It seems impossible to ignore the Murdoch saga: the seedy old martinet, his chosen heir apparent and the family sycophants and hangers on, shades of the Duvaliers’ era in Haiti, or a dozen or more banana republic tyrants. The Murdochs are clearly prepared to be as ruthless and dishonest as it takes in pursuit of their own self-interest. Their dishonesty, now being revealed daily, was confirmed early on, for example, by Harold Evans, much respected editor of the Times, when the Murdochs took over. Assurances of continued editorial independence were made as a condition of the acquisition, but within a year ‘every guarantee had been broken’. Evans concluded that the Murdochs would ‘promise anything to gain control’. As they are doing now to gain control over BskyB.
The Murdochs’ utter ruthlessness is also being demonstrated daily by the continuing revelations of criminal activity sanctioned in their organisation, and not least by the abrupt closure of the News Of The World with the destruction of around 200 jobs, in some vain attempt to rescue vestiges of public respect for the family.
Andreas Whittam Smith, founding editor of the Independent, describes the Murdochs as ‘bullies and cowards’, and expects enquiry into their wrongdoing, despite their repeated attempts to stop it, to continue till they find themselves in court answering charges under Section 79 of The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, focusing on their criminal liability as directors etc.
The Murdochs most certainly do not look like ‘fit and proper persons’ to own media companies, and on those grounds should be prevented from acquiring BSkyB. But their acquisition should never have been countenanced in the first place on simple competition grounds. The government seems to believe that its ideological devotion to ‘free trade and open markets’ (as proclaimed in the Bombardier fiasco – see previous posting) prevents it taking a regulatory role to protect competition. But unless competition is protected, markets will tend to become monopolistic. That is the natural and inevitable process, and that is what the Murdochs thrive on. Their explicit justification for acquiring BskyB was to provide some competition for the BBC whose ‘scale and reach’ they described as ‘chilling’. The facts are different.
On the latest reliable figures BskyB’s turnover is already well over one and half times the BBC’s licence fee income. And by 2016 when the current BBC contract is due for renewal, assuming a modest 5% pa growth rate, BSkyB turnover will be well over double the BBC income. The Murdoch’s description of the BBC’s scale and reach as chilling, is what has come to be called dissimulation. Or in other words: a lie.
The Murdochs have been politically domineering since the advent of Margaret Thatcher’s government. Blair went all over the world to address the Murdochs’ machine and crave its support. And David Cameron has been as close as anyone, employing ex-Murdoch people, socialising with others, addressing closed-doors company conferences, and attending their annual summer party in Kensington Gardens. Nor has the leader of the opposition been entirely Murdoch free. As recently as last month, Tom Watson, MP, was quoted as saying, “This will be the second time in a week that David Cameron will have moved around his schedule to be with Rupert Murdoch, at a time when the announcement of the Sky decision is imminent. I hope the two facts are not related.”
So what might be the long term impact of the Murdochs’ disgrace? Well, given their track record, they might escape scot-free. On the other hand there might be two lasting effects. Firstly they might not get to increase their grip on BskyB. And, secondly, politicians might come to regard contact with them as electorally damaging.