The meaning of Rupert Murdoch

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He changed Britain, but how much did Britain change him? The story of the Australian mogul is more complex than the popular myth suggests
by: Robert Shrimsley
“What graces the pages of our newspapers . . . is about our national narrative, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell about ourselves.”
Ink by James Graham It is a strange and sobering experience to see a close relative portrayed on stage. In this case as a character in Ink, a new play about the early days of The Sun told mainly through the relationship between Rupert Murdoch and his first editor Larry Lamb. It is a story I know well.
My uncle, Bernard Shrimsley — the relative depicted on stage — was the first deputy editor and went on to become its second editor. My father, Anthony, was its first political editor. Tales of “Rupert” and “Larry” were the backdrop to my early years. As a child I remember the pride at seeing my father’s picture and name in the paper.
Later I became aware that not everyone was as impressed. The Sun was too downmarket for the parents of some kids at my school, as pupils and teachers enjoyed explaining. After the paper tilted towards Margaret Thatcher, a couple of teachers seemed to hold me personally responsible for the Falklands war. (Although sadly I was not credited with the victory.) One particular childhood memory has stayed with me even though I did not understand it at the time.
The dates are vague but it must have been the late 1970s. We had been out to a family lunch one winter’s day with Bernard, then editor of the News of the World. After lunch he told Dad he wanted to show him something. There was an air of mystery about the thing, which is probably why I remember it. We drove a short way and pulled into what I recall as a huge piece of waste ground with a few derelict buildings.
I was baffled. My uncle, who was very animated about the empty site, said something like, “This is the place.” After a few minutes we drove away. It was only years later that I realised he had been showing us Wapping, the focal point of what would become Murdoch’s epic but successful battle to break the print unions. But from all the memories, one theme stands out. It is that “Rupert” was a good thing; a brave businessman, a real newsman, someone my family admired.
This sympathetic view, it has to be said, is not the prevailing one of the octogenarian media tycoon. The story we tell ourselves about Murdoch is one of the coarsening of our culture, of the destruction of journalistic standards and of a rightwing titan with an unhealthy grip on the levers of power.
He is the man who gave us Page 3 and phone-hacking. The reality — a reality that Ink does well to capture — is that all these conflicting narratives are true.
A scene from James Graham’s ‘Ink’ depicts, from left, Rupert Murdoch, Alick McKay, Larry Lamb and Bernard Shrimsley © Marc Brenner

It is, incidentally, one of the great ironies, given what was to happen at Wapping, that Murdoch obtained The Sun only because of the power of the print unions. It was their refusal to countenance its closure that led IPC, which also owned the far more successful Daily Mirror, to sell the ailing Sun to Murdoch.

He repaid both by smashing the unions and thrashing the Mirror. The history of Murdoch’s Sun is littered with consequences, intended and unintended. Perhaps one of the biggest questions is just how many of the consequences Murdoch himself foresaw.

What is beyond doubt is Murdoch’s role in creating the modern tabloid and with it the modern political culture. Before Murdoch, the British popular press still retained a strong sense of public service and public good.

Ink captures his first decisive steps on that path in Britain — he had already tested the model in Australia — and raises the question of whether even Murdoch grasped the final destination, though he clearly understood the direction of travel.

One of its unanswered questions is just how different Britain’s media would have been without Murdoch. Would the tabloid revolution — as we understand it today — simply have happened under someone else? Or did his business brilliance and amorality make him a unique agent?

The play, written by James Graham and directed by Rupert Goold, captures what one might call the lost Murdoch. The younger Rupert, played by Bertie Carvel, is driven and ambitious but not yet the figure of current caricature.

This is an informal Australian, gossipy, unstuffy — a man the same age as his editors — who let his staff use his Rolls-Royce when he was out of the country — ultimately with tragic consequence. One evening his deputy chairman, Alick McKay, used the car to drive home.

He was watched by two brothers who broke into his house and kidnapped his wife Muriel, assuming she was Anna Murdoch. In a crime documented in Ink, she was held to ransom and ultimately murdered.

This younger Murdoch could at times be quite small-C conservative, seeming unsure just how far he wanted to stretch the elastic of society. He would, for example, spend five years resisting calls to turn the News of the World tabloid.

Seeing this Murdoch helps explain why large parts of the media industry seem more forgiving of him than the outside world — at least until the phone-hacking scandal — even if they despair of his increasingly rightwing editorial line.

Left to right: Larry Lamb, Murdoch and Bernard Shrimsley in 1969 © Alamy

The young Murdoch was in those early days still a Labour man and an opponent of capital punishment. Murdoch’s Sun — so vociferous for Brexit — campaigned heartily for EEC membership the first time around. The question is whether the older Murdoch was always lurking inside.

It is often said that Murdoch played a powerful role in shaping modern Britain; what is less clear is how much Britain shaped the modern Murdoch. But if there was one outcome Murdoch did seem to desire from the outset it was to break the clubby world of Fleet Street. This notion can be overstated.

The world of British national newspapers was in fact highly competitive and meritocratic, especially at the popular end. Many future executives came from very humble beginnings and started at the most junior level (in my family’s case as copy boys — or runners — taking reporters’ stories back to head office).

But there were codes and traditions, and Fleet Street was united in its contempt for the new arrival. Murdoch’s Sun was launched cheaply to near total opprobrium and those early years were to shape the defiance that later became its hallmark. Necessity was truly the mother of its invention.

Unable to afford specialist reporters, it focused on new areas of coverage, the things people talked about in the pub: sex, sport and television. Not that The Sun invented sex in national newspapers. The Daily Telegraph was famed for filling its own page three with the most salacious criminal cases.

Decades later, as a junior reporter on the Telegraph, I was sent to cover a case involving a defrocked vicar with the instruction that the phrase “in the back of a Ford Cortina” must always appear in the first three paragraphs. Fleet Street already knew the selling power of sex. Murdoch just removed the fig leaf.

Anthony Shrimsley in 1981 © Alamy

For Murdoch, this was giving people what they wanted rather than what an elite thought was good for them, although it was never as entirely frivolous as popular memory suggests.

It covered crime and politics seriously and ran social campaigns. One early example highlighted the importance of cervical smears. It was called “The women who died of embarrassment”. For his senior staff, Murdoch turned to thrusting young men who felt blocked or overlooked.

Larry and Bernard had found their ascents through the Mirror ranks halted, both perceiving, rightly or wrongly, that there might be limits to the meritocracy. Larry, the son of a colliery blacksmith, jumped ship to be northern editor of the Daily Mail; Bernard, the Jewish child of a tailor’s pattern-cutter, became editor of the Liverpool Daily Post — both jobs could lead to the top but might also mark the end of the climb. Murdoch had identified the pair as the men he needed, rightly suspecting them of being susceptible to talk of breaking open the establishment.

The two left their families up north and rented a flat in Fulham from an Australian folk singer and zither player, as they worked to get the project off the ground.

One weekend, only shortly before the McKay kidnapping, Bernard and Larry took the Rolls to drive themselves back north, laughing about their fancy ride as they swept home to Southport and Bramhall.

Bernard — a larger than life figure with a booming voice — used to sing “Something appealing, something appalling” to colleagues as they battled to put out a paper from their outdated, cramped and dingy offices off Fleet Street. I remember his bellow of “nothing’s too good for the workers” as he justified the rampant consumerism and free offers.

The first edition of Murdoch’s Sun, November 1969; and the front page on June 24 2016, the day after the Brexit referendum © John Frost archive

 

Yet while Murdoch intended to challenge the clubby media establishment, the motivations of some of his editors are less clear. There is a line in Ink where Murdoch tells Lamb: “Power replaces power with itself. You can either stand on the other side of the window, tap, tap, tap, asking to come in.

Or you can establish a new line of ascension.” Murdoch wanted a new line of ascension. His editors might have been happy being let into the existing club. It is probably no coincidence that Murdoch parted company with Lamb not long after his editor had accepted a knighthood.

(Towards the end, the two went for lunch at a favoured Lamb haunt. When Murdoch ordered a cheap wine, the sommelier apparently said, “Oh sir, I don’t think Mr Lamb would like that.”) Although his editor’s growing grandeur will have rankled, more important was the failure to react to the challenge of a new and lowbrow rival.

Just as The Sun hastened the end of legendary Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp, the Daily Star would speed the demise of Lamb. But while his editor was reluctant to chase the Star downmarket, Murdoch would not make the same mistake. The modern Murdoch emerged over his first decade in charge of The Sun and coincided with the country’s growing frustration at its economic malaise.

It was Lamb’s appropriation of Shakespeare’s “winter of discontent” that branded the wave of public service strikes that helped hand the country to Thatcher. Her employment legislation curbing the powers of trade unions enabled his victory at Wapping in the mid-1980s. (He owned the land for nearly eight years before he felt able to make the move.)

But his political transformation was perhaps an inevitable destination. He still saw himself as radical and anti-establishment but found expression for it in Thatcher’s Conservatives rather than Labour.

Rupert Murdoch holding copies of The Sun at his new print works in Wapping, east London, in 1986

The same journey was travelled by his executives. Lamb, a Labour man who got his break in journalism on a union paper, was knighted by Thatcher. Bernard, who once asked for Das Kapital as a school prize, ended up working for Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum party after he retired; my father, an admirer of Hugh Gaitskell and biographer of Harold Wilson, became a fierce Thatcherite.

The Sun sped the end of deference among ordinary people; deference to the establishment, to the elites, to the royal families and — as we saw in the Brexit campaign — experts. The Sun’s direct political power is often exaggerated, but is it too much to say that Brexit would not have happened but for political discourse

The Sun helped mould? Having empowered readers to reject the Mirror’s public-service “diet of greens” under the mantra of letting people decide what they wanted, for Murdoch it was not a major step to believe that you should trust their instincts over those of the elites — especially if you had the power to shape those views.

The Sun also refashioned celebrity culture — one of its major innovations was to take television seriously — and when existing celebrities tired of its demands it simply created new ones who would not. Today’s tabloid papers and news sites are now filled with stories of reality TV contests, models and minor presenters. The only criteria for coverage are good looks and a readiness to live one’s life in the public gaze.

From Katie Price to the Kardashians, from Big Brother to Love Island. And then there is the royal family. This year sees the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana — an event blamed by her family on the relentless hounding of the tabloids. But long before her death the royals too were reduced to the status of a mere celebrity. Not only reduced but trained.

US President Donald Trump with Murdoch in New York in May © Getty Images

A generation of the younger royals played to the tabloid gallery and Diana herself knew her value to the media. The intrusion she faced was indeed unimaginable but before that tragic end she had already been media-trained by her tormentors, taught to be complicit in the way she leaked stories, gave interviews and created photo-opportunities that built her brand as she embarked on a solo career.

Did Murdoch always know how far he might take things or was he too swept along by the forces he helped unleash? The play affords him a clear vision of all this transformation at his first dinner with Lamb but even this fictional Murdoch is seen at times to draw back from his creation. Some will argue that he was only as hostile to the existing order as his business interests required.

What can be said with certainty is that he was sufficiently unsentimental about it to be unconcerned about the consequences. For now, after the humiliations of phone-hacking and the sexism scandals at Fox, he is enjoying renewed influence, especially in the US. The ascendant political populism — be it Brexit or Donald Trump — sits well with his world view. But he will also have seen the rising support for the leftwing populism of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

As he surveys the political populism he has helped unleash, might even he fear that his consequences could ultimately prove unintended? As for the stage Bernard, I struggled with the depiction.

I saw this colossal character reduced to a few lines of unlikely dialogue and rendered almost unrecognisable by the traits the playwright chose to ignore as the character was shaped into the wider needs of the narrative, each word moving him further from the person he was. I saw the play with Bernard’s daughter, my cousin. She had been nervous about it but ended up rather relieved.

“It just wasn’t him, was it?” she said. Perhaps it is apt that as the offspring of media execs we should feel this way. Seeing a relative depicted in a one-dimensional and wildly inaccurate manner must be rather like the feeling experienced by many others when reading about someone they know in the newspapers.

Robert Shrimsley is editorial director of the FT ‘Ink’ transfers to the Duke of York’s Theatre from September 9 Photographs: Getty Images; John Frost archive; Alamy; Marc Brenner

 

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