Rupert Murdoch Was the Symptom of a Rotten Public Culture That Will Outlast His Departure

Rupert Murdoch is stepping down next month after decades of promoting reactionary political causes. His toxic reputation is well deserved, but the factors shaping conservative media bias were always broader than Murdoch himself and will survive his departure.

Rupert Murdoch attends his annual party at Spencer House in London, June 22, 2023. (Victoria Jones / PA Images via Getty Images)

Rupert Murdoch recently announced that he will be stepping down as chairman of his planet-spanning media empire in November. Murdoch started off as a newspaper magnate in his native Australia and finished up as the owner of Fox News, one of the biggest cable networks in the United States. But it was in Britain that he established himself as a major player.

Murdoch’s Sun became the country’s best-selling newspaper and left an indelible mark on British political discourse in the neoliberal era. His Sky television network was the foundation stone for Murdoch’s shift from print to broadcast media and transformed global soccer with its lucrative investment in the English Premier League. Ironically, Murdoch built the British side of his media empire from the ashes of a once great left-leaning newspaper.

Scandal Sheets

The Daily Herald was originally a strike sheet in 1911, then a (rare) pro-suffragist, pro-Irish, and antiwar daily in 1912–14, before eventually becoming a hugely popular working-class paper through the mid-twentieth century. But the Herald had lost its trade-union ownership share, its original name, and most of its readership by the time Murdoch bought the paper in its new incarnation as the Sun in 1969. Soon it would lose any traces of its left politics, too.

He had already bought the News of the World, the leading exemplar of the peculiar entertainment-oriented sensationalism of the British Sunday paper, sexy enough to have been banned in independent Ireland for a big chunk of the twentieth century. The novel discovery imposed on Murdoch’s revamped Sun was that, in 1970s Britain, every day could be as filthy as Sunday. It was a raging success, replacing the newsier, Labour-leaning Mirror as the country’s most-read daily.

Nonetheless, Murdoch’s two formerly popular and profitable tabloid titles, the Sun and the News of the World, are today best known for their moments of shame — in the case of the latter, the scandal that killed it. In 2011, it emerged that investigators working for the Sunday paper had fished for stories in poorly secured voicemail accounts. The most notorious case involved a teenager who had gone missing and was later found dead. The “phone-hacking” scandal led to prison sentences and public inquiries, and it was the mere tip of the iceberg of tabloid methodological excess.

Murdoch quickly and mercilessly pulled the plug on the News of the World, the title most associated with the sins of the genre. With less fanfare, he rehired many of its journalists to launch the Sun on Sunday a few months later.

The Sun’s notoriety peaked in 1989, when it followed up the deaths of ninety-six Liverpool football fans in a crush at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium with a splash that claimed to be offering “THE TRUTH” but was essentially a series of lies and exaggerations about fan behavior transparently designed to exonerate the police.

A 2016 inquest excoriated the conduct of the police at Hillsborough and returned a verdict of unlawful killing, by which time the Sun had apologized for the notorious front page. The paper, forever after known as “The Scum,” remains the object of a remarkably successful boycott in Liverpool and sympathetic environs.

Bluster and Bandwagons

The scandals underlined that nothing would stand in the way of the mission of Murdoch’s popular press, which was to sow — and cash in on — all the nastier, lowlier passions among its working-class readers. Murdoch also led the way in crushing the power of labor in the newspaper industry. The yearlong 1986 dispute prompted by his company’s move to deploy new typesetting technology at Wapping in East London was the southern English equivalent of the miners’ strike, and the defeat of the print workers was devastating for labor’s influence in the press.

As in Australia and the United States, Murdoch’s News International (later News Corp) was not content to merely get rich selling tabloid pablum to the masses. Control of upmarket titles has long been part of a strategy for maximum influence and leverage. The New York model, where Murdoch owns both the Post and the Wall Street Journal, was preceded by the Sun and Times combination in England and, long before that, by the Sydney Daily Mirror and the Australian.

Murdoch’s politics are, of course, broadly reactionary. But it has long been a key insight of Murdochology that the mogul is a political realist with an eye on making and keeping powerful friends. His moves into the relatively regulated world of broadcast and satellite distribution demanded no major fallings-out with the most powerful governments, East and West.

Murdoch’s most notorious realpolitik move was the switch to embrace Tony Blair’s New Labour. In 1992, a decade of attacks on “the Loony Left” from the Sun culminated with full-throated assaults on the prospect of a Labour-led government under Neil Kinnock.

Most famous was the Election Day splash depicting Kinnock’s bald head as a lightbulb ready to be switched off: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” On page three, usually the home of a topless model, the headline ran, “Here’s how page 3 will look under Kinnock” — beside a photo of a scantily clad middle-aged woman, the imagined beneficiary of Labour’s equality rules gone mad.

When the somewhat surprising Tory victory was confirmed, the paper even more famously crowed on its cover, “It was the Sun wot won it,” beside a photo of their might-have-been page-three model, now fully dressed and brandishing champagne. Five years later, the Sun and its partner papers got on board the Tony Blair bandwagon.

Throughout his years as Labour leader, Blair’s ass-kissing was blatant and persistent, starting with a 1995 trip halfway around the world to address a News Corp meeting and culminating in a close personal friendship. After stepping down as Britain’s prime minister, Blair even became godfather to one of Murdoch’s children, taking part in a baptismal ceremony on the banks of the River Jordan. It was easy to look at the spectacle of Blair and others crawling to Murdoch and see the latter as not merely a partner in power but rather its globe-spanning and omnipotent dispenser.

Larger Than Life

However, the move to support Blair was more a sign of the boss’s political antennae than his political potency. No doubt, his papers — along with his ostensibly more neutral Sky News channel on TV — had helped to normalize the neoliberal agenda to which Blairism adhered. Along the way, they made special targets of left-wing politicians and activists. But the overall story is a bit more complicated than that.

In Britain and beyond, Murdoch become the poster-old-man for an alarming narrative about the dangers of concentrated media ownership. This story was at its peak in the 1990s and 2000s, on both sides of the Atlantic. Being engaged in the debate about “press concentration” was a key mark of progressive seriousness as a media critic or scholar, and Murdoch was the face of such concentration.

Why was that? Even with 20th (now 21st) Century Fox’s movie and television companies under his control, and his role in satellite TV systems globally, Murdoch did not possess the biggest of the turn-of-the-millennium media empires. His British newspaper titles didn’t have as large a share of the market as some of the flagships of the barons who preceded him earlier in the twentieth century.

However, in contrast with the enormous and faceless conglomerates into which other press chains and broadcast networks were folded, the worlds of Fox, Sky, and those noisy newspaper titles could be summarized in a single personality, that of the long-lasting Murdoch. Viacom, Time Warner, and DMG Media didn’t have the same ring. Murdoch even appeared as a vaguely villainous mogul in his network’s own biggest hit program, The Simpsons — with Rupert himself voicing his own character on two occasions, in 1999 and 2010.

Knowing Murdoch’s own combination of political cynicism and right-wing reflexes, it was certainly not difficult to see them reflected among the editors and broadcasters he employed. He didn’t have to interfere directly very often — as we critics would patiently explain, lest we be branded “conspiratorial” — because journalists who valued their jobs would surely know better than to produce material that might conflict with his prejudices.

We steered around the fact that journalists who valued their jobs but didn’t work for Murdoch produced material that was mostly indistinguishable from the crap in Rupert’s stable. Er, maybe the Murdoch press was agenda-setting?

It was only around the time that the journalistic shit hit the financial-crisis fan, in 2008, that the bigger picture came into better focus. Books like Flat Earth News and The Death and Life of American Journalism showed us how the British and US press had long been in terminal decline under neoliberal management.

This reduced them to the role of pushing out more and more “churnalism” — both reliant upon and defenseless against a rapidly growing armory of state and corporate PR. Decades of cost cutting under corporate bean counters were likely to discipline any residual journalistic good instincts, along with the storms of flak that powerful interests could kick up if you stepped out of line.

Discourse Theory

Making Murdoch the villain of the piece was tempting in a terrible time for the Left, and analytically it was not entirely misguided. It’s certainly a problem for an informed public if a big chunk of its news consumption is constrained by the business interests of a powerful owner, even if he can’t single-handedly brainwash whole populations. Nonetheless, this excessively media-centric view of the roots of political developments, this elevation of the discursive above the material, was a bad look for historical materialists — even for “cultural Marxists.”

Even as Murdoch himself has faded into the status of a TV soap character, with Brian Cox’s face as Succession’s Logan Roy replacing his own in the popular imagination, the errors and elisions of that old media-centrism have persisted. Too many of us on the Left have succumbed to liberal tales of social-media-fueled “information disorders” being at the root of today’s carnival of reaction, with Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk the new info-centric villains.

In the United States, it should be said, Murdoch persists as a villain, with even leftists seeing Fox News as cause rather than symptom of the nation’s political ills. Murdoch’s infamous identification of a gap in the market for conservative news and talk gave rise to a generation of research associating Fox viewers with various forms of political ignorance. “Science Proves (Again) That Watching Fox News Makes You Dumber Than Not Watching Any News At All” is the headline on a typical 2022 Medium post. (No, science doesn’t.)

A certain brand of American centrist sees Murdoch as second only to Vladimir Putin in delivering the presidency of Donald Trump, because the tycoon-celeb turned up frequently in the New York Post and on Fox & Friends, before sailing to the Republican nomination on a sea of favorable coverage from these outlets. However, the Fox treatment of Trump, who Murdoch despises, was by no means all flattering.

Meanwhile, it was the extremely normal, “apolitical” network NBC that really made a national star of (a carefully edited) Trump on The Apprentice over a period of a decade. And it was Leslie Moonves, as the president of normal, un-Murdoched CBS, who declared early in 2016, as Trump filled the airwaves:

Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun. . . . Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going. . . . It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.

After the News

You could go on all day with counters to the “Murdoch broke everything” narrative. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, for example, was a genuinely frightening collection of bloodthirsty neocons long before Murdoch got near the place. Murdoch’s devotion to Israel, for example, is well known, but it’s hardly unprecedented in the annals of the American press, as recent weeks have all too grotesquely demonstrated.

Even his critics have had occasion to acknowledge that Murdochism means indulging the whims of the public rather than dictating them. From the Tory turnoff of 1997 to the election conspiracism of 2020, Murdoch journalism sometimes has to — as the New York Times put it earlier this year, complete with creepy Rupert image — “chase its audience down the rabbit hole.”

Whether or not his power has been exaggerated in the past, it is certainly diminished now. Murdoch’s belated stepping-down this autumn from the Fox and News Corp chairs leaves a considerable legacy of uncertainty, and not only because of Fox’s legal mishaps over “stop the steal” or the rivalries among his children.

For example, media observers have long seen Murdoch’s fondness for the ink-and-paper form of the newspaper as a bulwark against its disappearance. Again, this is a simplification: the persistence of printed papers for an attritional audience has more to do with the failure to replace print advertising revenue than it does with the preferences of a single mogul.

Nonetheless, a big move by News Corp could further undermine the already shrinking newspaper-printing industry, just as Murdoch’s own bullish excitement about the iPad in 2010 changed the tone of the conversation in the industry and among experts about the capacity of legacy news brands to survive the internet.

As he bows out, there is a bit of romance from the likes of Michael Wolff about Murdoch being “the last newspaper man.” If anything, this may understate the epochal change that is taking place.

What about news itself? Does it have a future as a discrete category of written discourse, as opposed to, say, a marketing description of a certain kind of talk-centered TV channel or of a service provided mainly by state and semi-state broadcasters, plus a handful of subscription-driven private operators for elite audiences?

Certainly, for a mass public and younger people, the concept of choosing to read a publication, in print or online, that is generically dedicated to periodic news appears to be a dying phenomenon in the West — its breathing briefly restarted by Trump’s 2016 resuscitation, but lacking a substantial social or technological basis in the long term. Alongside that concept, we can also, at long last, lay to rest the media mogul, supreme gatekeeper, and consent-manufacturer embodied in the figure of Rupert Murdoch.