Today’s context is a complex one in which to sum up the impact of Murdoch’s Journal bid. Since the launch of the War on Terror, American, British, and Australian news media have been subject to massive official spin campaigns, and only two or three outfits have been tough enough to keep their vision consistently clear.
And we are in a situation in which the newspaper business model is changing—disintegrating, some say, as online culture expands. Yet the newspaper and its derivatives in high-quality television are still our only practical model of an organization capable of criticizing society’s daily processes (the university, no less necessary, works on a slower schedule).
“Organization” may be the key word: a newspaper is a diverse group of people, not necessarily large, with a shared awareness of techniques, moral principles, successes and failures—all of which enables them on occasion to uncover necessary truths. The concept is not necessarily confined to any particular technology.
But it is linked to the history of a few great newspapers, The Wall Street Journal being a prime example. The argument for Murdoch’s qualification to control the Journal seems to be predicated on his stewardship of another great newspaper, The Times.
But The Times is only the ghost of a great newspaper, which died decades ago, and which has not come back to life after a quarter century in Murdoch’s hands. It did try to revive itself, under a great editor, just after he bought it. And as we’ve seen it that was quickly suppressed, for fear of offending the politicians in power. (A similar reflex showed itself when the Australian showed signs of greatness.) There is a good case for arguing that the remnants of The Times’s soul migrated to the Independent in 1986. But that paper has had a very hard time competing against a multi-sectioned, low-price Times, which is permitted to lose as much as $40 million a year (not noticeable money to News Corp.). Still, The Independent survives, and probably no paper in the world has done better for its readers when it comes to stripping off the propaganda surrounding the War on Terror.
During its period in clear Murdoch control, The Times has managed various extended periods of tolerable mediocrity. But it has been distinguished only for disgraceful episodes––kowtowing to Downing Street and Beijing, and joining the witless WMD consensus. Sometimes its performance has been simply weird, as when in 1999 it accused the Tory Party treasurer of massive tax evasion, only to apologize in a deal that was put together by Murdoch in person.
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.