It’s hard to know exactly when Rupert Murdoch’s alliance with the conservative right began. In his early days, his politics were eclectic. As a student at Oxford, he even flirted with socialism. But January 1974 is as good a moment as any to situate his rightward turn. It was then that he turned against Gough Whitlam’s reforming Labor government in Australia. A classified diplomatic cable sent by the US consul general reported to Washington that Murdoch was instructing “the editors of the newspapers he controls” to “kill Whitlam.” Whitlam was forced to resign later that year, and from then on Murdoch would side with the winners, and the winners were overwhelmingly on the Right.
If anyone alive personifies the destruction of the postwar social and economic compromise, it is Murdoch. Such was the contempt in which he was held by the cultural elite in my own country, the UK, that the television writer Dennis Potter named the tumor that would kill him “Rupert.” But for all Murdoch’s significance, we still don’t fully understand what his long career tells us about politics and the media in our contemporary era, and the relationship between the two. As he turns ninety, it is time we turn to that task in earnest.
Against the Left
Rupert Murdoch was born in 1931 into a newspaper family in Australia. His father Keith Murdoch had been a war correspondent whose reporting from Gallipoli in World War One had made him nationally famous. Murdoch Senior went on to become an executive at the Herald group and left his family control of the Adelaide News on his death in 1952. His son, still in his early twenties, took over the News and began building an empire of his own. Over two decades, Murdoch became one of the most successful editors and publishers the industry has ever seen. It is an exaggeration to say that he invented the modern tabloid, but he did learn to exercise direct, personal control of newsrooms to an extent that few, if any, of his contemporaries have matched.
By all accounts, he loves newspapers, he loves the trade of journalism, and he loves journalists in the way a snake handler loves snakes. He understands how to attract and engage readers as well as how to negotiate terms with rivals. And he has used the techniques of tabloid journalism to effect radical change in broadcasting. It is this mastery of every aspect of his trade that forms the foundation of his power. It is why he mattered so much to a succession of right-wing political leaders and why he matters still.
A few years after he turned on Whitlam, his British tabloids’ mix of scandal, titillation, and mockery of the “loony” left helped Margaret Thatcher make a decisive break with the postwar political order. Tony Blair signaled his acceptance of that break by appearing at the 1995 annual general meeting of Murdoch’s News Corporation. The culture of competitive individualism he fostered in the young in the early eighties in Britain remained with them as they aged and helps explain the chasm that now divides them from their children and grandchildren. Murdoch’s foray into the US media landscape came later, but by the mid-nineties, his Fox News was becoming the coordinating focus for a populist conservatism that would eventually help to install Donald Trump as the Republican nominee in 2016.
In the thought world he curated from the 1970s onward, the Left were agents of the Soviet Union who were plotting to destroy civilization through the promotion of equal rights for women and minorities. Liberals were hypocritical elitists who thought they knew what was best for the masses. Meanwhile, the politicians he supported were purportedly on the side of those patronized and scorned masses and wanted to free them to live as they pleased. In reality, it was clearly a revolt against working-class organization and social emancipation, disguised as the triumph of the common people. Murdoch never forgot that he was in the business of keeping people entertained, scandalized, and intrigued, whether it was “glamour girls” in the Sun, errant vicars in the News of the World, or The Simpsons on Fox.
“A Carriage Fee for ‘Trusted Publishers'”
Murdoch had no illusions about the internet or the bright new dawn it was supposed to represent for journalism. After his hilarious mismanagement of MySpace, he was forced to watch first Google and then Facebook capture advertising revenues that had once underpinned the newspaper sector. He shored up his revenues as best he could with paywalls and, in the last few years, has begun to move against the platforms themselves. In 2018, Murdoch publicly called for a “carriage fee for ‘trusted publishers,'” which Facebook and Google would pay to outlets, like his, that enhance “the value and integrity” of their offerings.
In Australia, where it all began, the government introduced draft legislation in 2020 that would allow publishers to negotiate for just such a fee; if an agreement could not be reached, the platforms could be compelled to accept the verdict of arbitration by a panel appointed by the state. After some initial resistance and a threat to suspend its services in the country, Google signed a deal with the major publishers. But in February of this year, Facebook briefly removed news content from its feeds in protest at the government’s proposals. Days later, it, too, capitulated and entered negotiations. So much for the invincibility of the tech giants.
At the time of writing the Australian bill has not passed into law, and every effort is being made to maintain the fiction that the state does not interfere in the media system. “Mandatory bargaining” sounds much less ominous. But the direction of travel is clear. Combined with closer monitoring of “extremist” content by the platforms themselves, their partnership with large publishers will reconstitute something like the old print and broadcast mainstream; widely available content will range from an ineffectual liberal center-left to an energized far-right — and Murdoch’s News Corp will be front and center. Other perspectives will be relegated to the margins. Facebook, Google, and a handful of other operations will host a nominally independent information environment that respects and serves the broader needs of power.
The Media System
Murdoch matters for the socialist left because he shows us how highly the Right values media and communications. The architects of the neoliberal turn supported him whenever they could because they knew that his support mattered and that his skills as a publisher and editor were useful to them. And it is hard to argue that they were wrong. In 2003, not one of the more than 170 newspapers Murdoch controlled opposed the US-UK invasion of Iraq. And the phone-hacking scandal that capsized Murdoch’s first British tabloid, The News of the World, in 2011 hints at something else. Newsrooms reward those who can manage them with a deluge of information that need not ever be published to have value. A media operation that isn’t too squeamish about how it acquires knowledge is an invaluable asset, as well as a source of anxiety, for those who seek power.
The worldview that Murdoch created and sustained in his newsrooms is the worldview of much of the English-speaking world today. This is why countering Murdoch’s empire is fundamental for the Left and why it must organize its own communicative apparatus to constitute its own life world of cooperation as much as to inform its audiences. And it must insist that its own political projects give media and communications their proper place. Imagine if Bernie Sanders’s campaign had spent its television advertising budget in 2020 on the creation of a network of news cooperatives. Imagine, too, if just one state or municipal government found the courage to imitate Murdoch and took revenues from profitable digital monopolies and used them to create journalism funds directly controlled by the citizenry.
Murdoch’s power is waning, as the newspaper-broadcast media regime loses ground to the digital platforms. But the great radicalizer and muckraker is now posing as the guarantor of professional standards and the scourge of “scurrilous news sources.” It is quite an act. As always, he is on the side of the ruling class, and he understands their interests as well as anyone. As inhospitable as social media are to the Left, they have created openings that the broadcast and print duopoly blocked for decades. In the deal that Murdoch is looking to make with the platforms, the Left will once again be consigned to the margins.
Rather than lining up with the liberals to rail against Murdoch, it is vital that we understand what his long career tells us. The media are the means by which politics becomes available to thought. They provide us with the materials with which we make sense of unmediated experience; nothing ever speaks for itself. And Murdoch’s backlash conservatism has always been part of a broader media system that segments and shapes the public opinion it claims to serve. While the liberal elements of this media system might have been powerless to stop the march of the Right, they have proved extremely effective in preventing dissatisfaction with the current political settlement from finding left-wing expression. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign was destroyed in the studios of MSNBC just as surely as Jeremy Corbyn’s political project was derailed by the Guardian and the BBC. Liberals might like to wring their hands about the cultural power of Murdoch. But they will wring the neck of the Left if they can. There is absolutely no reason to think they will behave differently when they take their place as “trusted publishers” on the platforms.
Democratic and socialist politics cannot afford any illusions about the power of the media. The separation of communicative institutions from the formal structure of the state is integral to the ongoing triumph of private wealth over the public good. It allows politicians and media outlets to orchestrate strategic silences, to misrepresent us to one another, and to marginalize our interests. The nominally private media remain indispensable to the ongoing production of the political. Those, like Murdoch, who are willing to use their media assets to support their favored politicians will reap outsize commercial returns. Those who seek to challenge any of this, those who even mention any of this, will be starved of funding and denounced as extremists by an army of paid liars.
As the media system itself adapts to a new, digital-first regime, we need to insist on a program that makes this regime answerable to its publics. We cannot wait for those who Murdoch has brain-poisoned to die off or for technology to “emerge” to do the work that only honest persuasion can do. Murdoch’s many imitators are already starting to find us, on our phones and our laptops, just as he found our parents and grandparents through the newsstands and the airwaves. Murdoch used the power of private ownership to support an antidemocratic revolution. If we are serious about a revolution of our own, we have no choice but to develop and share an account of the media as a democratically governed and publicly held resource.