What’s happening in Britain today is pretty damn exciting. Bluntly put, politicians have been running scared of Rupert Murdoch for decades. He has been a kingmaker. He owns enough of the media, including dailies and sundays in both the broadsheet and tabloid markets, to influence the entire political agenda, arguably even deciding the outcome of elections.
Politicians have feared him, politicians have tried to appease him. And not just because he could shape the agenda of public debate. He could also use his papers, and the people employed by them, to exert personal pressure. The man who owns the London Times also kept a couple of rottweilers, and had no qualms about using them to intimidate.
The more success he had at pushing politicians around, the softer they went on media regulation and ownership, so giving him more power. His ownership of leading names in all the paper markets was leveraged into a major interest in Sky, the biggest money-earner in UK TV. Money which helped further increase his market dominance and so his ability to push politicians around.
This was never going to end well.
And it looks likely to happen all over again in the US, where his Fox News has helped shift the debate drastically towards the right – and indeed away from debate at all, to a place where actual democratic politics is paralysed by polarisation and shouting. Murdoch is a businessman willing to damage the public cultures of countries within which he operates in order to profit.
What we’re getting to watch here is the worm finally turning. And it’s wonderful to see. Realising that public opinion might for once be on their side, cowed politicians are beginning to get a gleam in their eyes. They are imagining a world where they are not afraid. And they are thrilled by what a better world that could be.
For once, you can sympathise with the politicians. The press must be powerful, it must be free and strong. But dominance by one man and his organisation is every bit as pernicious as dominance by government.
A secret so shocking that when it’s revealed in a year from now, former staff of the News of the World will turn to Rebekah Brooks and say “Thank you for firing us.”
That’s got to be something pretty bad.
I’m actually worried here, trying to think of something worse than what the NOTW has already done. They bribed the police, for God’s sake. They spied on the grieving families of soldiers and London bombing victims. They interfered with the phone of a child murder-kidnap victim, giving her parents false reason to believe she was still alive.
But this is something they’re ashamed of.
The fact that it’s not going to be revealed for another year gives it a great Seventh Secret of Fatima vibe, but why is this the case? Most likely, something they were hiding is now bound to come out in the police investigation or the trial. But if it’s bound to, why not reveal it now and end all the wild speculation? Unless of course it’s worse than our wildest speculation.
Which again, would be pretty bad.
More likely, they don’t want to reveal it now because it has a bearing on News International’s most sensitive current business in the UK – their attempted takeover of BSkyB. And as this rests wholly on the question of whether Rupert Murdoch is a fit person to own such a significant portion of the media, it follows logically that the secret is not about the News of the World or even News International, but about Murdoch himself.
What was the NOTW doing with dirt on its owner? Well in the dismissal speech she gave to the workforce, Rebekah Brooks revealed that she herself had been spied on by agents of the News of the World. Merely because she was newsworthy? Well maybe, but I have a suspicion that the operatives who were tasked with the illegal mission decided to get something on their employers too – as insurance against being disowned by them. And it seems reasonable to suppose that if they went after her, they would have gone after her boss too. Those guys got something on Rupert Murdoch.
But what? We already know that Murdoch uses his power as a wealthy media magnate to influence – arguably, to subvert – the democratic process in favour of his still greater wealth. And yet until recently it was assumed that he could still be considered a ‘fit person’ to own UK media. If that doesn’t make you unfit what do you have to do? Have sex with crocodiles, use puppies as toothpaste?
There can only be one thing. Murdoch, like many of his fellow countrymen, is instinctively opposed to the royal family. That his papers have been making them look stupid for decades was no mere commercial tactic but a determined secret campaign.