Rupert Murdoch was once asked why he hated the EU so much. ‘That’s easy,’ he replied.’When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.’ No wonder, then, that he was an avid supporter of Brexit.
The reason why UK politicians find it so hard to resist Murdoch’s manipulation is simple: Murdoch controls well over 30% of the UK press, including the newspaper with the largest market share – the Sun. Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox also owns nearly 40% of Sky plc – the UK’s largest broadcaster in revenue terms – and is making strenuous efforts to gain full control of the company.
Political support from the Murdoch empire is an obvious incentive for politicians to keep the media mogul on side. But should they fail to produce the goods for him, there is a much darker side to Murdoch’s power. As the Leveson Inquiry detailed in 2012, his newspapers have a long history of using dirty tricks and criminal methods to gather incriminating material on their targets. The inquiry also made clear the powerful web of relationships enjoyed by trusted confidante Rebekah Brooks.
In 2014, Crown prosecutor Andrew Edis QC said the phone-hacking victims of Murdoch’s News of the World ‘read like a Who’s Who of Britain,’ including many politicians. He described how its editor Andy Coulson and three former newsdesk executives had run the newspaper as a ‘thoroughly criminal enterprise’. Coulson, who had subsequently gone on to become Prime Minister David Cameron’s director of communications, was jailed for 18 months, and four other journalists on the paper also received prison sentences.
While the Express and Mail led in the barrel-scraping, xenophobic rhetoric that characterised the EU referendum campaign, the Sun had been vehemently anti-EU for decades. Its attacks on the EU reached fever pitch in the summer of 2016, culminating in a trumpeted instruction to its readers on the eve of the referendum: ‘We must set ourselves free from dictatorial Brussels.’
The Times, which is allowed a slightly higher degree of autonomy by its owner than the mass-market Sun, prevaricated over Brexit before finally backing Remain, albeit in decidedly lukewarm fashion. But both before and after the referendum, prominent Brexit campaigners used the newspaper as a platform for their views, not least Michael Gove, who joined the Times in 1996 as a leader writer and went on to serve as its comment editor and news editor, with a weekly column on politics. Gove is known to enjoy a close relationship with Murdoch, who helped set up Gove’s interview with Trump in early 2017 and was in the room while it took place.
Murdoch was delighted by the Brexit outcome, calling it ‘wonderful’ and saying that leaving the EU was like a ‘prison break … we’re out’. His use of the word ‘we’ was interesting. An Australian by birth, Murdoch is now a US passport-holder. In many ways, he can be seen, in Theresa May’s phrase, as a ‘citizen of nowhere’ – a global media magnate manipulating politics the world over but highly averse to the idea of being subject to national rules himself.
Murdoch’s dislike of the EU is not just about his desire to continue to enjoy unrestricted power over UK politics. It also reflects his preference for a small state and resistance to regulation and his fear that the EU has the courage and clout to regulate the media and telecoms sectors where national governments do not.
In 2014 he told a meeting of corporate bosses in Sydney that governments need to remove constraints on business: ‘You should be leaving the public, by the normal processes of demand, to provide business with the opportunities to get on with life and get the governments to take a back seat.’ Murdoch also defended companies that relocate to countries with lower corporate tax rates: ‘For businesses large and small there’s simply too much red tape and too many self-serving politicians stifling economic growth and entrepreneurialism.’
It seems Murdoch has little reason to fear that UK politicians will attempt to restrict the growth of his own empire. In June 2018, Culture Secretary Matt Hancock was in his post just long enough to greenlight Murdoch’s bid to take full control of Sky plc (although he will be required to relinquish control of Sky News). The Institute of Economics Affairs (IEA), whose chairman has made repeated donations to Hancock, must be delighted by their scion’s dubious achievement before he moved on to take their ideas about privatisation to the Health Department.
And Rupert Murdoch would appear to be getting just the results he wanted from Brexit.
Photo credit: Eva Ranaldi https://bit.ly/2KCeZjO