The News of the World scandal is major news everywhere except in the pages of the rest of the Murdoch press. Fair enough, I mean I think it comes under the heading of “dog bites man” “News Limited behaves unethically towards little people”, but I suppose having direct evidence that NOTW (and certainly others) were willing to damage the lives of families of murdered schoolgirls, terrorism victims, dead soldier’s families, all in the name of profit makes it a bit more newsworthy.
Also much has been made of the effect this affair will have on Murdoch’s bids for massively increasing his tv influence in Britain (BSkyB) and Australia (Australia TV, where astonishingly the govt is considering awarding him the contract to project Australia’s image abroad over the claims of its own national broadcaster the ABC). And much has been made of his direct influence on the political life of the UK through contacts with politicians, and the former NOTW editor being Cameron’s press secretary for example. Much has been noted about his use of newspapers to attack those who did not toe the Murdoch line, and to push for things he wanted (the Iraq War) and against those he does not (climate change). Consequently he has had a major, the major, influence on politics in the US, UK and Australia for a generation. With all due respect to the unpleasant press lords of the past, no one has ever had the obvious overt influence that Murdoch has had.
As bad as all that is, and it is very bad indeed, it seems, like phone hacking, to be only the small visible part of the iceberg. And it is the rest of the iceberg that is going to go on floating in the political shipping lanes, whatever the outcomes of turning NOTW into the Sun on Sunday, and the bids for BSkyB and OZTV.
A gangster moving into a patch has a template for how to proceed. You simply make an example, brutally, of some existing drug dealer, pimp, loan shark, protection racketeer, in order to encourage the others. From the time the mangled body is found your wish is their command as you take over the joint.
In Australia in 1972 the Murdoch Press, tiny as it then was, threw its support behind Gough Whitlam to see the first left-wing government elected in Australia in 23 years. The rest of the media had continued to resist (the Fairfax Press for example has famously never ever supported electing a left-wing government in its 200 years of publication) and it was Murdoch who had achieved the impossible. That was the first part of the lesson. Two years later the Murdoch Press turned on the Whitlam government, and its unrelenting and ferocious attacks led to an early election, where Whitlam just hung on, and then to the unprecedented and previously unthinkable event when the governor-general dismissed the government re-elected just a year earlier and appointed the Opposition leader into the highly advantageous caretaker position for the subsequent election. During that period the Murdoch Press attacks intensified in ferocity and the 1975 election saw a big win for the conservatives. All subsequent Labor leaders had been given a clear message – I can make you or, more likely, I can break you.
As a result they have all, either covertly or overtly (for example Kevin Rudd in 2007) sought Murdoch’s approval before seeking the approval of the voters. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a fly on the wall (a wall, perhaps, with a large photo of Whitlam on parliament house steps while the proclamation of his dismissal was read) during those agonising encounters where the small tribal chiefs met the Roman Emperor, I think I would have been so noisily sick as to attract attention and a fly swat. But I reckon the pattern would have been endlessly repeated. Murdoch telling the Labor leader what he would and wouldn’t permit from the items in the party policy document, the Labor leader ostentatiously crossing things out with a big red pen. Most times there wouldn’t have been as much left in as in a letter home from a British soldier in World War 1.
After a year or two of this, just as the newspaper editors instinctively knew what was wanted and didn’t need direct instruction, the Labor Party had removed so much that Murdoch didn’t like that they had become indistinguishable from the conservatives. Job done. Job also done in America and Britain. Oh there might be a few rough edges, new issues that arose, where a quick phone call, or a little chat behind closed doors, would quickly set out the new marching orders. But mostly it became true that no matter what party was in power in the three countries of greatest Murdoch influence the policies would match the ultraconservative neoconservative procorporate, antienvironment antiunion, antiregulation drown-government-in-bathtub views of Rupert.
No matter what happens on the surface in the next few weeks, this behind-the-scenes operation of the political puppets will continue. No matter what the people want (and those wants have in any case been carefully massaged by Murdoch over the last 50 years) the script of the political process always plays out the same way.
You thought Punch and Judy had free will?