Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
24 August 2021updated 26 Aug 2021 4:00am

Will Rupert Murdoch’s complaint to Ofcom over the BBC succeed?

The media proprietor’s petulant response to a documentary shows he is desperately trying to shape his legacy.

By James Ball

Rupert Murdoch is, apparently, a man who is easily hurt. More than a year after the first broadcast of a three-part BBC documentary series – reminiscent of the slick HBO drama Succession – Murdoch is taking the BBC to the state-backed regulator Ofcom.

The delay is the result of a months-long and multi-part process within the BBC’s internal complaints department, to which Murdoch initially complained. This process resulted in the BBC upholding almost the entirety of the documentary’s output bar a section about Tory sleaze stories in the 1990s, which the broadcaster has edited out of the iPlayer version of the series.

While in theory Ofcom could fine the BBC, or even issue stronger sanctions if it finds wrongdoing, the likely impact of this complaint would be prosaic. Murdoch complained on multiple grounds to the BBC unit, and seems likely to do the same to Ofcom. Complaining on numerous grounds at once of course increases the chance that some of them will land in your favour. While the impact of a correction more than a year after broadcast would be minimal, Murdoch and his supporters in the press could use it to push narratives helpful to them: that the BBC is unfair, inappropriately biased and even unfit for purpose.

The UK’s broadcasters are subject to far stricter regulation than print or online-only outlets, which have no equivalent regulator to Ofcom. This is in part because broadcast bandwidth is given with the expectation of public service broadcasting. The irony of Murdoch, of all people, taking the BBC to Ofcom – a state-backed regulator – will not be lost on anyone familiar with that fact and the wider media regulation debate.

[See also: It’s not just NSO spyware that poses a threat to whistleblowers and journalists]

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Thanks to the sins of at least one Murdoch newspaper, the now-defunct News of the World, and its frequent engagement in phone-hacking, the UK government launched the Leveson inquiry in 2011, which eventually recommended the introduction of a state-backed regulator for newspapers.

Another Murdoch-owned paper, the Sun, has settled numerous cases related to phone-hacking – and spent millions of pounds in the process – but has done so through its umbrella company, News UK, without admitting liability on behalf of the paper specifically.

The Murdoch-owned papers in turn led the fight against a state-backed regulator that would mitigate their own bad behaviour. That fight united all major newspapers – including the Guardian, which revealed the misconduct in the first place – but proved a particularly thorny problem for the Murdoch group, given the inquiry had been launched as a result of the News of the World’s actions. 

In an almost unprecedented show of unity, with Murdoch-owned newspapers at the forefront, the British press spoke as one against state regulation of the media. Which makes it a little rich for Murdoch to avail himself of exactly that kind of regulatory provision. 

Murdoch’s long-running animosity towards the BBC is hardly news. But complaining about a documentary is different: it makes the man seem little more than petulant, someone who can dish it out but not take it.

That’s not a great look for a media proprietor at the best of times. But it’s a particularly bad look for Murdoch right now. Once upon a time – in fact, until just a couple of years ago – his newspapers were merely one part of a vast empire comprising Sky, Fox, numerous other broadcasters and a movie studio. 

As the theory went, Murdoch could use the political influence generated by his newspapers to secure – directly or indirectly – regulatory concessions that let him build the far more profitable parts of his business. Those who worked closely with Murdoch said this, rather than some ideological goal, was the proprietor’s true goal. 

These days, that’s not the case. Murdoch is still revered as if the empire is as big and influential as it ever was, but most of the broadcast businesses are gone – the Murdochs sold most of them as part of the $71bn sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney. They no longer own Sky, they are out of the movie business, and even most of the TV channels are gone.

[See also: I wanted GB News to succeed – here’s why I’m so disappointed]

Only a fool would dismiss Murdoch or his children as a spent force: they own newspapers in the UK, US and Australia, still control Fox News, and major publishing houses on both sides of the Atlantic. But where these were once the influential parts of a huge corporation, they are now an entity in their own right. And in the internet age they are not the huge profit- or influence-generators they once were.

Our mistake when we talk about Murdoch is to talk about him in absolute terms. He is either the master controller of the media, and in many ways the real ruler of the UK and the US, or else he is the benign businessman who built a multinational media business from a (relatively) modest start through his own talent and skill.

The reality is, of course, between the two. Rupert Murdoch is 90 years old and has largely cashed out of his empire – when it comes to business and the media, he is very much in his last act.

Just as his newspapers have never been a monolith – only a fool would pretend every Murdoch paper is comparable to the News of the World at its worst, especially as many talented reporters work for Murdoch papers – Murdoch has never been the devil figure some imagine him to be.

And now, in his tenth decade, his complaint to the BBC doesn’t look so much like a deadly strike as a somewhat desperate bid to try to shape a legacy – part of an attempt to control how he will be remembered. Succession might be a top-quality drama, but even in these small moves, it seems not a patch on real life.