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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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The Okay Place: the psychological value of mediocre TV

Why do we watch comedies that don’t make us laugh?

I’ve been watching Brooklyn 99 on the train. The comedy cop show makes me laugh roughly once an episode, but nonetheless I watch it compulsively. I watch it on my commute, and I watch it while cooking dinner. It’s in the background when I’m paying my bills. I consumed so many episodes last night, Netflix sent me its most notoriously judgemental pop-up: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix, I was still watching. The real question was: why?

Brooklyn 99 doesn’t really make me laugh, and it’s far from the most critically-acclaimed show available on the streaming service right now. It’s not technically mediocre – the sitcom has won two Golden Globes – but it is to me*. It provokes the same feelings in me as Netflix’s The Good Place, a kitsch sitcom set in the afterlife. I am compelled to watch at all costs, but on the whole unamused and occasionally frustrated by formulaic storylines. (Sometimes, The Good Place even makes me cringe.)

I enjoy both shows, sure, but I don’t love them. So why am I wasting my time?

(*Because this is the internet, it's a good time to specify that "mediocre" here means in the view of the person being quoted, not objectively.)

“To understand why people are drawn to certain shows, it’s helpful to look at the type of feelings the shows elicit,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and assistant professor at West Virginia University. Cohen says media often has a “mood management function”, in that we use it to make ourselves feel better.

“Sometimes we are looking to be emotionally stimulated, so we might choose to watch something that we think will thrill us,” she says. “But other times we might decide to forego the dark cerebral drama on our DVR and opt for a safe sitcom instead. That could be because we need something that will help us wind down, relax, and boost our mood.”

Photo: Netflix

A desire to unwind is one of the reasons Oliver Savory, a 30-year-old grad student from London, watches The Big Bang Theory, a comedy that has inspired much ire.

“It fills a niche of something to watch while eating, when you can’t focus fully, or you’ve just got in and want to unwind without thinking too hard,” he explains. Oliver says “average” TV comforts him more than “good” TV because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up to date. “Good TV you have to make time for, average TV can fit around your own schedule without imposing itself.”

Cohen says this is referred to as “comfort food TV”, the entertainment equivalent of eating boxed mac and cheese even if you have the recipe for mum’s spaghetti. “These are shows that people watch not because they are exceptional in quality, but because they are simple, predictable, or nostalgic.”

Sometimes, we watch “okay” shows because we feel they have the potential to be great. Karen Dill-Shackleford is a media psychologist who explains this was her experience with The Good Place.

“I love The Good Place, but there was a stretch when I thought it was poor,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to right itself because I thought it had real potential.”

The potential many of us see in the show is its fresh premise, and its engagement with moral philosophy. As Dill-Shackleford puts it: “[the show] is a palatable way to ponder life’s biggest questions. So, even if the jokes are lame, the potential for real value is still there.”

Charlotte Mullin, a 23-year-old illustrator, says she doesn't laugh at the jokes either. “But what keeps me watching is the premise, and the characters. I’m a sucker for good character development, and The Good Place has it in spades,” she says. (Cohen tells me she does laugh at The Good Place, once again illustrating that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.)

Photo: Netflix

Ross McCafferty is a 27-year-old journalist from Glasgow who couldn’t tell you anything about NBC’s Parks and Recreation, even though he’s seen every episode. During a difficult time at work, he consumed the entire show.

“It’s actually quite a derivative, even mediocre show,” he says. “But I still ate it up, because at the time it was oddly comforting to me, self-contained and uncomplicated and unobtrusive, like so little in my life at that time.”

The reasons McCafferty liked the show, he says, is because it was “nice”, “brightly lit”, “nonthreatening” and “so sweet it was cloying”.

Bright lights and pretty colours certainly feel like one of the reasons I keep going back to mediocre sitcoms, but I also find comfort in certain characters: Chidi in The Good Place and Boyle in Brooklyn 99 are comfortingly familiar – I almost switch on to keep up to date with them, as if they were friends.

George Clarke is a 25-year-old management consultant who finds similar comfort in Seinfeld characters, even though the show doesn’t make him laugh much. “Some days I might fancy Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, but most of the time I’d just prefer to sit and watch Kramer doing something ridiculous or George stuff it up with the girl of his dreams for the fourth time that season,” he says.

But couldn’t Clarke and I find our televisual buds in prestige dramas?

“I find the idea of watching prestige shows non-stop to be exhausting,”  says David Renshaw, a 30-year-old news editor, who jokes it can feel like you “need a map” to keep up with Game of Thrones. When he finishes watching something acclaimed, such as Breaking Bad, he “cleanses the palette” with shows like Masterchef or Gogglebox. “They are much lower maintenance… especially if you’re switching between TV and phone as often as I do.”

Photo: Netflix

The comfort of the mediocre is so powerful that it can often override other emotions, such as the cringing I experience during some of The Good Place’s more strained jokes. Lizzie Roberts is a 25-year-old masters student who enjoys Gilmore Girls even though she dislikes the character Lorelai’s “painfully unfunny monologues”.

“It’s my way of letting my brain reset,” she says of the show, as well as reality TV such as Towie and I’m A Celeb. “It’s not taxing, it’s tolerable.”

“Not taxing and tolerable” are perhaps the words that best sum up the complex psychological reasons we continue to watch mediocre TV during the Golden Age of Television. Streaming services like Netflix are also designed to keep us watching, with episodes auto-playing one after the other (plus it's easier to find a show you've essentially already paid for on the Netflix homepage than go out and hunt for something more prestigious).

Although watching mediocre TV can feel like a waste of time, it does seem to have a psychological purpose. When we're stressed, busy, or tired, it can be exactly the entertainment we need. Nothing is more stressful, busy, or tiring than a commute – so I'll be watching Brooklyn 99 on the train home.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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