Understanding Rupert Murdoch and the establishment

English: Rupert Murdoch at the Vanity Fair par...

English: Rupert Murdoch at the Vanity Fair party celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is lost in the furore around Rupert Murdoch is that he is not part of the British Establishment.[1] Despite the fact that he is an elite, he is not part of the establishment. His news organisation has a large role in the public establishment and UK politics; it has been mainly with the public face of the establishment (the police, and politicians) and only occasionally the less public face (the Royal family and courtiers, the Inns and Guilds, and landowners).[2] He is an outsider to the establishment and he has treated its laws and customs as an outsider. As some commentators have noted, he has approached the public interest and the regime’s laws as if they did not apply or only applied if they fit his interests.[3] Such an attitude reflects the way that power responds to law.[4] In some areas, he has acted through his media empire as if he was above the law and his employees have modelled that behaviour.[5] For the most part, the public establishment has tolerated him as long as he fit within the public establishment’s interests broadly understood. They needed him and his news organisation to manage public opinion in the same way that they needed the police to manage public order.[6] Instead of using the public interest to serve the public against the establishment, he has policed the public domain for the establishment. Without an ability to influence public opinion, democratic governments find it difficult to govern. At a tactical level, the police, who have a role in maintaining public order, have found his papers useful for their purposes even if the papers have exploited that relationship.[7]

Murdoch serves a role for the public establishment

One must always remember that he has done business successfully and comfortably with the political party in power. He has served the Labour party and the Conservative party. To that extent, he is content to serve power so long as that relationship is reciprocated. The political parties have paid a high price, but one that they willingly paid and continue to pay. What we rarely hear is how much the political parties have used his services and benefitted from them. When the Murdoch papers savaged political enemies, even internal political opponents, the ruling party has not complained.[8] In this, his news organisations act like democratic gauleiters who enforce public order within the political community.[9] The political parties have accepted this as the way politics is conducted. They did not invent the rules. They are content to play by them rather than try to change them.[10] However, like reverse gamblers who discuss their losings rather than their winnings, the public face of the establishment has been keen to emphasize the negative side of their relationship. They have used other media outlets to paint Murdoch as a nefarious figure. They attack him because it serves their purposes even though they continue to court his services. If they cannot court his services then the service of other media barons’ outlets, who may not charge as high of price, will be courted even if they lack the coverage.[11] However, Murdoch does deserve some of the negative publicity given the way he and his news organisations have behaved. Despite this negativity, Murdoch has been true to himself and his “brand”. What you see is what you get. He trades in gossip and is willing to use that gossip to betray friends and confidences as long as it serves his purposes and makes money.

Who is he though?

Murdoch as the public see him is a promethean character ready and willing to adapt to what the political situation requires. He has changed religion as needed. He has changed his support to the political party that best serves his interests. He has changed citizenship to serve his business interests. He appears to have changed wives to suit his personal interests.

A life in the wilderness, who would choose to live this way?

We can only sketch the issue, but on the surface, it is clear Mr Murdoch lives within a wilderness of mirrors, as he has no one he can publicly trust absolutely. His business relies on gossip, betrayal and a mercantile ethos. Yet, he has been betrayed. Even though there is no physical evidence that his wife consummated her infatuation with ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, the appearance of that relationship was enough to justify a divorce. Someone who he came to see as a friend betrayed him. If we leave aside the gossip and innuendo, the incident reveals the way Murdoch’s personal life intersects with his business. Neither he, nor we, should be surprised. His business ethos, a reflection of his personal ethos, is driven by the ability to exploit confidences to further his business interests. Murdoch has devoted his life to his company and it is inextricably linked to him. In many ways, his company is part of his extended family.[12] His children are in key managerial roles. In some cases, it would appear that his familial relationships are based on commercial interest.

The corporation as a city suggests this story is timeless

One would have to look to history to find a comparable life. The model that comes to mind is the tyrants of ancient Greece. These were men who ruled a city for their own benefit. The city served them and their interests. Xenophon’s Hiero provides a starting point for understanding him. Like Hiero he has to keep a bodyguard at all times and cannot enjoy the pleasures of a private man. His power comes at the price of safety. He lives without friends and is constantly on guard against those who would undermine him. He cannot go to public events without facing public criticism and his relationships are based on fear and self-interest and not love and self-sacrifice.[13]

Who gains the least is not always who complains the most.

To be sure, in many cases, the exchange between the media and the public face of the establishment is consensual at the start and the claim of betrayal only comes later. The claim is either as a device to create plausible deniability or simply because the deal has gone bad. In this sense, we have to consider whether such claims are for effect or to spare the “injured” party’s modesty. The corporation as a regime may reflect more than we wish to consider.[14] As we know, hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. Politicians who claim he has betrayed them find it convenient to forget that they sought something from the relationship with him or his organisation.[15]

What is his relationship with the establishment in the UK?

The relationship benefits both parties; however, it is based on a contractual ethos not of mutual interest. One example is the way the government has been able to keep the story of the paedophile who worked for the Prime Minister on a low key. They decided when and how the story would be published.[16] Even though the story was published, it received less attention from the newspapers. Such an approach shows the way in which information can be used for political and institutional advantage. Leveson showed how Rebekah Brooks, following Murdoch’s lead, would promise to not to publish stories to gain influence with the story’s target. What remains though is the ever-present ability to publish the story in the future. To put it mildly, this amounts to blackmail. In this way, a media organisation retains influence over those that it “serves”. In turn, the targets often agree to work for the company and the relationship is cemented.[17]

The public face of the establishment only masks the establishment.

All of the above is only the public face of the establishment. Behind the public face of the establishment are the less well-known parts. In particular, there are the inns and guilds that form the feudal core of the establishment. The Royal Family and its courtiers cut across both parts, but for the most part, it is part of the establishment’s private face. We can see this in the way that the private secretary came to the phone hacking trial. (See footnote 4) The exchange shows that the establishment is treated differently before the law than those subject to Parliament and parliament’s laws. The ancient fault lines emerge in such an exchange. The wider picture of the establishment needs to be understood as phone hacking was not simply the Guardian vs News Corp as it gets to the heart of the British regime. The issue reflects, and reveals, deeper fault lines as well as the alliances at work in the political parties and across the wider political establishment. In many ways, this is what politics is: A network of relationships and obligations that are used to make decisions for the public good.

There are unwritten rules that even the press cannot break without consequence

Where Murdoch overstepped was in two related areas that showed how far he and his corporation had abused the public interest for profit. The first was the extent his reporters pursued stories deep into the Royal family. Once the Royal family’s security was compromised, the issue changed from being in the public interst to threatening it. Murdoch’s reporters forgot that the UK might have a democratic political system but it remains a monarchy. Had the stories remained on the surface or gained through traditional methods, convincing or facilitating someone to betray a confidence, then he might have retained his status. The Royal family’s security is *the* public interest as it is her government and her country. They violated the unwritten rule by threatening the private establishment. However, it was the second factor that proved the paper’s undoing. When the paper hacked a dead girl’s phone, the abuse of the public interest undermined the democratic façade that their work benefits the public. The public, in whose name they nominally worked, turned against them. The consequences from that event, which raised the profile of the associated illegal behaviour, led to the News of the World’s closure. His organisations could no longer play the private and the public face of the establishment and the public off each other.

The public interest seems to serve the public as a second hand good

In that moment, we see the façade begin to crumble. What the tabloids, in particular News of the World and the Sun, but all newspapers, claimed to do in the public interest was revealed their personal or organisational interest. They had been caught in a lie. They had used the public interest, the public voice, the best interests of the public for which they were granted great licence to hold the powerful to account and safeguard the public, at least in theory, to abuse and exploit the public. The newspapers were pimping the public interest to justify illegal acts. They used it to abuse, intimidate, bully, harass, and destroy people for their own ends not because it served the public interest. What made the lie apparent for all to see was the Leveson Inquiry. There, the public saw with its own eyes and heard with its own ears the truth that the proprietors knew exactly what was being done because the rules they set down for their organisations were the same rules they lived and worked by. They made the rotten barrels that created the rotten apples, the so-called “rogue” employees.

Conclusion: A new establishment emerging?

What we may be seeing is the relationship between Murdoch and the establishment, in any country, slowly but surely being re-examined. Social media is challenging his pre-eminence and influence.[18] Even though his empire commands great respect and retains great influence, it has begun to wane rather than wax. One could suggest that its political influence will not survive his death, which will suggest, perhaps more than anything else, the hollowness of its achievements. Like Hiero, though, he still has the opportunity to change and choose a different path.


[1] Even though Owen Jones has suggested a definition of the Establishment in his book The Establishment: And how they get away with it (Penguin 2014) it seems to miss or overlook the role of the monarchy in setting and creating the context for the establishment. My understanding of the establishment is based on the political regime and its source of legitimacy. The Crown is the source of legitimacy, which is why the focus has to be on those public institutions that swear allegiance to the Crown. The press, as yet, do not swear an oath of obedience to the crown. However, their “independence” is filtered by the relationship of their proprietors with the Establishment.

[2] We can see the continuing feudal institutions in the financial sector as exemplified in the City of London. See http://www.the-american-interest.com/2014/03/19/the-much-too-special-relationship/ (accessed 14 February 2015) and http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/31/corporation-london-city-medieval (accessed 14 February 2015).

[3] One could argue, as Harold Evans does, that Rupert Murdoch breaks promises and does not obey the laws he finds inconvenient. To do this, he persuades those who enforce the laws not to enforce them. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-king-of-broken-promises-rupert-murdoch-1425246.html (accessed 15 February 2015).

[4] Compare the way Sir Michael Peat, Private Secretary to Prince Charles from 2002 to 2012 responded to questions at the phone hacking trial.

“Justice Saunders tried to placate him: “Your evidence is relevant to this case,” he told Peat. “However much you were nagged by the police, we would be grateful if you would spend a few minutes of your time to answer questions.” But Peat wasn’t having it. He said he’d be the judge of what he would answer: “As long as I feel it is relevant,” he said.”

It was one of the rare moments the hacking trial judge showed the steel beneath the charm, a flash of the ceremonial sword on the wall, usually obscured by his silk robes. “It is not your decision if it is relevant or not,” Justice Saunders said: “It is not your decision. It is my decision – because I am the judge in this court. Let’s have the jury back in….”

As the jury returned, Justice Saunders explained the reason for the hiatus: “We have done our utmost not to require people to answer questions about their personal life. Sir Michael does not want to answer the question. We will carry on without the question being asked.” He indicated the Crown barrister should continue. Bryant-Heron said flatly: “I have no further questions. Thank you my lord,” and sat down.” See Peter Jukes Beyond Contempt p101-102).

What we never find out is whether he answered the question and obeyed the law. The judge may have reminded Sir Michael of the law, but it does not appear he was able to make him obey it. Moreover, the QC did not follow up with any questions. One wonders if any other witnesses would be allowed to act as imperiously before the court. Then again, the Judge swears an oath of obedience to the Crown not to the law or to the people. If the Crown’s representative can display such contempt of the rule of law one should not be surprised that Rupert Murdoch would display similar contempt to the rule of law when it does not serve his business or personal interests.

[5] See Dial M for Murdoch by Watson and Hickman p.176. We see how News of the World simply refused to cooperate with the police or respect their lawful power. They intimidated and harassed the police officers, who were upholding the law and acting lawfully, to keep them from seizing evidence pursuant a police investigation of an alleged crime. The lack of cooperation became so endemic that the officer in charge of the investigation had a summit with the News International NI (the owners of News of the World) officials to define what was meant by full cooperation. One wonders if they have similar meetings during investigations into other crimes when they ask people they are investigating for an alleged crime to meet with them so they will cooperate with them.

[6] Consider that the police provide a public order function that is slowly being reduced. The modern police emerged from an era when security and public order were provided by a powerful person’s retainers and security arrangements. Today, with the increase in private security firms and segregated or gated communities this seems to be returning. On this point, consider the following article. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-coalition-and-the-constabulary/ (accessed 15 February 2015)

[7] The Panorama programme on the Fake Sheik illustrates this point. The News of the World exploited, and exploited is the only word, its relationship with the police. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04p1zlb/panorama-the-fake-sheikh-exposed (accessed 15 February 2015)

[8] Savaged is not too strong of word as the common parlance is the effect is to be “monstered”. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/oct/17/leveson-inquiry-robert-jay-press (accessed 15 February 2015)

[9] The media can pursue any individual in the public domain because once they enter the public domain they stop being ordinary individuals. In this strange way the public interest is used by the press to patrol the public domain for the establishment’s interests and not the public’s interest for what ordinary individual, the public, would enter the public domain under such potential scrutiny? Moreover, it raises the real but philosophical point whether the public domain is simply an extension of the Crown rather than the public. https://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/has-the-uk-medias-abuse-of-the-public-interest-stifled-democracy/ (accessed 15 February 2015)

[10] It is difficult to change the rules because they are intrinsic to the political system. To change them would be to confront the system’s enforcer, the press, who benefits from the relationship and most importantly the ruling party, their own leadership, who benefit as well. Thus, there would need to be two distinct, although interrelated, battles to be won to begin to change the rules. Even then, the rules may only be redrawn or reformed rather than changed. One only need to note how well the ruling coalition, and even Parliament, have succeeded in watering down the Leveson recommendations *even though* they have professed support to the end goal: reform the press.

[11] What is less well understood is how the social media domain is being managed in this way as Murdoch’s empire has been less successful in this way. One could argue that such work is contracted out that work as niche media sites like Guido Fawkes and other mercenaries who offer such services. (On the role of mercenaries as needed by a tyrant consider Xenophon On Tyranny 8.9)

[12] See Neil Chenoweth on this point. http://origin-www.brw.com.au/p/rupert_murdoch_what_happens_after_DxNaOnXWFksn8pGASKg3dM (accessed 14 February 2015)

[13] For an interesting study of Xenophon’s Hiero consider Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny Corrected and Expanded Edition (2013 University of Chicago Press)

[14] See Xenophon Memorabilia IV.4.13 See also Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 5.105.2

[15]See for example this article which shows how each party has courted Murdoch and relied on him for their own purpose even though they know it can be used against them. http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/november/1383224400/robert-manne/why-rupert-murdoch-can-t-be-stopped (Accessed 15 February 2015)

[16] See for example the arrest of Patrick Rock and the way the story was not reported for three weeks. One wonders if that was in the public interest and who defines the public interest in such a story. http://www.itv.com/news/story/2014-03-03/number-10-aide-arrested-child-abuse-images-offence/ (Accessed 15 February 2015)

[17] One can see the logic to these relationships. If one is going to be exploited one might as well be paid well for it. They may be prostitutes but they are highly paid prostitutes. The difference though is that they are not prostitutes by necessity.

[18] Consider the way in which social media exploits and exacerbates the fractures within the public face of the establishment as a result of Leveson Inquiry and Plebgate. https://mediameditations.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/the-new-establishment-leveson-hacking-and-the-public-voice/ (Accessed 15 February 2014)

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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