14 MARCH 1998, Page 10


How Rupert Murdoch interferes less than other proprietors


The moving finger writes, and the record can embarrass. On finding my name in Private Eye as recipient of their Order of the Brown Nose award, I was apprehensive. The magazine quoted a half-awake inter- view I had given the Today programme just after 7 a.m. on Monday last week. I gritted my teeth and began to read . . .

All newspapers tread a little carefully where their proprietors' interests are concerned — I don't think there's anything new in that. It's obviously very embarrassing for Harper- Collins . . . It's always awkward [for newspa- pers] when something they may print touches their proprietors' interests . . . Mr Murdoch is no different from any other proprietor in that respect . . . Mr Murdoch is no different from any other proprietor.

Phew! No problem with that, 0 Moving Finger. I would not wash out a word of it, nor cancel half a line. I could defend that statement anywhere. .I believe it.

And I'll say it again. Mr Murdoch is no different from any other proprietor. Where his holdings and his writers conflict, the fact that he has an Australian accent, makes lots of money, sells working-class people the sort of newspapers they want to read, has upset the Guardian and got up the nose of the Daily Telegraph, and is sus- pected of republicanism . . . yes, one more time: does not make him different from any other proprietor. Murdoch differs in only one respect: he interferes less than other proprietors. I shall return to this.

Discussing the HarperCollins row with a journalist friend the other day, we agreed that anti-Murdochism performs for our age what anti-Semitism did for a previous one. It unites both sides of the ideological divide in hatred of a single totem. Anti-Semitism, like anti-Murdochism, allowed the Left to personalise their hatred of capitalism and the Right to claim they were standing up for civilisation.

It always comes as such a shock to per- sons of refinement to discover that busi- nesses are run by businessmen. The Harper- Collins affair tells us nothing new about the ancient tension between commerce and free speech: but a good deal about the snooty self-regard of the educated English elite. We journalists expect to be paid on a scale corresponding to our proprietors' profits; then we spend lunch in smart restaurants, usually at our proprietors' expense, trumpeting our fastidiousness at their unscrupulous commercialism — qui- etly confident that the shekels will keep flowing. With precious little support from the intelligentsia, Rupert Murdoch rescued the Times from ruin and British journalism from the print unions. We leave the dirty work to others, grow fat on the proceeds then lament how others stoop. There should be a special corner of Hell for us.

We are all now making the point that it would have been better if the Times had contained modest coverage of the Harper- Collins affair — judiciously worded, of course. In retrospect, that judgment is right. But when we say 'would have been better', what do we mean? That the nation would have learned more? Of course not. Never expect of any paper aggressive scrutiny of its proprietor's business con- cerns: what is important is that there should be rival papers and rival broadcast- ing in which to find another version. Com- petition issues are a genuine concern for journalists and politicians — but so much less fun than the breathless rediscovery that dogs do not bite the hand which feeds.

It is a moot point whether free speech is best served by a newspaper dishing up a cautiously worded half-report when an affair touches its proprietor's interests, or by leaving the room — so to speak — when the matter is discussed. If the affair is cov- ered there is a danger that credulous read- ers may suppose they have read an ade- quate report. Of course, this approach (with hindsight I guess the shrewdest) is the conventional one, as Stephen Glover point- ed out last week. The Times could have covered its own back with a restrained report. But punches would have been pulled, of course.

We would have covered our own back, no more. We would have signalled to the knowing that there existed a juicy story of which bigger and ruder versions were likely to be found in other papers. We would have added not a jot to the information or comment available, but it would have looked better. And this would have • been British journalism's proud stand, at whose omission so many tears are now being shed over the carpaccio at the Caprice.

I appreciate having been able to write for the Times for ten years now without ever once — ever once — being asked so much as to reconsider a word or line in view of my proprietor's opinions or interests. Hav- ing only met him twice I hardly know what they are. The present wave of anti-Mur- dochism strikes me as ludicrously dispro- portionate to any threat of which I have experience.

And what I shall say now will be regard- ed by most readers as mad — I know, hav- ing tried it out on friends. It is the Marxist interpretation of anti-Murdochism. I think horror of Rupert Murdoch can be traced back in an unbroken line to the English Establishment's fear of the French Revolu- tion. People with money, education and power in Britain have had, since at least 1789, a terror of the masses. You can see it in politics, of course, throughout; but you can find a reflection in the arts and letters too — in Austen, Wordsworth, Ruskin, the Bloomsbury set, in Waugh and Betjeman, Durrell and even D.H. Lawrence — Left and Right, progressives and conservatives, unite in a collective shudder at the Great Unwashed. The Right find this easy; the Left are obliged to conclude that the prole- tariat are not inherently despicable but have been degraded by their own false con- sciousness. For all kinds of reasons, expressing hatred of the lower classes is now taboo. But the horror is still there, inchoate, subliminal, suppressed.

And now comes Rupert Murdoch. By printing what the ordinary people want to read he holds up for us a mirror in which we see their image. The picture is of our own nation — but the frame is the Sun. We dare not express, even to ourselves, our hatred for the image — so we attack the frame. The man who made the frame is, after all, a rich foreigner. And he comes from Australia — whither we sent our working-class insurrectionists more than a century ago. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia — and back comes Mr Murdoch 164 years later, the proletari- an boomerang, to celebrate, and by cele- brating elevate, the cultural and political values of the vulgar.

In secret we are afraid of democracy. In public we fear Rupert Murdoch. Ignore the leader-writers' sophistry of the last two weeks: snobbery, elitism and fear are what fuels the demonising of News Corporation. The true horror of Murdoch is not that he interferes, but that he does not. He prints what people want. His newspapers are the mother of all focus groups, and we don't like the results.

Matthew Parris is parliamentary sketchwriter of the Times.