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.

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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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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