Rupert Murdoch will quit UK newspapers, says ex-News of the World chief reporter
By Neville Thurlbeck | 27 April 2012
Rupert Murdoch does not do “subtle”. He told us so at this week’s hearing of the Leveson inquiry into newspaper practices. It is probably the only untruth that I could spot during his marathon sitting over the past two days.
He might talk tough, but his methods are subtle. Gently, layer upon layer, pause by pause, he let us know precisely who was chasing whom in the courting ritual between prime minister and newspaper proprietor.
“I may have been to dinner with him… I can’t remember meeting him… He may have come to my yacht, but I can’t recall… My wife says he did, apparently.”
These were not the words of a forgetful octogenarian. Nor were they the words of a slick PR machine. You cannot teach that sort of sophisticated approach.
Rupert Murdoch is no Robert Maxwell, who had photographs of meetings with every leader forced on the front page of his Daily Mirror. And if he were still alive this week, Maxwell would have been boasting about them from his Leveson pulpit.
But with the casual nonchalance of the well-connected media mogul, Murdoch reversed the News Corporation ship that was sailing in a completely different direction on Tuesday. On that momentous day, his media empire was firmly positioned as the one that courted the UK government.
James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, had done that through his incendiary revelations that News Corporation had been using a back-door channel to the government to push the BSkyB bid through.
Just 24 hours later, Rupert was telling us: “Not so. I was the powerful media mogul who was being courted by the country’s most powerful men.” Except, of course, he did not say that at all. But we got the message. And more importantly, we believed it.
When Rupert Murdoch says, “I have never asked a prime minister for anything”, you can bet that he is right. But what he will not tell you is: he did not need to do so.
The politicians knew already what Murdoch’s goals and ambitions were: his dislike of regulation, trade unions and the euro, as well as all his other hobby horses from better military equipment for soldiers to personal ambitions for his companies.
And to win his crucial endorsement come election time, every party leader had to try to meet those demands without compromising their manifesto or their standing in the party. Or, at least, avoid treading on Rupert’s ambitions.
This is what Robert Jay, counsel for Leveson’s inquiry, meant by suggesting that Murdoch and party leaders would engage in an elaborate “pirouette” together.
Moguls and politicians have been pirouetting since the days of Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express of old – and before. Charities do it, pressure groups do it, even overseas governments do it. And we accept this as part of the lobbying process of interest groups.
So why, when it comes to corporations with big bank accounts, should this suddenly become wrong?
It is only wrong when governments compromise themselves and reward business leaders with favours. That is when the corruption starts. And it is up to governments and their ministers to exercise the brake.
Rupert Murdoch’s approach to politics is identical to his approach to managing his newspapers. He does not ring up his editors and micro-manage operations – as the late Maxwell used to do. He is what is called a “charismatic leader”.
At the Leveson inquiry, this was taken to mean a leader who had a kind of film star “aura” about him. In fact, it means a leader who has such a dominant stamp on his business that his generals are in no doubt about what he wants. Even when he is absent. As, of course, Rupert was most of the time.
In all of Rupert Murdoch’s publications, when editors were making tough calls on which stories or investigations or campaigns to run, their thoughts always turned to the question: “What would Rupert expect?”
That is true for his other UK newspapers, The Sun, The Times and their sister Sunday titles, all of which are owned by News International, a small part of the News Corporation empire.
And the answer was always clear to them: set the agenda alight, get the paper talked about, give your readers what they want. Do not screw up.
Whether you are a prime minister or an editor, you know what Rupert wants. And if you want power or to keep your job, you make sure he gets it.
Sensing their political influence has vanished over the past nine months, both Murdochs used the Leveson inquiry to burn the rest of their political bridges.
Rupert’s main love for his newspapers was the political power that they wielded, and his son has only disdain for them. I believe that this marks the beginning of the end of the Murdoch association with News International.
Neville Thurlbeck was dismissed as News of the World chief reporter in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. He was arrested and questioned by police, and is awaiting a decision on whether charges will be brought. Thurlbeck is pursuing a claim of unfair dismissal against News International.