Rupert Murdoch, the 81-year-old chief executive of News Corp., has been told by a select committee of the British parliament that he is “unfit” to head his global media conglomerate.
It is a particularly British accusation and one that is especially punishing, both because it is so indelible and is so seldom used.
“Unfit” is not a charge that is often leveled, so its impact is especially great. In 1971 a publishing rival of Murdoch’s, Robert Maxwell, was indicted as being “unfit” to run a public company. His were sins of greed and venality.
Murdoch’s sins, you might say, are sins of encouraging a culture of corruption in two of his London-based tabloid newspapers: the defunct News of the World and The Sun. It should be said that Murdoch did not invent the culture of Britain’s tabloid press, but he encouraged it to lengths of excess that had not been dreamed of earlier.
Fleet Street — the collective name for British newspapers which derives from the street where they were once all located — has always been a place of excess. But things really turned white hot in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Television and radio were competing for entertainment value, but news was still the province of newspapers. The game was to shock the readers without depressing them. The publisher Lord Beaverbrook said during World War II of his Daily Express: “I want the readers to feel the sun is shining when they read the Express.”
When I arrived in Fleet Street, well after the war, the sun was still shining in the popular papers. And what better way to keep the sun shining than by exposing the foibles of the aristocracy, the Royal Family and, of course, film stars?
We, the denizens of Fleet Street, were modestly paid but were given essentially unlimited expense accounts to disport ourselves around the clubs and restaurants of London in search of the rich and famous at unguarded play. The culture was one of discover, speculate, elaborate and publish.
Reporters were pushed very hard to dig up the titillating, embellish it and present it as news. We descended on crime scenes, the sexually engaged and the overtly greedy.
Yet there were limits, unwritten but understood, especially pertaining to private grief and even the Royal Family. Infidelity from a vicar was reportable. Similarly rumored goings on by major politicians and national figures, less so.
But change was on its way in the shape of Rupert Murdoch, and in the growing force of television in British life. Murdoch trashed the barriers, such as they were. He started publishing pictures of bare-breasted girls in The Sun, and turned his tabloids from being newspapers that published gossip along with the news to gossip-only papers. They became vicious as well as tawdry.
Murdoch also turned his papers from leaning politically left-wing to being savagely right-wing. It worked.
The Sun and the News of the World started making enough money to finance Murdoch’s other ventures, including buying and building Fox News.
Murdoch established an even more irresponsible culture. There were no rules now: Hence the phone-tapping, police bribing and other sins that have brought Murdoch to his sorry state of being “unfit.” There was a new thuggery and vulgarity that had not existed.
Yet if Murdoch is unfit, so are his accusers. It is British politicians — including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron and their followers — who indulged Murdoch, courted him and encouraged the arrogance of Fleet Street.
British newspaper publishers have always considered it their right to have access to the prime minister and no holder of that office has sought to disillusion them. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate