(Note: This is a guest piece)
So far the News International scandal, which is only just unravelling, has focused almost exclusively on ‘phone hacking’ and the invasion of privacy by Murdoch’s printed media. Though this has considerable celebrity and ‘human interest’ value, it entirely misses the main game.
Murdoch’s newspaper business in Britain, though mostly profitable, is peanuts compared to his television and entertainment interests. Murdoch long ago ceased to be a traditional ‘press baron’. He is not Citizen Kane. Unlike newspapers, which anyone can print, television broadcasting is a highly regulated and highly politicised business. In every country, the state is eager to keep control of television broadcasting, the main opinion-forming media, because taxes and broadcast rights generate enormous revenues. TV broadcasting is in the gift of the political class and even a slight ‘regulatory difficulty’ can cost a media company billions or shut it out
So any media giant wanting to be in television must have considerable influence over the political elite in the country. These are the people who ultimately take the decision whether or not to let them in.
This is why, for example, Murdoch still owns the London Times. It has never made a profit and will never make a profit. Every year it loses around £40 million, which is an expensive hobby. But The Times is read by everyone in Britain ‘whose opinion matters’. If you think it is useful to talk to Britain’s political elite every morning, then £40 million is a small price to pay. Murdoch’s newspapers provide the influence that keeps the political class in check, which in turn creates an environment for him to further his interests. In every broadcast industry in the world, TV and entertainment conglomerates own not-very-profitable newspapers and radio interests because these provide them with a parallel source of influence. That is the real relationship between commercial TV and the printed press in all countries where broadcasting is not dominated by a state monopoly.
Berlusconi’s Italy is an example of a media mogul whose parallel apparatus of influence became so powerful that he could afford to dispense with the political elite altogether, to buy his own political party, Forza Italia. He then bought the Italian state itself, tore up the constitution, ignored the rule of law and made personal laws to suit his empire.
Murdoch’s strategy has been less flamboyant, but just as insidious. The problem with News International is not the influence its newspapers have exerted, but that it took matters one step further into the realm of mafia-style blackmail and extortion. The story yet to emerge is that News International, like the Mafia, operates a vast information-gathering network, collecting compromising information which provides Murdoch with the ‘dirt’ needed to undermine, intimidate, threaten, hound, and if necessary destroy, any politician, public official or investigative journalist who dares to get in his way. It is the same system that allowed J Edgar Hoover to remain head of the FBI for nearly fifty years even though president after president, and large sections of America’s political class, wanted to get rid of him.
Murdoch’s mafia system also explains News International’s symbiotic relationship with almost every department in the higher command of the Metropolitan Police. It gives the Murdoch empire access to the contents of the National Police Computer and a dozen other intelligence databases that keep records of every person who has ever had a brush with the police, or every address the police have attended. It is an invaluable resource if you are in the business of making people ‘offers they cannot refuse’ because there is no politician or public official who at one time or another has not done something he or she would prefer not to be publicised scandalously in the press, even if it is just an irrelevant or trivial matter.
To what extent did Murdoch intimidate and manipulate the British political elite? It is significant that to move against him there had to be an unprecedented all-party agreement in Parliament so that News International would be blocked from targeting individual politicians. That is how much.
News International is a criminal organisation.
Susil Gupta, 15 July 2011