James Max: We should celebrate, not castigate, Rupert Murdoch
Why does LBC Radio presenter James Max think we should stand to Murdoch’s defence?
The easiest way to annoy a politician is to suggest that The Leveson Inquiry is a waste of time and money. At a time of economic crisis, we are spending millions of pounds and diverting political energy towards a takeover that never happened and events that took place a decade ago. Yes, the Prime Minister was daft to appoint Andy Coulson. Phone hacking was rife and the relationship between media and politics has been far too cosy. Was ever thus.
But it’s time to take a step back, look at why we are in this mess and for you to think carefully about what you really want. I’ll fetch my tin hat, while you ponder the thought that we’d all be worse off without Rupert Murdoch, his vision and his companies.
I am not going to defend some of the murkier aspects of Mr Murdoch’s business empire and the dealings by which it sought and indeed obtained information. Some of the mechanisms used were distasteful, inappropriate and downright wrong. Yet information is at the key to this debate, and Murdoch’s people are not the only ones exposing details that don’t belong to them.
Mobile telephone companies have taken little action to ensure that customers are better protected in terms of their privacy. The government seems to think it should have access to all communications in order to prevent terrorism. On a regular basis laptops with confidential information are left on trains or in the back of cabs and computer systems and data have been compromised. Or even sold, above board, to the highest bidder. All of us have to work within a digital age where we are forever being scrutinised, tracked, monitored and assessed. Either directly or indirectly. By government, corporations, employers and by friends and colleagues having a cheeky Facebook stalk on a rainy afternoon.
Let’s go back to the start. Rupert Murdoch has been a prominent figure in the British media since his first foray into the country’s newspaper industry at the end of the 1960s. He bought The News of the World in 1968 after an acrimonious struggle with Robert Maxwell and The Sun in 1969. At the time, the Sun was a broadsheet. Can you imagine that? He had put himself and his company on the map. Both titles became highly successful and profitable tabloid papers.
In 1981, a game changer for Mr Murdoch as he bought the then ailing Times and Sunday Times newspapers from Canadian newspaper publisher, Lord Thomson of Fleet. Of course he and his company have amassed many international brands and operations since, from Twentieth Century Fox in 1985 to Harper Collins in 1989 and The Wall Street Journal in 2007. Perhaps the biggest and most significant move was to set up BskyB in 1990.
Here is a man who prevented titles and publishers from closing. He revolutionised working practises and business models. He turned ailing businesses into profitable ones: creating multiple brands and platforms across the media and redefining how we consume news and entertainment. He foresaw the advancement in technology, how we would consume multi-platform offerings and most importantly investing to make his vision become reality. He safeguarded jobs and created jobs.
In 1989, Rupert Murdoch delivered the MacTaggart Lecture. He foresaw the multi-digital platforms we take for granted today. He tackled the vested interests in broadcasting and the press, many of which could return were it not for his and his companies’ activities. Most importantly he talked about consumer choice and the danger of allowing regulation and politicians to control either the press or the media.
We see 24-hour rolling news as something that just happens. Internet news provision as the norm and simply going out and “Sky plussing” programmes as routine. Through Mr Murdoch’s companies, investments, leadership and vision we have access to some of the most incredible resources.
He has led. Others have followed.
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There are some who may argue that Mr Murdoch’s business ethics aren’t democratic. That his large share of the marketplace gives him undue power and influence. Yet he and his businesses are as democratic as you can get. If you don’t like The Sun, don’t buy or read it. If you don’t want a Sky subscription, ring them and cancel your contract.
Yet somehow this holier than thou approach emanates from the very centre of our political system, in Westminster. We never voted for Mr Major (the first time around) or Mr Brown, yet they became Prime Minister. We have never voted for any of the 786 members in the House of Lords. We have no say on their standards or behaviour and it seems they can break the law, be accused of wrongdoing but still turn up and collect their money and vote.
Many of them have been hounded out of office at the ballot box but, like a bad smell, make a reappearance in the Upper House. Of course there are some who are there because of their experience and expertise. Many, however, have been parachuted into power.
Politicians say they want to change the institution but have yet to do anything about it. Arguably the last attempt under Mr Blair made things worse and not better.
The BBC that is supposed to be impartial often isn’t. Other newspapers and titles are either partisan or angled by their owners or staff. That is seen as acceptable when Mr Murdoch’s views are not. This surely is ludicrous.
Because of Sky, we have competition. Competition to our other terrestrial broadcasters. Sport on television has improved dramatically. If that’s your thing. Indeed the BBC for all its positive qualities is as democratic as a dictatorship. Who chooses the DG? Do you have an option to pay the licence fee? Who elects the members of the BBC Trust? Is there any accountability for the money they spend?
The grandstanding politicians and celebrities parading themselves at this inquiry are upset. Of course they are. They were caught out. Telling and selling us one image whilst behaving in their private lives as if they didn’t have to stick to the laws of the land or to any kind of moral code of conduct.
Then, to the more serious allegations relating to members of the public and how they were compromised - where were the police? Or the regulators? In on the action, taking bungs, or asleep, I’d suggest.
I do want to see our media behave ethically. However I’d like to see our politicians and public figures do the same. We all have aspects to our lives that we’d like to keep private. Relationships are difficult to maintain and the working environment is tough and competitive. There is a balance to be struck but let’s not forget that if you are in the public eye courting the media to sell your messages or products, the flipside is to avoid being hypocritical along the way.
A strong and independent press and media are essential and although some methods to obtain information may be devious so are the actions of many who don’t wish to be found out.
Rupert Murdoch has changed our lives and given us access to an incredible array of media. We can pick and choose what we read, what we watch and how we consume. If it weren’t for his vision we’d be stuck with a smaller range of national newspapers, a dusty national broadcaster and a single commercial rival for choice.
Is the system perfect? Of course not. Do we need to improve the ethical standards by which the major players operate? Yes. However, if we change the way our media in this country operate and the rules of ownership, let’s ensure we don’t curtail choice, dumb down content, prevent investigative journalism or underestimate the intelligence of you, the consumer, to make up your own mind.
Most importantly? The Murdoch witch-hunt has to end.
James Max presents Weekend Breakfast every Saturday and Sunday mornings on London’s Biggest Conversation, LBC 97.3 FM. He is a qualified surveyor and worked in property and finance for 15 years. After working for one of the country’s leading property advisory firms, he completed healthy stints in investment banking and private equity, before becoming a candidate on The Apprentice, which launched a career in broadcast media. Visit JamesMax.co.uk.