The Murdoch Scandal: A Big Picture View

Murdoch: The Newspaper Baron Under Seige

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.

An excerpt:

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.

 

6 thoughts on “The Murdoch Scandal: A Big Picture View

  1. Hey Jeet…my name is Eric Anderson & I’m a producer for CBC Radio in Regina. We would love to speak with you today re: Marshall McLuhan and his 100th birthday today. I can be reached at 306-347-9504.

  2. “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.”

    I’m afraid that it is in fact this sort of elite left-wing condescension which actually helps to explain the persistence of right-wing populism. The plebeians are not actually empty vessels waiting to be poured full of whatever pablum is pulled into their heads. They are actually often MORE to the right than even right-wing elites. Sometimes they even disagree with left-wing elites not because they’re empty-headed puppets, but because they have actual substantive disagreements with them. And sometimes they can just smell the buckets of condescension which drip from the pores of the limousine liberals and champagne socialists who can’t mask their contempt for the very people that they claim to saving.

    1. That’s a lot of words.

      Shorter: sow-information voters are low-information, and therefore often vote against their own interests — with or without external encouragement.

  3. Alan: well, this was a 1,000 word column not a treatise so I was focusing on one thing: the right-wing populism of the Murdoch press. Of course, there is another side of the equation: the existence of actual grass-root populism.
    The thing is grass-roots populism is much more amorphous than right-wing or left-wing populism. It has often straddled the divide between left and right: think of William Jennings Bryan’s combination of support for women’s franchise, his anti-war stance, his desire to nationalize the railroads and regulate capital combined with his opposition to the teaching of evolution and his generally socially conservative views. Or the politics of Tom Watson or G.K. Chesterton.
    In contemporary North American, grassroots public opinion is often to the right of elite on certain issues: immigration, the death penalty, etc. But grassroots public opinion is often to the left of elite opinion on other issues: i.e. support of progressive taxation, opposition to free trade, and support for single payer health care.
    Given the complexity of public opinion, its notably that the Murdoch press offers only a highly selective and partisan form of populism, one that caters to the political right. So there is a curious dynamic here where genuinely populist views are aired but only by papers that serve the interests of plutocrats. Various theorists (Gramsci, Chomksy and even the classic liberal Walter Lippmann) would call this a process of manufacturing consent or creating a hegemonic bloc. To pretend that this process isn’t occurring – to believe that populism is a phenomenon unmediated by control of newspapers and radios — is to ignore an evident reality.

  4. @ Alan

    Bitter much? One of the attractive things about reading or watching some of the more popular “right-wing” broadcasters and writers like Eric Malling, John Stoessel, P.J. O’Rourke, and Mark Steyn was the fact that for the most part they were happy warriors.

    I would agree though that a lot of progressive opinion can be used to mask some very conservative attitudes. I’m probably showing my age here, but “Canadian cultural protectionism” works out very well for a woman who attends the United Church on Sunday, works in a library Monday through Friday, canvasses for the NDP during Federal Elections, and thinks Rick Mercer is the embodiment of hilarity and entertainment.

    If you have the misfortune to be a nineteen year old male out on the Prairies, and you would prefer to watch Tales from the Crypt instead of Codco, those progressives start looking pretty fussy and conservative very quickly. It’s kinda convenient how those broadcasting rules written in part with an eye on “cultural protectionism” makes it more difficult to watch television programming with a lot of bare breasts and grand guignol violence.

    Which leads to the question I had for

    @ Jeet

    I know nothing about the particulars of Murdoch’s newspapers in the United Kingdom. However, probably not unlike yourself, I was raised on a diet of Married With Children, The Simpsons, and later Family Guy. I’d argue that those shows have more of an effect on popular opinion than any editorial line in a newspaper. I’d wager one Simpsons episode on vegetarianism or a Family Guy episode on marijuana moves and shapes public opinion in ways newspaper editorial writers can only dream of.

  5. @Mark. Well, I’d draw a distinction between the Murdoch press, which does reflect the owners ideology, and the various shows and movies produced by Murdoch’s companies, which he doesn’t micromanage the way he does the news outlets. As a matter of fact, according to Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff, Murdoch doesn’t even like Married With Children or The Simpsons. “The Fox Network doesn’t make him any happier. It’s a growing success, based first on the prime-time hit Married With Children, the scatological domestic comedy, followed by The Simpsons, that culturally anarchic cartoon, but it’s bewildering to him [Murdoch].” Michael Wolff, The Man Who Owns the News, page 300.

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