Perhaps Britain’s pop tabloids hardly matter. They had a chance to modernize and (barring the Mail) blew it. Once they’ve gone, News Corp. will just have to find other cash cows. But the Sun story, told in Stick It Up Your Punter: the Story of the Sun, by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie, has points relevant to the Journal’s future, which certainly matters.
It shows Murdoch incessantly invading Lamb’s editorial role—crushing or promoting stories, and terrorizing staff (Andrew Neil, later a Sunday Times editor, used the term “terorism.”) There was no ethical complaint: simply dismay at the boss’s ineptitude. His ideas were impractical and “wooden-headed,” Lamb found. Fearing to challenge the autocracy Murdoch imposed, they had to laboriously circumvent it.
Punter shows a Lamb-Murdoch operation able to steal the Mirror’s market, but unable to stem its own decay. The point is not that Murdoch interfered—there nobody expected otherwise—but that he didn’t know when it was counterproductive. Lamb succeeded with his Mirror recreation but a reader of the story can hardly imagine anything new developing. Continuing after Lamb’s departure, Punter records the Sun’s decline into the “bigoted, foul-mouthed fantasy factory” (as BBC media commentator Raymond Snoddy put it) that is visible today.
Though it may cause surprise, this lack of a populist technique is credibly documented. But does the Murdoch Touch apply better to quality papers (“Un-populars,” as Lamb once called them)? There is evidence from Murdoch’s Australian homeland.
Murdoch’s father, Sir Keith (1885-1952), was an Australian media owner and a pioneer in favor trading between newspaper controllers and politicians: swift to see the new dimension in broadcasting licences. His career lifted off during World War I, as an agent conducting intrigues on behalf of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, while appearing to the world as simply as a journalist. He was a clandestine spin-doctor before spin was a term of art. For decades legend presented him as brave, maverick war correspondent, but in 1982 Geoffrey Serle’s biography of the great soldier John Monash (John Monash: A Life, 1990) exposed him finally as the opposite. Sir Keith was astonishingly ready to put journalism at the service of state power.
Keith’s newspaper and radio properties passed to Rupert in 1952 via a trust, which had to certify him as an appropriate successor. Some of us growing up in Australian journalism during the following years hoped Rupert might supersede the father’s philosophy. But his loyalty to Sir Keith’s methods soon grew clear.
They brought Rupert substance enough—generated largely from broadcasting licences—to make the News of the World bid. But the bid required political favors, earned by a revealingly dirty editorial trick.
The instrument was Murdoch’s first attempt at a serious paper, The Australian. Launched in 1964, it was legendary for chaotic incompetence—within weeks its 250,000 launch sale fell to nearly 50,000—and for its part in a savage succession battle after the death of Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967.
Murdoch’s close ally was Deputy Prime Minister ‘Black Jack’ McEwen, who had a special relationship with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)—and used it to develop “evidence” that his enemy Billy McMahon, federal Treasurer, was influenced by foreign agents. The allegations were grossly spurious even by standards of Joe McCarthy, but Murdoch’s Australian front-paged them two days running. And in a frantic political atmosphere Black Jack’s succession candidate, John Gorton, outmaneuvered McMahon.
In its gross partisanship, the incident seriously reduced The Australian’s already shaky credit, but many inner details were unknown until 2000, when some secret files came to light in the Australian Record Office. ASIO’s boss, Charles ‘The Scorpion’ Spry, was a good butt-covering bureaucrat: he carefully noted that everything had been done at McEwen’s command, and that McEwen had personally handed the phoney dossier to Murdoch.