Does Murdoch make the political weather or follow it? Yes.

“IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT.” Thirty years ago, The Sun, a Rupert Murdoch–owned tabloid in the UK, plastered those words on its front page—a humblebrag it was not—after John Major, then Britain’s Conservative prime minister, was reelected; the day before, the paper had mocked up a front-page image of Neil Kinnock, Major’s Labour Party opponent, inside a lightbulb next to the headline “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” Years later—appearing before an inquiry that was established following a massive phone-hacking scandal at another of his titles—Murdoch said that the “Sun wot won it” headline was “tasteless and wrong” since newspapers “don’t have that sort of power,” adding that he’d given the editor responsible for it “a hell of a bollocking.” But The Sun would again nod back at the lightbulb front page, returning to the theme in 2019 to warn that a Kinnock administration would have been a “picnic” compared to the “Marxist” plans of that year’s Labour candidate, Jeremy Corbyn. Boris Johnson, the Conservative prime minister, was subsequently reelected.

The “Sun wot won it” front page is often held up in the UK as shorthand for a broader debate around the influence of the press at election time. It also speaks to a version of that debate that is specific to Murdoch but extends beyond the UK: the question of whether, in the various countries where he owns media properties, he has an uncanny ability to anoint political winners or simply jumps on the bandwagons of politicians who look likely to win anyway. Earlier this year, this debate resurfaced in Australia, where Murdoch was born and still dominates the newspaper business, after that country’s Labor Party returned to power. Ahead of the election, a senior Murdoch lieutenant insisted that Murdoch’s Australian media business had no unified view of who to back, though Murdoch’s many critics have long accused him of running political cover for Scott Morrison, then the incumbent Liberal Party prime minister (who was not “liberal” in the US sense of the word). A number of commentators characterized voters’ rejection of Morrison as a sign that Murdoch’s influence was on the wane. Kevin Rudd, a former Labor prime minister and longtime Murdoch critic, mocked up a copy of a Murdoch paper with the headline “Australia rejects Murdoch’s pick,” calling it a “front page you’ll never see.”

ICYMI: Looming press-freedom threats in post-Roe America

Now Murdoch’s political influence has returned as a topic of conversation in the US after two of his American titles, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, recently published near-simultaneous editorials strongly criticizing Donald Trump’s conduct on January 6, 2021. The Post went so far as to call Trump unfit to be president again. The two papers’ stance was not especially new—both have expressed squeamishness about the insurrection before, running similar back-to-back editorials after the House January 6 hearings kicked off in June—but it nonetheless generated reams of coverage across the rest of the press, where it was often taken as a sign that Murdoch and his media empire have decisively broken with Trump after backing him for years.

This conclusion elicited some pushback, with other commentators pointing out that prominent opinion hosts on Fox News, Murdoch’s most influential US property, have very much not broken with Trump, decrying the January 6 hearings, for example, as a sham. (“Wake me up when Sean Hannity editorializes against Trump,” Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple requested.) On Friday, however, Jeremy W. Peters, of the New York Times, reported that cracks are showing on the Fox end of the Murdoch-Trump relationship, too. Peters noted that Trump has not been interviewed on Fox in more than a hundred days and that the network has also recently eschewed live coverage of his rallies and speeches while granting more airtime to other Republican presidential hopefuls, not least Florida governor Ron DeSantis—snubs, Peters reported, that “are not coincidental,” reflecting Murdoch’s “skepticism” about Trump and his refusal to accept the result of the 2020 election. Fox’s Howard Kurtz insisted yesterday that there is no “edict” against having Trump on the network, adding that he had tried (and seemingly failed) to book Trump recently—but, per Peters’s reporting, Trump does indeed feel neglected by the network. Last week, after a host on Fox & Friends noted polls showing DeSantis besting Trump, Trump blasted the show on Twitter Truth Social, accusing it of having “gone to the ‘dark side.’”

Among those who accept that Murdoch is actually breaking with Trump (more on which in a moment), there are different theories as to why he’s doing it—theories that, together, reflect something like the aforementioned debate as to whether Murdoch is a merchant more of proactive influence or reactive judgment. Jonah Goldberg, of The Dispatch, has suggested that while it’s hard to know what Murdoch is truly thinking, his papers’ recent anti-Trump editorials could reflect that Murdoch feels he has gained all he can from Trump and that he is now trying to pivot the Republican Party toward “more exciting prospects” by sending a signal to conservative elites, if not yet Republican voters, that there’s space on the right to explore a post-Trump future. Others have agreed that the recent editorials were pitched at political elites but suggested that their goal was only to distance Murdoch from Trump reputationally while Trumpy Fox hosts continue to play to the base. Politico’s Jack Shafer, meanwhile, argued that Trump, in the “final days of his political career,” is now “expendable” for Murdoch, whose support of politicians “has always been transactional”—though Shafer added that, should Trump come back and win the 2024 GOP nomination, Murdoch could still do what he always does and “place his bet on the leading pony.”

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There’s a lot to unpack here, starting with the question of whether Murdoch is really breaking with Trump. In a moral sense, at least, I’d argue that the answer is no; as I’ve written before, the only proper standard for Trump’s coup attempt is zero-tolerance disavowal—and if the recent editorials met that bar, then the Murdoch-enabled diatribes of, say, Tucker Carlson certainly do not. I’d also argue, though, that this reality illuminates the broader debate about Murdoch’s influence more than it invalidates it. Murdoch’s print papers denouncing Trump over January 6 while he allows Carlson and company to go on denouncing the investigators suggests, perhaps, hedging on Murdoch’s part. And hedging is, in my view, a key insight in the broader debate here.

Murdoch is undoubtedly extremely powerful, not just in the US but in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. His media properties—which, collectively, straddle key swaths of various markets—have manifestly exerted an outsize influence on political discourse, by reaching news consumers directly but also by molding the behavior of political elites who value that reach, or at least the perception of it; as the academic James Rodgers once put it with reference to the “Sun wot won it” debate, “if politicians believe in the power of the press, then, in that sense at least, it is real.” And yet Murdoch’s power has limits. He did not initially back Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential election; he pivoted to do so as Trump’s hold on GOP voters became undeniable, and even then, he reportedly toyed, at one point, with throwing his weight behind Hillary Clinton. Murdoch, to my mind, exists in a constant equilibrium of making the weather while also checking the forecast; indeed, reading the public mood is essential to his ability to then influence it. This is not an exact science—which is where hedging comes in.

When it comes to Trump, specifically, both arms of the broader Murdoch debate can be true at once in much the same way: Murdoch may be showing some signs of souring on Trump because he senses that that’s the way public opinion is blowing, while also seeing that as an opportunity to get to help make the next Republican king, while also leaving enough wiggle room to cozy back up to Trump if he ends up retaining the crown. Above all, Murdoch values winning—and, as with anyone for whom that’s true, it’s preferable, but not essential, that he dictate the terms of victory. In his Times story, Peters reported that Murdoch’s Trump skepticism also “reflects concerns that Republicans in Washington, like Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, have expressed to the Murdochs about the potential harm Mr. Trump could cause to the party’s chances in upcoming elections.” Murdoch and McConnell are actually very similar. Both seem to find Trump an inconvenience. But they haven’t hesitated to ride his coattails to power before. And they’d both do so again in a heartbeat.

The Washington Post also published a story on Murdoch and Trump over the weekend, with its authors, Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr, broadly confirming Peters’s reporting that Murdoch has lost his enthusiasm for Trump (if he was ever that personally enthused to begin with). Ellison and Barr noted that Murdoch “has always been a pragmatist when it comes to his political relationships,” then name-checked Tony Blair as evidence. Blair (eventually) took over from Kinnock as the leader of Britain’s Labour Party in the years after the “Sun wot won it” headline; five years on from that headline, he became Britain’s prime minister—with Murdoch’s backing, which he had aggressively courted. The Sun dramatically announced that it was changing sides to back Blair, though its tone in doing so wasn’t quite so hubristic. Blair would have won either way. There’s not much evidence that it was The Sun wot won it for Major five years earlier, either.

Below, more on the Murdoch media:


Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Gabe Rottman, an attorney who leads the Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, laid out the various threats to press freedom that will likely follow in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, including the possibility that prosecutors will pursue local papers for “aiding and abetting” out-of-state abortions or go after reporters’ sources who have had criminalized medication abortions in-state. “In many ways, newsgathering vis-à-vis abortion post-Dobbs will resemble reporting on things like military secrets, narcotics, public corruption, corporate malfeasance, or any other beat where promising confidentiality to a source is necessary to tell the story,” Rottman writes. “Those beats breed press-freedom violations. We shouldn’t be surprised when we see them.”
  • Last week, prison officials in Alabama subjected two female journalists to clothing inspections ahead of an execution, then tried to stop one of the reporters from witnessing the execution on the grounds that she was in violation of prison dress code. The reporter—Ivana Hrynkiw, of AL.com—said she was told that her skirt was too short despite having worn it to cover executions in the past; she was eventually granted access, but only after a male photographer from a local TV station loaned her a pair of fisherman’s wader pants. Hrynkiw, who was also forced to change her shoes, described her treatment as uncomfortable and embarrassing, while her bosses blasted it as “sexist and an egregious breach of professional conduct.” AL.com has more details.
  • The death toll continues to rise after record rainfall caused devastating flooding in Kentucky; more than thirty people are confirmed to have died, at least four of them children. At a news conference, Andy Beshear, the state’s Democratic governor, was asked about the role of climate change in the flooding; he replied that his job right now is to help those in need, but pledged a “larger conversation” later. Papers in Kentucky have shed environmental beat reporters in recent years, as The New Yorker’s Charles Bethea reported in 2019. Bethea reshared his story over the weekend, in light of the current disaster.
  • On Friday, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones—who is currently facing a damages trial in Texas to determine how much he will have to pay the family of a victim of the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Jones has called a hoax—put his media company into bankruptcy; lawyers for other Sandy Hook relatives characterized the bankruptcy as a gambit to delay two further, upcoming damages trials, though the proceedings that are already underway will continue. For the Times, Elizabeth Williamson zoomed out on the trials, asking whether hefty payouts might dissuade other “politically driven liars.”
  • Despite something of a recent uptick, “incidents of violent crime remain at historic lows in New York City,” Bloomberg’s Fola Akinnibi and Raeedah Wahid report—and yet media coverage of crime in the city has exploded, following the lead, Akinnibi and Wahid report, of its new mayor, Eric Adams, who has placed crime at the heart of his political narrative. Each month following Adams’s inauguration brought 800 news stories about crime, on average, up from 132 stories per month under former mayor Bill de Blasio.
  • Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein profiled Sally Buzbee a year into her tenure as executive editor of the Washington Post, shortly after messy newsroom tensions spilled into very public view. “All the same things that happened at the Post happen at AP,” Buzbee said, addressing the tensions for the first time and referring to her previous job leading the Associated Press. “All the cultural issues are the same, but nobody writes about it. Because it’s AP.”
  • After right-wing media belittled Vice President Kamala Harris for describing her appearance—a standard accessibility practice for blind people—at a roundtable with disability advocates, CNN’s Brian Stelter spoke with Lydia X.Z. Brown of the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, who was in the meeting with Harris. The right-wing reaction wasn’t “media coverage so much as it was a temper tantrum,” Brown said.
  • And late last week, a man with a loaded AK-47 was arrested near the New York City home of Masih Alinejad, a journalist and critic of the Iranian government whom Iranian intelligence operatives have previously conspired to kidnap, according to a federal indictment that was unsealed a year ago. The man who was arrested last week reportedly lingered outside Alinejad’s house, at one point attempting to open the door.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Rupert Murdoch in 2019. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer