Murdoch has been the bravest media owner in Britain in the last 40 years
I've had problems with his tabloids' excesses, but let's not forget that until Rupert Murdoch's victory at Wapping, newspapers were dying
Thursday, 3 May, 2012
The real question raised by Tom Watson's self-regarding assertion about Rupert Murdoch's "fitness" to run a media company is whether Watson himself (and those MPs who voted with him) are themselves fit for purpose. We usually criticise foreign politicians or governments when they try to interfere with their free press. Watson wants to do the same; he wants Murdoch to be divested of his company.
This is not a matter of principle. Through all the long years (too long, in my view) of the Sun's support for Blair and Brown, Watson and his friends made no such complaints. But in 2009 Brown, as we know, was enraged when the Sun switched to the Conservatives. According to Andrew Neil and Murdoch himself, he vowed revenge on Murdoch's company. This is it. Watson is the instrument of Brown's fury – he is fiercely partisan, not fiercely principled.
There is no question that serious wrongdoing took place at the News of the World, both in the original hacking and in the company's failure to pursue and reveal what went wrong. Rupert and James Murdoch have each acknowledged that; they and the company and many of those who work for it are paying a terrible price for these failures. Those who hate Murdoch will have simple reactions: "Serves him right" and "About time too".
Hatred of Murdoch is a fierce and, in my view, corrosive emotion. Nothing I say will alleviate it. But here goes: Rupert Murdoch has been the bravest and most radical media owner in Britain in the last 40 years.
There are caveats. It is insupportable for any tabloid, whether the Sun, the NoW, the Mirror or the Mail to "monster" individuals. But tabloids are an essential part of a vibrant market and the Sun is an excellent paper, catering well to its audience.
Without Murdoch there could never have been such a varied newspaper market in Britain during the last 25 years. Newspapers were dying until he confronted and defeated the greedy print unions. Only after his victory at Wapping did newspapers – on the left as well as on the right – have the chance to flourish. Murdoch's purchase of Times Newspapers saved that company. It's hard to think of any other proprietor who would have sustained its huge losses year after year.
Murdoch haters love to quote Harry Evans's unhappy time as Murdoch's first editor of the Times. Many subsequent editors have described his ownership in far more generous terms. This week one of its columnists, David Aaronovitch, wrote: "I understand perfectly how this sounds, but I'll say it anyway: this newspaper is the best run and most collegiate of any media organisation that I've worked for, and I've worked for a few."
The Times has been relentlessly fair in its coverage of the hacking disaster. Some at News International must have hated its thundering.
When Murdoch launched Sky, he was derided by clever, snobbish people. It almost bankrupted him, but BSkyB (successfully managed by James Murdoch until recently) now has more than 10 million subscribers. It has made a huge contribution to diversity in the broadcast media. Many people at the BBC resent that enormously.
In America, Fox News is sometimes over the top, but it has provided an essential counterpoint to the liberalism of the established broadcasters like CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS. Since he took over the Wall Street Journal, he has made it an excellent newspaper, challenging (from a conservative editorial point of view) the liberal New York Times.
In the eyes of those who hate him, Murdoch's real crime is to have challenged liberal conventions in the US and here. As just one example, he rejected the insistence of the great and the good – including the BBC, the Guardian, the FT, Tony Blair, leading conservatives and the Lib Dems – that the euro was our "destiny". He thought it would be a disaster. He was right and they were not. Let's hope he wants to continue his involvement in the British media.