The real oligarchic nature of democratic polities and societies, and the fact that “freedom” is actually a cover for the untrammelled exercise of power by the strong in society, are subjects that I have written about before in this column and elsewhere.
The real oligarchic nature of democratic polities and societies, and the fact that “freedom” is actually a cover for the untrammelled exercise of power by the strong in society, are subjects that I have written about before in this column and elsewhere. The line I have often used is that the power of elites in democracies is based on the ability to fool enough of the people enough of the time. The role of the supposedly free press in this process is obvious and often highlighted, in some cases at least, such as the role of Fox News in America. What are less often commented on, despite the facts being public and known, are the extent and nature of connections between those who have power in the press, and the political and business elites who are more overtly powerful in society. Some at least of these links have been graphically exposed in the scandal that has enveloped Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation media empire in recent weeks.
Superficially, the scandal concerns telephone hacking and other illegal activities by journalists at the News of the World (NOTW), Britain’s top-selling newspaper until it was unexpectedly closed by News Corp. last month, in an attempt to stop the scandal spreading. Of greater interest, however, is the widespread concern that has been voiced in British media and political circles about the power of Murdoch’s media empire, a concern that has evidently been festering for some time without anyone daring to speak out for fear of offending the media mogul and bringing the wrath of News Corp. down on their heads.
Murdoch and News Corp. are perhaps best known internationally as the owners of the notoriously right-wing Fox television channel in the US. In Britain, they own the News International group, which publishes several major newspapers, including the Times, the Sun and (until last month) the News of the World. They also own a controlling interest in Britain’s main satellite television company, British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), and have been trying to purchase it outright. They also own or control a range of other major media organizations around the world, including the major Asian satellite television group STAR TV.
The power that Murdoch’s news empire exercises in Britain has long been recognised. In 1992, the Sun newspaper famously ran the headline “It’s the Sun wot won it” (sic) after leading a campaign to ensure that the Conservative Party, which had been in power since 1979, was not toppled by Labour, which had been leading in the polls for most of the previous three years. Two years later, the new Labour leader, Tony Blair, travelled to Australia to attend a News Corp. conference and ask for Murdoch’s political support for the 1997 elections. Having come to power, with the endorsement of the Murdoch press, Blair repaid Murdoch by relaxing Britain’s laws on media ownership, enabling Murdoch to take control of BSkyB.
Robert Fisk recently revealed that he quit the Times and moved to the Independent because he was fed up of the pro-American and pro-Israeli bias at the Murdoch paper.
In 2008, David Cameron made a similar pilgrimage, this time travelling to Crete to visit Murdoch on his private yacht. Cameron subsequently appointed a former NOTW editor, Andy Coulson, as his media adviser while in opposition, and to a senior government position once he had come to power in 2010, again thanks largely to the support of the Murdoch press. (Coulson had resigned from the NOTW after early revelations of illegal activities there; he resigned from government earlier this year as more details of his role at the NOTW emerged, and his appointment has become an embarrassment for Cameron). The Cameron government was also expected to approve News International’s complete takeover of BSkyB, a move which would have given Murdoch a dominant position in the British media. It was probably fears about that prospect that prompted the Guardian to investigate the NOTW’s activities, expoising the current scandal.
For Muslims, the partial humbling of Murdoch must be welcomed. Fox’s pro-Zionist and Islamophobic bias is well known, seen not least in its stoking of the empty controversy over the building of a masjid a few blocks from the site of the 9-11 atrocity in New York. In Britain, it is acknowledged that the Murdoch papers have a long record of pro-Israel bias; the respected veteran journalist Robert Fisk recently revealed that he quit the Times and moved to the Independent because he was fed up of the pro-American and pro-Israeli bias at the Murdoch paper. The Murdoch press was also a major cheerleader for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, Rupert Murdoch accepted an award from the Anti-Defamation League, a major Israeli lobby in America, for his support of Israel. In his acceptance speech, he said that criticism of Israel amounted to “a new phase” of “an ongoing war against the Jews”.
Already, however, News Corp. and its powerful friends are rallying to protect Murdoch and themselves. Cameron, under pressure for his links with Murdoch, initially made concession to Murdoch’s opponents, acknowledging that he should not have hired Coulson and encouraging Murdoch to withdraw his bid to buy BSkyB, but has subsequently played the scandal down, saying that it had been overblown for political purposes. Other right-wing newspapers, such as those of the Daily Mail group, fearing the exposure of their own secrets, have taken a similar line. The unfortunate reality is that this latest scandal was driven by public outrage at excesses such as the hacking of the mobile telephone of a murdered school girl, rather than recognition of the dangers of the political power exercised by the media elites, and such outrage will quickly pass once people have other things to talk about. The recent terrorist attacks in Oslo may already have served that purpose.
For Muslims, the partial humbling of Murdoch must be welcomed.
Murdoch and his allies have suffered a blow to their interests, but it is unlikely to seriously damage them in the long term. Meanwhile, the veil that has temporarily been lifted on the nature of the power structures of democratic polities will quietly fall again, and once the opinion makers in the media stop talking about them, people will soon forget the unpleasant realties that were briefly exposed to them. For that is how discourse is manipulated in the supposedly free press of the democratic West.