LONDON — One of the most powerful people in British politics is leaving a media vacuum.
Newspaper and TV baron Rupert Murdoch struck fear and awe into the hearts of political leaders in London from the 1970s onwards. But his departure as chair of News Corporation — which owns the Times and Sun newspapers plus Times Radio and TalkTV in the U.K. — could fundamentally change the relationship between politics and the press.
Some argue Murdoch was a one-off, the likes of whom will never be seen again in a changed media landscape. “If Murdoch was starting out again now, I just don’t think he would rise to the influence he was able to build then,” said Peter Mandelson, a former Cabinet minister who was instrumental to the New Labour project that courted the Australian.
Others argue the change in leadership could spark major change in a media-obsessed Westminster. “When there is a handover of power, that is often the moment at which things reset,” said Craig Oliver, who headed up communications in No. 10 Downing Street for David Cameron. The handover, announced Thursday, will see Murdoch’s son Lachlan take his father’s role at the global News Corporation and Fox Corporation brands — although Murdoch will remain in the background as “chairman emeritus” of the business.
Still others expect more of the same under Lachlan. “Congratulations to Rupert Murdoch for pulling off a seamless transition within the family’s global media empire — something no U.K. political leader has ever achieved at Number 10,” quipped Tom Watson, a former Labour deputy leader who battled with Murdoch amid a scandal of tabloid hacking of private voicemails. Watson added: “It’s the son what won it.”
That’s a reference to the infamous “Sun wot won it” headline, splashed across the Sun’s front page after Labour leader Neil Kinnock — who failed to gain the backing of the top-selling tabloid — lost the general election in 1992.
Whether the Sun and other Murdoch titles really ever did, or still do, have such influence on British politics is up for debate — but there’s no doubt the proprietor acted like it. Murdoch was in and out of No. 10 over the decades, rubbing shoulders with prime ministers and seeking to pull strings in British politics.
‘Don’t upset Rupert’
After that 1992 loss, the New Labour project wanted to avoid again becoming the target of the right wing-press Kinnock was. Tony Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell were desperate to court Murdoch — as was Chancellor Gordon Brown who would succeed Blair as prime minister.
“There was a fairly strong maxim of government which was ‘don’t upset Rupert,’” said Mandelson. “Upsetting Rupert was definitely a no-go area.”
Mandelson recalled one night when Brown as prime minister was grappling with a Cabinet reshuffle. The phone in Downing Street rang and he heard Brown referring to the caller as James. Mandelson assumed it was James Murdoch, another of Murdoch’s sons — although it turned out to be Cabinet minister James Purnell, calling to inform Brown he was quitting. Mandelson said that assumption illustrated “how uppermost in our minds was the likelihood of the Murdoch press deserting us.”
Oliver said Cameron had a “strained” relationship with Murdoch, who thought the then-Conservative leader, who went on to become prime minister, was too much a member of the liberal establishment. He also hated Cameron’s stance against Brexit.
But Murdoch was a staunch conservative, and so would back the Tories by default wherever possible, in particular when they were on course to win. His newspapers would be clear in their coverage about his interests — and would kick off about plans he didn’t like.
Many in Westminster believe the era of the powerful press barons is over | Rob Pinney/Getty Images
“They managed to get a real grip of British journalism and changed it profoundly, so it became a much more binary, aggressive campaigning thing,” said Oliver. “It was certainly made clear that they understood their power and were prepared to utilize it if they felt there was something that was needed or necessary to change.”
Former Murdoch newsroom staffers tell of how the boss would fly in ahead of an election and sit in the Sun’s morning news conferences, “not saying anything.” Come election night, his “legendary” parties upstairs would keep some execs detained past the exit poll — if the result was going the right way.
“There was definitely a feeling everyone was more focused with him around,” quipped one, who spoke anonymously to freely discuss their workplace. “You were definitely aware when he was in London and that he would be scrutinizing what we were writing,” said another, although the person added they were never told the boss wanted specific stories.
“Contrary to what many people believe, he never interfered,” John Witherow, former editor of the Times and the Sunday Times, told Times Radio on Friday. “He never told us what to do. We decided what to do because he trusted us and we had to do what the readers wanted, essentially. He knew newspapers had to service the readers, and he knew that he couldn’t interfere on these matters. Indeed he didn’t want it. He just let us get on with it.”
Others say Murdoch newsrooms featured a network of informers who would gather intelligence and feed it back to the boss — something that weakened after the phone hacking scandal.
Politicians who didn’t win Murdoch’s approval soon knew about it. Oliver recalled seeing then Labour-leader Ed Miliband looking for a chance to chat with Murdoch at one of the newshound’s parties at the upmarket Orangery Restaurant garden next to Kensington Palace. By then, the phone hacking scandal was in full swing — and days later Miliband was in the Commons attacking Murdoch. The Sun pilloried the Labour leader — in particular over an unedifying shot of him eating a bacon sandwich.
Jeremy Corbyn, who followed Miliband as Labour leader, never bothered to court Murdoch — although he did deal with his journalists. The far-left Corbyn project saw itself as antithetical to Murdoch’s interests.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, who served as Corbyn’s press secretary, claimed one Sun hack laughed in his face when he argued taking energy firms into public ownership would reduce household bills. “They are a campaigning newspaper for vested interests and cannot be treated in good faith,” said Zarb-Cousin.
James Schneider, who also headed up comms for Corbyn, said Murdoch had been “a profoundly poisonous influence on British public life, adding: “A free media is necessary for a free society. But we don’t have one.”
Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell added: “Murdoch dragged journalism and politics into the gutter where truth and basic journalistic standards were rendered irrelevant. He debased the quality of political discourse in this country.”
End of an era?
The good news for the left is that many in Westminster believe the era of the powerful press barons is over — with the explosion of new media outlets and social media.
“Murdoch was a massive political force, no doubt about that. But the influence of mainstream media and newspapers in particular is weakening,” said Mandelson. “There are now many more news sources, not necessarily more reliable ones unfortunately, and the public’s trust in most of them has fallen.”
Murdoch newsrooms featured a network of informers who would gather intelligence and feed it back to the boss | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
“I think we’ve grown out of press barons — individuals who use media power to lay down the law about politics,” Mandelson added. “People are not so accepting of powerful individuals lording it over the electorate in the way that Murdoch and others were able to do.”
But the right wing press in Britain does still have influence — and tries its best to wield it against the people and policies it doesn’t like.
Indeed, Labour leader Keir Starmer — hoping to oust the Conservatives at a general election expected next year — sought a one-to-one with Murdoch at the media boss’s June summer party in London. And when Murdoch was last in town he had private meetings with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch.
Even if the media landscape is shifting, Britain’s politicians will already be straining to work out where Lachlan sits — unsure of whether he will want to exert the same level of influence in the U.K. or even take the same level of interest in politics as his powerful father. Some believe little will change while Murdoch senior looms in the background.
Whether the new era of weakened media barons and the rise of social media is better than what came before it is another question.
Oliver said politicians will always prefer to have powerful people batting for them — and argued the permanent campaign dynamic of social media, coupled with the division and disinformation of online platforms, is not particularly helpful for those trying to govern.
But, he added, “having massive figures that bestride the landscape and dominate isn’t particularly healthy either.”