By Julian Petley


When critics complain that the Communications Act enables Rupert Murdoch to grab even more of the British media, the Government routinely replies that legislation cannot be framed to deal specifically with the activities of a particular company. However, as Bruce Page argues in a new study of the man and his business, “this is cover for having written a media bill just for him, which is remarkable double-think.”

What particularly distinguishes The Murdoch Archipelago is Page’s concentration on Murdoch’s relationship with politicians in the four main countries in which he operates: America, Australia, Britain and China. This he describes as “flipping between aggression and submission”, hostile to those unsupportive of his commercial interests, such as pre-Blair Labour, fawning towards those, like Mrs Thatcher and the present Chinese regime, with whom he can do business, and the book is rich in such examples of Murdoch’s self-interested dealings with politicians across the globe.

On the strength of these, Page argues that we need to understand Murdoch’s activities in terms of a “politico-business model” according to which, “political journalism consists of maintaining sympathetic relations with authority” and Newscorp’s core competence consists in “swapping approval with the controllers of the state”. Of course, such a conception of journalism completely inverts the idea of the ‘fourth estate’, which is why Page contemptuously refers to the Murdoch press as consisting of ‘pseudo-newspapers’ which, at their worst – for example, in their active and enthusiastic conniving with Thatcher in the Westland cover-up and in her assault on Thames TV’s Death on the Rock – exude a noxious form of ‘anti-journalism’ or ‘privatised government propaganda’.

That this is sometimes laced with apparently anti-establishment sentiments, especially in populist papers such as the Sun, serves only to reinforce Page’s argument. Firstly, because the ‘establishment’ in Murdoch-speak is always conveniently vague and anonymous, “a pervasive, shadowy force, inimical to life, liberty and the pursuit of satellite television”, as Page wryly describes it. This kind of populist rhetoric not only conceals the fact that media conglomerates such as Newscorp are themselves crucial to the maintenance of established power, but also serves to keep politicians in thrall to the delusion that tabloids represent the voice of ‘the people’. As Page puts it, “Newscorp befriends the populace everywhere against the elitist, snobbish masters of the world. [Politicians], consequently, envy Murdoch’s bond with the workers whose values and interests his tabloids celebrate.”

And it is precisely here, in the minds of politicians, their advisers and PR gurus, that the roots of Murdoch’s power lie. Given that newspaper circulation is steadily falling, and that a recent Eurobarometer poll showed only 24% of British people trusting the press, it’s hard to disagree with Page’s conclusion that “there would scarcely be any need to worry about such outfits except that our elected leaders – still struggling to design an open, efficient and modern statecraft – revolve with them in a dance of folly which has at least the potential to be a dance of death for democracy.”

As long as this dance continues, however, we might consider whether, in the light of the evidence so assiduously compiled here by Page, it’s time for the Columbia Journalism Review’s famous denunciation of Murdoch’s New York Post as ‘a social problem, a force for evil’ to be applied to Murdoch ‘journalism’ as a whole.

Julian Petley is Professor of Film and Television Studies in the Department of Performing Arts at Brunel University, Joint Chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, and a Trustee of PressWise.

The Murdoch Archipelago
by Bruce Page, Simon & Schuster 2003, ISBN 1-07432-39369, £20.00