-up team at Fox and did not need much persuading to get rid of Ailes. But in no other company in the world would he be back in charge of a huge media corporation, let alone when a prime minister had explicitly argued against such a role. That is the exceptional nature of the organisation that Rupert Murdoch has built. It operates to different rules.

When Nick Davies did his extraordinary prolonged investigation into phone-hacking and the cover-up within News International, I discovered at first hand how frightened people were of the Murdoch organisation. Nick and I were repeatedly warned by sources within the organisation to expect retaliation. More importantly, the checks and balances that I assumed existed in British society failed, one by one. With a few distinguished exceptions, MPs, regulators, the police and other journalists found any excuse not to take this company on.

I could see the fear, and I had some sympathy. The Murdoch empire can be very aggressive – and, back then, some of its operations had few qualms about using illegal methods to dig the dirt on people while the high-ups hosted golden garden parties for the political and media classes.

I cannot believe that the criminal enterprise still continues. Yet my original gut instinct in December was wrong. I wouldn’t wish to see this enormously powerful and dominant company – run in such an exceptional and defiant way – get any more powerful or any more dominant.

Alan Rusbridger is a former editor of the Guardian and is the principal of Lady Margaret Hall College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda