Prodigal son departs
James Murdoch’s departure from his father’s media empire puts the spotlight once again on its political evolution, writes William Kane
For those of us on the left, it may seem incredible for James Murdoch to have accumulated such intense misgivings about the output of News Corporation that he was compelled to resign.
He had been a loyal lieutenant for two decades, and it hardly seems that the content of the papers and TV stations owned by his father has changed enormously in character in that time (though it has indeed changed). The post itself was a bit of a consolation prize: though it is hardly a great inconvenience to be a member of News Corp’s board, it is a rather more modest position than he might once have expected. It costs him little to drop it - he will find it easier than Harry Windsor to make a go of it outside the sacred family circle.
There we have it, however: his resignation letter specifically cited “disagreements over certain editorial content published by the company’s news outlets and certain other strategic decisions”. And indeed, for seasoned Murdoch watchers, these “disagreements” on content are nothing new. In his book Hack attack, on the phone-hacking scandal (of which more later), Nick Davies reminds us of a private dinner between Murdochs père and fils and Tony Blair in the early 2000s:
Alastair Campbell’s diary records that James, briefly reverting to the leftwing views of his rebellious youth, made his mark on the prime minister by loudly contradicting his father’s claim that the Palestinians had nothing to complain about, explaining that they ‘were kicked out of their fucking homes and had nowhere to fucking live’.1
More recently, particularly under the influence of his wife, Kathryn Hufschmid Murdoch, his disquiet has focused on the problem of climate change. Rupert, so far as anyone can tell, is dismissive of the threat - and so are most of his media outlets, including Fox News, of course, and his Australian papers. That particular editorial line reached its moral nadir during the catastrophic summer bushfires down under, and James and Kathryn published a statement openly expressing their “disappointment” at the denialism of News Corp’s output. Though his responsibility includes, in part, Fox News and so on, James is known to despise Donald Trump and the Republican right, and has personally donated money to Joe Biden’s political campaign.
This ‘leftism’ should not be overstated. As Davies put it, “Rupert Murdoch adopted the language of neoliberalism as respectable clothing for the otherwise naked ambition of his plans for global corporate expansion; the son really believes it.” James would not retract a single word of his notorious MacTaggart lecture of 2009, in which he denounced the BBC as an obstacle to free speech with “chilling” ambitions. Simon Bunney, a producer on the BBC’s recent documentary series The rise of the Murdoch dynasty, suggests that “he is politically closer to people like David Cameron and George Osborne than he is to the left”.2
Perhaps this is the place to talk about “certain other strategic decisions”, and the chequered history of his career itself. There was a time when that James was being groomed for far greater things than a boardroom sinecure. His elder brother, Lachlan, was not high in their father’s estimation, so Rupert aggressively promoted James through the ranks. As a final test of his mettle before joining the ageing mogul at his New York headquarters, he was made executive chairman of News International, the British outpost of the Murdoch empire, in 2007 - the last person to hold that post.
Readers may remember that it did not end well. James can hardly be blamed for the criminal intrusion into the mobile phone voicemails of celebrities, politicians and the momentarily newsworthy, which peaked long before his time at the top. The specific revelation that blew the thing wide open - that the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager, had been hacked, inadvertently giving the police the impression that she was listening to her voicemails and was therefore alive - concerned events a decade earlier, when he was barely out of university. But he must take responsibility for the second phase of the cover-up, the attempt to keep a lid on things after the conviction of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman for phone hacking.
The failure of James and CEO Rebekah Brooks to do so was politically and economically disastrous for his father. A deal to take full ownership of BSkyB, on the verge of being waved through by a pliable Tory government, was torpedoed as too politically sensitive. Like forked lightning in the night, the collapse of News International gave the rest of us a brief, dazzling glimpse of the landscape, and what it revealed was pervasive, corrupt complicity between the political class, media barons and even the police. The relentless obstructionism of the police described in Davies’s book was suddenly placed in the context of complimentary horse-riding outings chez Brooks for top cops (her husband, Charlie, is a horse-breeder). We learned that the prime minister had sent a personal text message of support to Brooks (and thought that ‘lol’ stood for ‘lots of love’), and culture minister Jeremy Hunt communicated extensively and encouragingly with Murdoch lobbyist Frédéric Michel during the BSkyB discussions. So it went on.
Though Brooks somehow came back from that (she is generally thought to be a favourite of Rupert’s), having been put out to pasture for four years on a £16 million payoff before returning to be chief executive of News UK, Murdoch senior never seems to have forgiven James. Lachlan was brought back in as heir apparent, while James began to specialise in the creative parts of the business - the Fox film studios, new digital initiatives and the like - but that was all sold off a couple of years ago. His father’s house was no longer his home; so, we may surmise, holding his nose against the putrid ravings of Fox News anchors was no longer worth the muscle strain.
The latest scandal on that front comes courtesy of Tucker Carlson - once a run-of-the-mill libertarian conservative and now an anti-bourgeois traditionalist ultra-conservative. Carlson stands on the Trumpite wing of the Fox News roster and, while controversy has lately focused on his promotion of ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theories and strident opposition to the Black Lives Matter protests, for our money ‘peak Carlson’ was reached about a year ago, when - along with guest James Panero of the traditionalist New Criterion magazine - he delivered a bizarre segment about the metric system being the first step to the guillotine.3
Some enterprising journalists at CNN discovered that a major writer on Carlson’s show - one Blake Neff - had been posting on an online forum under a pseudonym, making plain his crassly racist views and conducting a years-long campaign of harassment against a woman poster. Neff resigned, while, for his part, Carlson delivered a pro forma criticism of Neff’s racist postings, before pivoting into a diatribe against the (yawn) “cancel culture” and the “ghouls now beating their chests in triumph at the destruction of a young man”.
Between James Murdoch and Tucker Carlson there is, laid out before us, the contradiction of the rightwing media in the current situation. The cheap tricks of Murdoch’s gutter press and gutter broadcasters - tirades against migrants and foreigners, assiduous promotion of ‘culture war’ politics against an ‘out of touch liberal elite’ and so on - were always instrumental. They had two uses: making money, by driving up audiences through sensationalism; and delivering a bloc of plebeian votes for political parties sympathetic to the political and economic interests of the Murdochs (and, indirectly, their advertisers - a rough proxy for the capitalist class as a whole).
This is a delicate act, primarily because the entrenchment of a small number of media empires tends to grow the power of a ‘metropolitan elite’ - albeit not necessarily fitting the bien pensant stereotype of The Sun, the Mail etc - and the parties so elected tend to widen social inequality, exacerbating the resentments that make the yellow press so easy to believe in the first place. The gulf between the political lines taken to sell papers and votes and the actual interests of those doing the selling widens.
This contradiction is not merely an epiphenomenon of the particular vagaries of the media in Anglo-American culture today, then: it is intrinsic to capitalism, which like all class societies must ensure the political rule of a minority, but uniquely among them lacks easy recourse to a stable ‘natural’ vision of hierarchy (all that is solid melts into air, and all that).
The shape of this contradiction is such that there is no obvious political home for the likes of James Murdoch, when what is today demanded of Fox and the Tories alike is honestly deranged national chauvinism, rather than the cynically doled-out doses of old. It can also entangle the left, however, as is visible in our contortions over so-called ‘cancel culture’.
So far as the bourgeoisie is concerned, the ‘cancel culture’ wars come down to the need to maintain control of both left and right flanks; it is necessary to exercise some discipline over the chauvinist right in order to keep the global reach of US capital (and, by extension, British capital in its subordinate role), hence the promotion of a more diverse bourgeois professional class and concomitant ‘cancellation’ of various sexist, racist, etc dinosaurs. On the other hand, the left must not be allowed to recover from its near-total exclusion from the political mainstream; so there is a need for an ideological counter-offensive against cancellation, so far as it concerns wedge issues on which the left can be isolated.
On our side, the contradiction manifests as a political decision: do we side with sections of the oppressed, when they demand that various official bodies live up to their ‘equal opportunities’ commitments and corporations back up their feel-good liberal PR offensives with advertising boycotts and sackings? Or do we instead line up with the doughty defenders of free speech? In fact, we need to get out of the contradiction altogether: we first of all need to recognise that the ‘free speech’ side of this battle is in fact against free speech, in that its concrete political expression is that somebody must ‘do something’ about cancel culture: that is, that the ‘cancelled’ should be legally protected from speech that is critical of them. Blake Neff must be permitted to tell bad racist jokes and suffer no adverse consequences at all. The right to free speech, for us, is the opposite - the right to protest, to picket and to heckle, and with it the duty to take responsibility for what we say.
The infernal logic of the ‘free speech wars’ comes from the fact that the traditional liberal defence of that right - that the open contestation of different ideas shall lead in the end to broad consensus - is false. The contest of ideas is inseparably bound up with the contest of social groups - most especially classes, but also sections of classes; a truly open contest of ideas demands effective counter-power on the part of the subordinate classes. In its absence, the result is merely the widening contradiction we have described - between the bureaucratic management of ideas and the reactionary jacquerie against an elite that supposedly includes the left, despite our honeyed words about equality.
We favour free speech, in other words, for the good of the mass media we need, but do not yet have: the media of an international party-movement of the proletariat, which will allow us to fight the real war rather than the phoney culture war presented to us, and permit by and by a far more kaleidoscopic variety of voices to emerge than is presently imaginable under the domination of corporate and state media and hyper-capitalist social networking platforms.
At that point, free speech really does defend itself - who would want to go back to a time when the choice was, for all practical purposes, between Rupert and James Murdoch?
N Davies Hack attack: how the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch London 2014.↩︎