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Rupert Murdoch: bad for journalism, bad for democracy

An Opinion Piece by Steven Barnett, published by Inform

“On July 19, 2011, I sat three rows behind Rupert Murdoch at the select committee hearing where he had been summoned to give evidence after the shocking revelations about murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked by News of the World journalists. I watched as he delivered his carefully rehearsed line that this was “the most humble day of my life”. Staring at the back of his head, I found the stench of hypocrisy almost overwhelming. Clearly, money couldn’t buy acting talent.

The man was about as capable of humility as he was of taking responsibility for the wretched practices of his newsrooms. It wasn’t one rogue reporter, or one rogue editor, or one rogue newspaper. Murdoch has built a rogue publishing empire, dedicated to a culture of bullying, deceit, misogyny, homophobia and racism. Worst of all, it is a culture that cares little for the basic principles of accurate, honest, ethical journalism. It has long been fashionable in journalism circles to praise Murdoch for his devotion to, and investment in, newspapers. But journalism for him has been little more than a very successful conduit to power and personal wealth.

In the UK, prime ministers have fought to kiss the Murdoch ring and indulge his political agenda – whether it be queer-bashing in the 80s, EU mudslinging in the 90s, warmongering in the 2000s, Islamophobia in the 2010s, or shameless disinformation in the 20s. Donald Trump, perhaps the most dangerous narcissist ever elected to power in the West, was a Murdoch creation. The lies about a “stolen election” in 2020 were fuelled by Murdoch’s Fox News and its headbanging hosts who insisted that the voting machines had lied. News Corp’s $787.5million payout to Dominion Voting Systems to settle its libel claim add to the many millions so far lost through phone hacking in the UK.

There are those who attempt to dismiss the damage he has inflicted either as “harmless fun” or as misguided criticism from a “metropolitan elite”. They should go back to the 2012 Leveson Report and read his damning conclusions about a press “that wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained”. That was the Murdoch culture.

We should be thankful that, every now and then, brave souls have emerged to call out the malice and blatant lies. Not our politicians, who genuflect and fling open the door to Downing Street (always, of course, the back door). But individuals like The Guardian’s Nick Davies, who saw off furious denials, personal insults and legal threats to expose the phone hacking scandal. Or Andy Burnham, who doggedly pursued his fight to call out the Hillsborough lies on behalf of a city that still has nothing but contempt for a newspaper that, in the aftermath of that awful day in 1989, was more intent on libelling bereaved football supporters and pursuing its political agenda than checking basic facts.

As someone who has taught aspiring journalists for the best part of 30 years and been a member of the NUJ for more than 40 years, it has been painful to see bright, young, idealistic reporters – inspired by some of the great journalistic exploits and names of the past – being swallowed up and spat out by a publishing empire for whom journalistic ethics are collateral damage, along with the victims of its papers’ lies and intrusions.

Murdoch has done more to poison the well of decent, ethical journalism than any other individual in the English-speaking world. He has exploited reactionary populism rooted in fear and division, and in doing so has helped to undermine liberal democracy. He hasn’t invested in journalism. He has abused it for his own self-enrichment, and in the process brutalised it. It is a miserably legacy, and I very much doubt that Lachlan will be an improvement.”


Image was originally posted to Flickr by Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer at https://www.flickr.com/photos/58820009@N05/8293081091. It was reviewed on 22 December 2012 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rupert_Murdoch_-_Flickr_-_Eva_Rinaldi_Celebrity_and_Live_Music_Photographer.jpg

Steven Barnett


Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications and an established writer and broadcaster who has been involved in policy analysis at the highest levels, both nationally and internationally, for the last 35 years. He has advised government ministers in the UK, has given evidence or served as an adviser on several parliamentary committees, has been called to give evidence to the European Parliament, and has been invited as keynote speaker at numerous national and international conferences.


19 December 2023
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