Rupert Murdoch is a bad man. His son James is also bad. Rebekah Brooks is allegedly bad. The News of the World was very bad; it hacked phones and pilloried people. British prime ministers grovelled before this iniquity. David Cameron even sent text messages to Brooks signed “LOL”, and they all had parties in the Cotswolds with Jeremy Clarkson. Nods and winks were duly exchanged on the BSkyB deal.
Offering glimpses of the power and petty gangsterism of the British tabloid press, the inquiry conducted by Lord Leveson has, I suspect, shocked few people. As the soap has rolled on, bemusement has given way to boredom. Tony Blair was allowed to whine about the Daily Mail’s treatment of his wife until he and the inquiry’s amoral smugness protecting him were exposed by a member of the public, David Lawley-Wakelin, who shouted, “Excuse me, this man should be arrested for war crimes.” His Lordship duly apologised to the war criminal and the truth-teller was seen off.
Why Murdoch should complain about the British establishment has always mystified me. His interrogation, if that is the word, by Robert Jay QC, was a series of verbal marshmallows that Murdoch promptly spat out. When he described one of his own rambling, self-satisfied questions as “subtle”, Jay received this deft dismissal from Murdoch: “I’m afraid I don’t have much subtlety in me.”
As the theatre critic Michael Billington reminded us recently, it was in the Spectator in 1955 that Henry Fairlie coined the term “the establishment”, defining it as “the matrix of official and social relations within which power in Britain is exercised”. For most of my career as a journalist, Murdoch has been an influential and admired member of this club: even a mentor to many of those now casting him as a “bad apple”. His deeply cynical mantra, “I’m only giving the public what they want”, was echoed by journalists and broadcasters as they lined up to dumb down their work and embrace the propaganda of corporatism that followed Murdoch’s bloody move to Wapping in 1986.
More than 5,000 men and women were sacked, and countless families destroyed and suicides committed; and Murdoch could not have got away with it had Margaret Thatcher and the Metropolitan Police not given him total, often secret support, and journalists not lain face down on the floors of buses that drove perilously through the picket lines of their former, principled colleagues.