Murdoch Shaped British Politics for 40 Years

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Leo Panitch: Murdoch used sex scandal journalism to attack left-wing of the Labour Party and later helped create Tony Blair

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in London, Rupert Murdoch is in town trying to stem the tide of the scandal engulfing his empire, at least the publicity tide. But whether the real power of Rupert Murdoch will be touched is another issue altogether. He still owns The Daily Sun. Even if News of the World has been closed down, that was only a Sunday newspaper. And there’s already plans in place for a Sun of the Sunday. They’re calling it Sun of Sunday versus Sunday Sun, ’cause that name has been taken already. But the real issue here is Rupert Murdoch’s both television and newspaper power in shaping the politics of Britain for over 40 years. Now joining us to talk about the history of this is Dr. Leo Panitch. He teaches at York University in Toronto. He’s also the author of the book The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour. Thanks for joining us, Leo.

LEO PANITCH, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Hi, Paul.

JAY: So let’s dig into the history of Murdoch and how he helped shape particularly the Labour Party, which people, Americans might be a little surprised at, ’cause he’s always here associated with supporting the Republican Party here.

PANITCH: Well, he’s a very right-wing character. The fact that he supported the Labour Party doesn’t change that one iota. He’s known in Britain and in Australia as "the Digger" because of his Australian roots. And he came in in 1969 and bought The Sun, which was pretty much a working-class paper. As Dennis Potter, the great British playwright, television playwright, the guy who wrote The Singing Detective, put it in his last interview, there’s no person in Britain more responsible for polluting what was already a very polluted press. So one shouldn’t think that this was, you know, something that he did all by himself. But when he picked up The Sun, he took that working-class paper, which had a history going back to the ’50s, when it had actually been The Labour Herald before it changed its name and had been trade-union owned and had been a Labour Party paper, essentially, and he immediately turned it into a political rag that attacked the left. You may have heard the term Bennism used as a terrible epithet, the four letter word Benn referring to Tony Benn, who was a cabinet minister in the 1960s and then moved to the left when he realized how little he could do in a British government.

JAY: A cabinet minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government.

PANITCH: Harold Wilson’s government. And he moved to the left and was proposing a series of radical reforms that involved going beyond just the welfare state to actually controlling capital.

JAY: Let me just quickly interject for people that aren’t on–may not know. News of the World, which is the paper that’s being talked about, is essentially the Sunday edition sister paper to The Sun. So when we’re talking about The Sun, we’re kind of talking about, more or less, the same editorial approach.

PANITCH: Well, he–no, he ended up owning a lot of the press. He bought The Times as well from the Canadian Lord Thomson of Fleet when Thomson got less interested in owning his newspapers because he got a television license in Scotland, which he called a license to print money. Murdoch, as you know, eventually got into that game as well with BSkyB television, with Fox News, as you mentioned, with the whole Fox empire. He owns The Sunday Times as well, which is an upmarket newspaper, and has also been accused in this scandal of engaging in the wiretapping and dirty digging, especially on Brown, the former Labour Party leader. So it isn’t just–and News of the World itself, unlike The Sun, goes all the way back to the mid 19th century. In any case, it was certainly–The News of the World and The Daily Sun, which always has a half-nude woman on page three, were the papers that built on sex, that built on the British repression around sex and therefore their titillation by any scandals around it, in order to play a terrible political role in Britain, a role which was what you know of Fox. But it was in the daily newspapers, and it was done in a way that was always full of character assassination.

JAY: In that sense, then, let’s go back to Tony Benn and what that was all about.

PANITCH: Well, and, you know, the whole phrase "the loony left", Bennism as a dirty word, was all designed to try to portray who was no doubt the most effective and intelligent and courageous politician in Britain as someone who is deranged. That didn’t have an effect, I must say, you know, of the kind one had thought it would, in that Benn became more and more popular through the 1970s among working-class people.

JAY: Yeah, The Sun apparently actually had a report where they quoted a fairly well known American psychiatrist who declared that Tony Benn was actually insane, and gave in this report a whole analysis. And then, later, it turned out the whole thing was a complete fabrication: the psychiatrist had said nothing of the sort.

PANITCH: They went through his bins, his garbage bins on a daily basis. When I would see Tony, as I often did, he would tell me that his phone was tapped. Whether it was tapped by security services or by the press was always unclear. But he could click a button and hear a playback after he’d get off the phone. So what we are seeing, in other words, is not new.

JAY: But let’s set the political context for understanding the importance of undermining Benn and how that leads to the rise of Tony Blair.

PANITCH: Labour politicians who were opposed to Benn, who were opposed to turning the Labour Party back into a socialist party, were very frightened as they’d open their newspapers over breakfast, over their kippers every morning, that they might find something else that Benn had allegedly said spread across the front page of The Times or The Sun–or, heaven knows, even The Guardian, because The Guardian was not immune to this–which would damage their reputation as a respectable politician, as middle-of-the-road, mainstream politicians who were supporters of the American empire, who supported the city of London when Benn was calling for the nationalization of the five leading banks of Britain. So they were terribly frightened. And they used The Sun. They weren’t only victims of The Sun or The News of the World or indeed of The Sunday Times. They used it. And they would leak into it. And they were the ones who often would issue the kind of scurrilous reports that were then turned into even something much more worse to discredit the labour left.

JAY: "They" being the right wing of the Labour Party, the corporate–.

PANITCH: The right wing of the Labour Party, even the centrists in the Labour Party who played in this game.

JAY: Who collaborated, collaborating with Murdoch.

PANITCH: Now–but when they got rid of Benn and they elected Neil Kinnock as the leader when it should have been Benn. Murdoch didn’t relent much. And he–those who got rid of Benn soon discovered that Murdoch was presenting Kinnock as mentally unstable and unfit for office, etc., etc. And it was finally in the wake of that that very pragmatic politicians like Tony Blair did a deal with the devil, essentially said, we will dance to this tune; whatever you want us to say, we will say. And Blair, after Kinnock was defeated in 1992, largely because of the vilification, especially in The Sun, which is a working-class paper, as I say, in the ’92 election–and there was temporarily another leader who died quickly, and then Blair made his way to the leadership in a deal with Brown. He headed off to Australia, to the annual meeting of News International, and became buddies with Murdoch. And Murdoch supported him. All his papers supported, above all The Sun, supported Blair in the 1997–the run-up to the election in 1997. And they did a deal with Murdoch, and Murdoch very clearly then became a supporter of Blair. But Blair, you need to realize, was enveloped in the kind of politics that you can watch in the United States on Fox News–as we know, the role he played in the Iraq War, but much more than that, the way in which he toadied to the city of London, came to the conclusion that there was nothing to do about growing inequality in Britain, and essentially got Labour back into power by largely embracing Thatcherism. And for that, the Murdoch papers gave him a ride. Now, they didn’t give all Labour politicians a ride. These guys sell newspapers by scandals, so they were constantly digging for scandals–among Tories as well, but always among Labour. And they were very unsure about Brown, who was going to be the successor to Blair, and they especially looked for dirty stuff on him. But most of this, you have to realize, is commercial. It’s commercial in the sense that Murdoch is defending capitalism and his enormous $50 billion assets around the world. But, secondly, it’s commercial simply in the sense of treating news as scandal-ridden commodities. And the British are, you know, extremely open, as I said, to anything that has a sexual connotation.

JAY: Now, there’s a–the way this is being talked about, particularly in the United States, a lot because of the venom that a lot of people have for Fox News, is looking at Murdoch as sort of the poisonous bad apple, almost an anomaly, if you will. But, first of all, there’s nothing unusual about big media barons having such direct access to politicians. Someone who was actually at the cabinet meetings in London during Blair’s time wrote recently in the British press that there were only three people that mattered at the cabinet table. One was Blair, one was Brown, and the other was Murdoch, who was the shadow in the cabinet. But clearly these big media empires have this kind of access at leadership levels in most countries.

PANITCH: Absolutely. You know, the freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, as has sometimes been said. And it’s interesting that it’s been the dominions, Australia and Canada, that have thrown up these kinds of characters. Lord Beaverbrook was Canadian. Lord Thomson was Canadian. And "the Digger", Rupert Murdoch, is Australian. And he bought himself, by the way, American citizenship in order to own The New York Post originally, because, as you may know, it’s difficult for a noncitizen to own the media in the United States. And he essentially bought himself citizenship [incompr.] Fox, etc.

JAY: And the other thing interesting in this: after learning from the experience of Blair during the Democratic Party primaries, Murdoch actually supported Obama over Clinton.

PANITCH: Yeah. Well, you know, that was a similar, I think, arrangement to what Blair had done. And, you know, there’s been this incestuous relationship through–from the ’90s on between the Labour Party in Britain and the Democratic Party in the United States, with them learning from one another, and that went on. But I was going to say that although one doesn’t want to put, ever, too much emphasis on the role of the individual in history, there is a difference between Murdoch and the kind of role that Lord Beaverbrook played, or even Lord Thomson played, although he was a much cruder fellow than Beaverbrook was, who was in his own right an intellectual. Murdoch has been particularly evil, I think, in his commercialism and his use of the media for extremely particularist capitalist purposes. We see it with Fox News. We saw it with–well, we see it with the British press he owns. Murdoch is in a category of his own, I think. And I think that anything that would be written about how badly media has been sullied in all the countries we’re talking about in the English-speaking world has got to be attributed to the kind of power that this kind of money can bring to an individual who has no scruples and, it seems to me, very little contribution to make to the press in the proper sense of the world.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Leo.

PANITCH: Good to talk to you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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