The Times’s principal competitive weapon has been price-cutting, which is seriously damaging to rivals (The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph) that belong to smaller groups and can’t afford the same large losses, but of no real benefit to itself. This market distortion would be an excellent subject for inquiry by the Competition Commission but this idea never appealed to Tony Blair, recipient of lavish praise in News Corp. papers throughout his service as prime minister.


The Sunday Times was an extremely strong newspaper when Murdoch took it over, and it is still capable of good work. But under Murdoch there have been cases of massively discreditable naivete: promotion of the fraudulent “Hitler Diaries”; claiming that a senior British politician, Michael Foot, might be a KGB agent (wild and untrue); portraying AIDS—with cruel, ignorant persistence—as a homosexual affliction not caused by HIV. There seems to be in Murdoch himself a strain of gullibility, which may come from from his excessive respect for power, and it too often seeps into his newspapers.


The Sunday Times also has more taste for official versions than any strong newspaper ought to have. For example, when eyewitnesses raised some legitimate questions about the killing of IRA members in 1988, the government tried to bully them into silence and the Sunday Times helped out with some savage character assassination, which only failed because of its incompetence. The Sunday Times, admirably, uncovered the “Downing Street memorandum,” which suggested Anglo-American intelligence on Iraq might be fixed. But it didn’t go on to challenge seriously the official version of the war.


We said that News Corp.’s secretiveness makes definitive statements about the Times business difficult. But most analysts in London would probably agree that full access to the books would be unlikely to show in two decades any period in of solid circulation growth unassisted by price-cutting or promotion. Martin Wolf of The Financial Times wrote recently that Murdoch has never created a great and profitable newspaper. I think the reason is contained in the story outlined here. Newspapers for Murdoch are not unpredictable engines of discovery, but pieces of wampum, essential in trading for associated goods, and so they have to be deliverable.


The Murdoch influence runs to hysterical tabloids and to ‘respectable papers’ papers that are mostly tedious except for moments (like HIV-denial) when tabloidism grips them. Of course, the position of Robert Thomson is that Murdoch’s control isn’t visible in The Times.


Most of the time, most newspapers are concerned with routine events and the differences between them are matters of tone. However, media scholars do measure these differences by analyzing of large areas of text over time, as Professor Bennett and his team did for When The Press Fails. In one example, they look at use of words in coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandals. They show that White House officials stuck rigidly to the word ‘abuse’ when discussing what happened. If questioned about “torture,” their answer dealt with “abuse.”


On known evidence, there is a case for saying that conditions at Abuu Ghraib involved torture as well as abuse. But if the T-word is never used— a basic form of spin—the discussion and debate is intrinsically one-sided. Bennett’s researchers also looked at the language used by U.S. media in news reports on Abu Ghraib and related issues, and found it following the official pattern—“abuse” being the dominant term, with “torture” rarely used, and almost never on its own. They don’t suggest “that torture was the only correct label, but simply that there were adequate grounds for presenting torture policy as a debateworthy perspective,” and that without “counterperspective … the daily news stream may constitute a single-message environment that produces a compliant rather than an informed public, and emboldens government officials to pursue ill-considered policies in the absence of public accountability.”


Most troubling, the choice of the word “abuse” rather than “torture” does not look like independent thought in America because the pattern is much the same in newspapers across the country, whether their reporting of Abu Ghraib was extensive or intermittent. Of course, America was the target on 9-11, which accounts for some of this, along with the fiercely controlled official language.


It was in the overseas press that large variations in language about torture and abuse were found, and these of course were in places where official influence was highly variable—never as consistently powerful as in the U.S. The researchers examined the Star and the Sun of Toronto; The Guardian, The Times, and other British papers; the BBC; and abstracts of European news sources. On average, these were more likely than American papers to use “torture” as well as abuse, and some carried a number of stories referring to ‘”torture” exclusively.

Bruce Page is the author and co-author of several books, including The Murdoch Archiplelago, published by Simon & Schuster in Great Britain in 2003. He has worked for several newspapers, including the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times of London, where he led the paper’s investigative teams. He was editor of the magazine New Statesman between 1978 and 1982.