Many of Murdoch’s best journalists were sick of getting political direction from Downing Street, and departed for the new Independent as soon as it opened for business in 1986.
But supposing nonetheless that their media dominance was invincible, Thatcher and Ingham grew overweening. Moderate, competent Conservatives were defenestrated, and a grossly regressive poll tax imposed. Attempts to collect it caused riots of a character quite new to modern Britain. Ingham responded with the absurd TINA mantra (There Is No Alternative), and spoon-fed a News Corp.-dominated press with assertions that Thatcher’s party was unanimous in support of the tax. Tony Bevins of The Independent (ex Times), in a prize-winning feat of shoe-leather reporting, showed that numerous Tory lawmakers loathed the poll tax and wanted a change of direction. In 1990, dissidents forced a leadership election and ended Mrs Thatcher’s regime.
But during her last days in office she had a visit from Murdoch— in deep travail again.
Two satellite television systems were then covering Britain: Murdoch’s Sky and British Satellite Broadcasting. Both had been launched with deficient business models—lacking systems for revenue-collection—and were bleeding money. Joining-up as a monopoly under News Corp. control offered prospects of survival. Much parliamentary opinion, however, wanted to risk well-deserved bankruptcy for both, and meanwhile ask the competition authorities to devise a non-monopolistic framework for satellite television.
Thatcher’s people just then were furious with the terrestrial channels for having reported Bevins’s Independent disclosures about the poll tax crisis. Sky News had ignored them—perhaps fortuitously, but Thatcher was delighted. She greeted Murdoch as producer of “the only unbiased news in the UK.” Accepting the compliment, he said her swift aid was essential for the salvation of such news. To live, Sky must take over its equally feeble rival; if exposed to any more competition both would expire. Among her last official acts the Prime Minister decreed that the competition authorities would not prevent Sky from becoming a monopoly.
And it continues as such today, though far more lucrative—causing some analysts to suggest its license should be modified to help competitors emerge. News Corp. dislikes the idea, as was made clear to Tony Blair in the 1990s, while Murdoch re-examined his interests in the politics of the democratic left—and the right’s poor prospects of retaining office.
This turnabout was painful for the diarist Wyatt, still loyal to the Tory cause. Writing on December 1, 1995, he fears Blair has agreed to leave Sky untouched, and that Murdoch’s gratitude for the Times Newspapers coup has faded. Then on March 17, 1997:
“Rupert has behaved like a swine and a pig. He doesn’t like backing losers … the Sun is backing Blair and there’ll be huge headlines across the front page tomorrow …”
That Wyatt and others should consider Murdoch an electoral rainmaker is a plain enough danger to democracy. But there are subtler dangers, concerning Murdoch’s basic attitude toward government, which emerge clearly in his dealings with China, where democracy doesn’t complicate the issue.
He has often denounced government in libertarian terms, but mostly the real target of such rhetoric is the regulatory activity of democratic states—designed to sustain competitive diversity, and apt therefore to inhibit News Corp.’s desire for monopoly and uniformity. Many times he has persuaded the political masters of such states to bend rules in his favor—by feeding, in some form, their appetite for electoral support.
By the early 1990s, his triumphs were so many and his tone so triumphalist as to make him sound—even, perhaps, to himself—like the kind of libertarian who resists government power on principle. In September 1993, he made a remarkable speech prophesying that authoritarian governments of every kind would soon fall before the liberating technologies deployed by News Corp. Particularly this meant satellite systems, enabling “residents of many closed societies to bypass state controlled television channels.” He had just taken control of Star TV, broadcasting from Hong Kong—then British territory — with a large potential audience in mainland China.
Exactly this kind of cross-border challenge had been posed frequently in Europe. But Chinese regulators had no Western inhibitions to control the aim of dish aerials. They simply announced that mainland reception would cease unless Star TV’s content received their approval. And they could not be deterred, as their masters cared nothing for News Corp.’s basic currency—electoral support.