Rupert Murdoch at 90

On the media mogul’s 90th birthday, many will focus on Rupert Murdoch as a nasty individual – but he represents an even nastier system: the billionaire-owned media.

Murdoch has long been the bogeyman of Western democracies. His obsession with empire building, his puppet-mastery over the power elite, and his total disregard of ethics has made him into the archetypal global nemesis of our time: an epic synthesis of Darth Vader and Donald Trump.

And like Trump, Murdoch has always been something of an embarrassment to the ruling class. It’s not just that successive political leaders were and are ashamed of their enslavement to his beck and call. It’s that his brazen, visible, and seemingly unquenchable thirst for power is not a particularly good look. James Murdoch is a far better brand for global capital in the twenty-first century.

The real danger, of course, is that we bask in the relief of an imminent post-Murdoch age. Like all ‘great’ historical figures, the lesson for future generations will lie not in who Murdoch is, but what he represents. In spite of the sheer scale of his global media assets, and the depth of his reach into the corridors of political power around the world, Murdoch is the face of a much deeper structural failing in Western democracies.

For one thing, behind every oligarch who basks in the limelight, there is at least one who prefers to remain in the shadows. Viscount Rothermere, for instance, has been quietly amassing a complex of news media assets that now eclipses Murdoch’s News UK. While Rothermere’s stable includes such diverse titles as the Metro and the i, it is the Daily Mail that remains the jewel in his crown, still maintaining its number-one spot both in print and online, and still producing a front-page diatribe of barely concealed hate speech.

Rothermere—known as the ‘quiet billionaire’—is often contrasted with Murdoch as a more genteel character, less inclined to bully or bulldoze his way either through Downing Street or his own newsroom. Indeed, some might see the diversity of his news outlets as testament to a very different beast; one who is reluctant to use his media assets for political leverage. After all, the Mail On Sunday endorsed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum while its sister Daily was a flag-waiving leaver.

But this is a fundamental misconception. That Rothermere is less ‘hands-on’ in the newsroom doesn’t mean he is any less influential over the ultimate and broad shape of the news product. The essence of media power in this sense is very close to what the critical theorist Stephen Lukes called the ‘third dimension’ of power, in which very little, if anything, needs to be said for it to be wielded. The mere fact that Rothermere retains absolute power over the appointment of his editors is enough to ensure that his titles stay dutifully within the bounds of an acceptable discourse.

As for the Leave-Remain contradiction, the exact same can be said of the rivalry between Murdoch titles, with the Times opting for Remain and the Sun for Leave. Such contradictions help to create the impression that media owners are just businessmen playing the market – responding to rather than shaping the political attitudes of the public, with their titles swaying like trees in the wind of the political climate.

But of course, like so much of the rhetoric common to media owners, this is an easily deconstructed fallacy. Their aim is not to restrict their column inches and airtime to a single favoured political viewpoint, but to ensure that they collectively represent the broad and occasionally conflicting interests of elite power. Above all, it is their job to ensure that ideas about genuine and progressive social change are continually marginalised or maligned.

To understand how this is achieved, we just have to look at the range of voices platformed on LBC – the UK’s biggest talk radio station, branded as Leading Britain’s Conversation. LBC prides itself on the political ‘balance’ of its hosts across the weekly schedule, ranging from Nigel Farage to arch-remainers like James O’Brien. In that sense, it bears a strong resemblance to the cross-section of views represented by the mainstream press—from the Guardian to the Daily Express—and indeed the breadth of pundits that regularly appear on the BBC’s Question Time.

And yet there is one political position that is all but entirely omitted: democratic socialism. This, in spite of the fact that a democratic socialist manifesto attracted over 30 percent of the popular vote in the 2019 election, and over 40 percent in 2017. By any definition, socialism is a mainstream political vantage point, which, even from a purely commercial perspective, is grossly underrepresented in the mainstream media.

This obvious gap in the market is rarely acknowledged or even recognised by media or political elites. On the contrary, in spite of the platform given to the likes of Farage, the dominant rhetoric of the Right invokes a mythical ‘mainstream’ conservatism ignored by the mainstream media. Witness the ludicrous claims by Andrew Neil on GB News, a new right-wing TV news channel going head-to-head with Murdoch’s pending News UK TV, suggesting it will give voice to the ‘vast number of British people who feel underserved and unheard’.

This is straight out of the same dangerous fantasy which has framed bastions of the establishment—from Bolsonaro to Trump—as anti-elite champions of the people. For decades, both individual and corporate owners of the media have ensured that the political temperature gauge in public conversation oscillates between the soft left and the hard right. In doing so, they have each played their part in the construction of a grand mythical narrative: that the only alternative to a right-leaning political ‘consensus’ is the hard or far right; that the working class has been ignored by successive governments not in deference to the interests of global capital, but rather immigrants and benefit claimants.

This remains the greatest trick that capitalism ever pulled. But Murdoch is no more the magician than Rothermere, or even Ashley Tabor-King, founder and controller of Global Media and Entertainment Ltd., which owns LBC and commands over 20 percent of all radio listening. They—along with corporately-owned media, as well as the BBC—largely determine who gets to ‘speak’ through the news, while tech giants and platform monopolies increasingly determine who gets to be heard. Contrary to the rhetorical line adopted by both the Murdoch-Mail press and the Guardian, tech giants are not diminishing the influence of legacy media, but enhancing and consolidating their grip on the flow of news and information.

That is why the onset of Murdoch’s twilight years provides no solace for those who want to bring about a truly fairer and more democratic media in Britain and elsewhere. We cannot afford to pick our battles or bogeymen. The likes of Murdoch, Rothermere, Global, Google, or indeed the board of the BBC are each in their own way epicentres of concentrated media power. Over recent decades, these epicentres have grown exponentially and become structurally interdependent. And they have proved to be beyond the political will of ministers, or any meaningful oversight by Ofcom or IPSO.

It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that this crisis of concentration lies at the root of our failing democracies, and is why audiences beyond left Twitter are so rarely exposed to the real alternative – indeed, the real solutions to rampant inequality, pandemics, and climate destruction.