Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Credit: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons
If you go to the News of the World tabloid’s web page for the official announcement of its closure, a grim-faced James Murdoch announces the news to its readers. But the other day, your eye was inevitably drawn to the lower right corner, where a Lithuanian beauty named Agne Motiejunaite was spilling out of her D cup.
That’s British tabloid culture to the end, Rupert Murdoch with one last babe for the lads in the pub amidst all the grand talk by the British “legitimate press” that it could be the end of the Australian who has dominated the media on three continents — including the one we inhabit.
When the famed London Sunday tabloid closed over the weekend (July 8-10), it had circulation of over 2.8 million and bragged that it was the most-read English-language newspaper in the world. It lived on sex and scandal, a great deal of which it created itself.
In the end that was what undid the paper; it was caught hacking emails and voice mails of ordinary people, including parents of a murder victim and families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hacking scandal broke four years ago, but at that time the hacking extended only (we thought) to Royals, soccer stars, and pop singers. The lads at the pub were amused, titillated, and a long way from all that.
The British tabloid is primarily an English institution. It is part of a class system that still defines much of life in the United Kingdom, particularly in England. Tabloids are for the working class, while the educated nobs read broadsheets; it is the bus and subway (or Underground) against the Rolls Royce and the Mercedes. The tabs are fun, frothy, titillating, and irreverent. There is nothing in this country to rival them, not even Murdoch’s New York Post; the stuff you see on the supermarket checkout line wouldn’t sell in England; not up to standards.
Britain has some of the finest newspapers in the English-speaking world. Murdoch owns one of them, The Sunday Times; the reputation of the Guardian, the Independent, and other broadsheets (actually the Guardian has adopted tabloid form if not tabloid content recently) is unblemished by the scandal that sank the News of the World. In Scotland, the Scotsman (Edinburgh) and Herald (Glasgow) are outstanding newspapers.
In some ways, Murdoch was made for the tabloids. A rough-hewn Aussie, his sense of the common man’s taste brought him success in his native land. He got into Britain in 1969, challenging laws on foreign ownership, because, as the Independent put it, “Rupert Murdoch had been allowed to buy the News of the World from Sir William Carr, in 1969 — because an Australian was judged preferable to the rival bidder, Robert Maxwell, a Czech Jew.” Murdoch immediately took off on the formula that brought him millions in Australia, flaunted his common-man approach, and ignored English society.
He put the power of his newspapers behind Margaret Thatcher, became an insider during her reign, and no British prime minister, Labor or Conservative, since Thatcher has been elected without his support. The outsider became an insider, and whether he switched sides to back a winner or candidates sucked up to him to win is beside the point.
When Murdoch came to the United States in 1986 to create Fox Broadcasting, I’m sure I was not the only journalist to mutter, “There goes the neighborhood.” In this country he lent his conservative views to Fox News, which has become the haven for politicians at rest (Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, etc.); and he has major holdings in film, magazines, and (perhaps most controversially) the Wall Street Journal. Like the Sunday Times of London, the WSJ is a premier publication of the broadsheet genre, giving Murdoch a patina of respectability.
Where does it all go from here? Is this, as some hope, the end of Murdoch as a kingmaker and trendsetter? The man is 80 years old, and dynasties appear to work better in North Korea than in Britain or the U.S. It certainly is not the end of the tabloid era (now over a century old) in the United Kingdom; as long as the punters buy the papers, and the publishers make money.
At the end of the day, despite the journalistic sins for which it is excoriated and for which 200 journalists have paid with lost jobs, the News of the World went down not for its sins but because it could no longer make money for Rupert Murdoch. Advertisers, conscious of the bottom line if not the number of bottoms adorning the tabloid’s pages, had begun deserting Murdoch’s ship.
The American journalism monitor, Columbia Journalism Review, in a sardonic piece by Dean Starkman, advised journalists on Murdoch papers: “This is what happens when you do what your bosses are paying you to do. You get thrown overboard, is what happens, while those same news leaders express surprise and regret that you acted according to incentives they created, in a system of their making, in which they themselves took an active part. Just don’t get caught. Then it’s every man and woman for him or herself. This then is the News Corp. managerial model: Those with responsibility escape accountability. Everybody else is held to account.”
Corporate journalism is journalism by the bottom line, and in this country (and in Britain) it has brought us some fine publications; but it has also brought us Rupert Murdoch, and the neighborhood has gone downhill since his arrival.