The unfolding scandal over phone hacking, police corruption and political intimidation in Britain is filled with enough juicy details to fill a fat novel. But I thought it might be worthwhile to take a big picture view of the man at the heart of the scandal, Rupert Murdoch. My assessment of the man can be found here.
Murdoch’s right-wing populism belongs to a long tradition of press barons who traded in yellow journalism while stirring up hatred against various minority groups. In their day, William Randolph Hearst (the mastermind of a vast newspaper chain) and Joseph Medill Patterson (founder of the New York Daily News) craftily combined sensationalistic reports of celebrities, sex and crimes with very conservative social messages and jingoistic nationalism.
Why has there been such a persistent affinity between right-wing populism and tabloid journalism? A simple economic explanation might suffice: To own a newspaper such as The News of the World, you have to be very rich. To make the paper a going concern, you have to appeal to a wide swathe of readers. Left-wing populism might gather a crowd, but it creates the danger that your own wealth might be expropriated if the message is too successful. So it is safer for a newspaper baron to put out a paper targeting minority groups rather than the rich. Right-wing populism is a way for plutocrats to wear the mask of plebian outrage, pretending to be the voice of the very people they are economically exploiting.