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However undesirable the News of the World may have become, we still owe Murdoch a debt of gratitude for Wapping

It’s time to get some sense of balance into this frenzied debate

By on Monday, 18 July 2011

Rupert Murdoch holds copies of the Sun and the Times at his new print works in Wapping in 1986 (PA photo)

Rupert Murdoch holds copies of the Sun and the Times at his new print works in Wapping in 1986 (PA photo)

Toby Young, in this week’s Spectator, relates that Paul Staines (the well-known Tory blogger Guido Fawkes) said to him at last week’s Spectator party, “I gave up defending anything years ago. You only get attacked for it.” They were talking about Young’s expectation that he would suffer for defending Rupert Murdoch as he has done over recent weeks and proceeded to do again in the Spectator article which followed.

Of Young’s defence more presently; at this point I will simply say that I agree with every word of it: indeed, my wife, drawing my attention to his piece, said that Young must have been hacking our phone: “He’s quoted you more or less verbatim” (the bit about hacking our phone was a joke). I, too, think that it’s about time we got things into perspective by remembering what we all owe Murdoch, as well as the dangers our indebtedness has over the years brought in terms of his growing and now excessive political influence (hugely inflated by the eager subservience of Tony Blair).

There is, of course, much to be said against the whole Murdoch phenomenon as it has come to operate over recent years, and most of it has been obsessively rehearsed by his enemies, who have whipped up the British public into (to quote Macaulay) “one of its periodical fits of morality”, than which, he said, “we know no spectacle so ridiculous”. But this isn’t simply ridiculous: it’s sinister – this isn’t just the public in a fit of morality: it’s the public whipped up into a lynch mob, the public in a fit not just of morality but of vengeful frenzy, in which nothing will satisfy the tricoteuses but the heads of all concerned, and the driving out of Murdoch himself from anything to do with our media. Already, there is talk by little Miliband – who is relishing his big moment (let him; it won’t last) – of the “dismantling” of the Murdoch “empire”: you’d think it was the Congress of Vienna, with Murdoch expelled to Elba, and the country at last emerging from a Murdoch-inspired political servitude into a new golden age.

Well, before I go any further, and for the sake of balance, let me quote a journalist I respect, Charles Moore, hardly a bloodstained Jacobin, on the death of the News of the World. I have stated my own view that the death of the New of the World, despite the fact that I myself woudn’t have it in the house, was a tragic event (as the death of any newspaper always is): in the same issue of the Spectator as Toby Young’s defence, Charles Moore expresses his own view on the death of the News of the World, in words which I have to admit are difficult to argue against, words which will no doubt resonate with many of my readers:

Before we leave the subject of the News of the World, I must take issue with the idea that its closure is necessarily a loss to the cause of a free press (however sad it may be for its staff). For as long as I can remember – which is roughly since Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1969 – the News of the World has been one of the most lowering features of British life… it is certain that the paper’s main purpose was pornographic. Nor, for the most part, was it good honest pornography – pretty, topless women smiling gamely out at the poor lonely men who bought it. Its pornography was of the much more sinister kind which uses disapproval as a cover for filth and mistakes the kinky desire to punish others as a symptom of morality. It was never more revolting than when campaigning against paedophiles. In the paper’s farewell edition last Sunday, almost its proudest boast was how it had fought for “Sarah’s Law” to establish “the crucial right of parents to information about paedophiles living in their area”. This campaign was, in effect, an incitement to mob violence… Looking through all the old Murdoch-era front pages which the paper displayed last Sunday, I could find no exclusive … which really did any good… All my adult life, whenever I have been to a newsagent or garage on a Sunday, I have been depressed by the view of life screaming from the News of the World headlines visible there. Words like “rat”, “cheat”, “shame”, “beast”, “scum” reflect an utterly miserable picture of human existence. It is not a sufficient defence to say that most of those depicted were indeed rats, cheats etc. We are taught “hate the sin and love the sinner”. Papers like the News of the World reverse this. They have no abhorrence of sin at all, but they hate sinners – in other words, the whole human race – and persecute their chosen victims with the implacable cruelty which always lies behind populism and sentimentality… Defenders of such papers always say how “robustly” they advance the cause of the many against the few, but in fact they have retarded it. They do their best to create what Marxists call “false consciousness” among the many, while their owners and bosses establish collusive relationships with the powerful. This problem goes much wider than the News of the World, of course, but its closure is at least a start. To sum it all up in a red-top headline; “good bloody riddance”.

Well, it’s a view that has to be given its full weight. But I still say that, on balance, Murdoch’s contribution to our national life has been overwhelmingly positive rather than negative. He didn’t just save the Times newspaper (still one of the great newspapers of the world, which he has supported through the years despite the fact that it has never in all that time made a profit, and which if Murdoch is driven out of this country will undoubtedly go under).

What he did was to liberate our newspapers from the tyranny of the print unions, which not only stood in the way of the new technology – which, thanks to Murdoch, was enabled to revolutionise the print media –but actually influenced the content of the papers themselves: there were actually occasions in the early 80s when if some print union shop steward didn’t like what the Telegraph wanted to say on some political issue (I was writing for the Telegraph at the time; I know that this is true) would threaten to stop publication of the entire issue unless the piece in question was rewritten or suppressed.

Murdoch’s victory in the great Wapping strike, and the resulting destruction of the influence of the print unions, was a victory for us all, and a final and complete excision of a cancerous tumour on the body politic. The effect of Murdoch’s triumph on the newspaper industry was wholly benign. This is how Toby Young describes its results: “Murdoch has been a force for good in our industry. Not only has he subsidised the Times, keeping it afloat in spite of its losses, but he broke the back of the British print unions and in doing so provided the newspaper business with a new lease of life. Had he not challenged the unions’ restrictive practices, the Independent and Independent on Sunday might never have been launched and it’s doubtful the Guardian and Observer would have survived until now. The Scott Trust is struggling to contain annual losses of tens of millions of pounds as it is. If Wapping hadn’t happened, the losses would be even greater.”

The extent of restrictive practices on British industry and therefore on our entire national life can hardly be imagined today by someone not old enough to have lived through them. In the newspaper industry their effect was dramatic. This is how Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times (for whom, some years later, I at one time wrote regularly), remembers it:

“Before Wapping,” I explained recently to a group of young journalists, “if any of you had done this” – I pressed a letter at random on the computer keyboard – “the print workers would immediately have walked off the job and the paper wouldn’t come out.”

They looked at me with a mixture of incomprehension and incredulity, not sure if I was making it up or taking them for a ride. The proposition was so ludicrous that there are times I wonder myself if it was true. But it was.

Before Wapping, one print workers’ union, the NGA (National Graphical Association) had a monopoly of the computer keyboard in the national newspaper industry. Journalists could compile their stories on old-fashioned typewriters, but only NGA members could use typesetting keyboards.

By the mid-Eighties, computer technology meant journalists could have keyed in their own material for typesetting, as they wrote their stories using computers. But computer keyboards in these days were an NGA fiefdom into which even other print union members were not allowed to intrude, never mind journalists. They guarded it much as ancient monks kept the mysteries of the quill pen hidden from plain folk behind monastery walls to preserve their monopoly on writing.

The ban on journalists using modern computer technology was far from the only absurdity in pre-Wapping newspapers. For most of the 20th century, Fleet Street had been a microcosm of all that was worst about British industry: pusillanimous management, pig-headed unions, crazy restrictive practices, endless strikes and industrial disruption, and archaic technology. If British unions were then (rightly) regarded as the worst in the western world, then Fleet Street’s print unions were the unchallenged worst of the worst.

Wapping changed all that. In the process it saved the British newspaper industry. If Fleet Street had staggered to the end of the last century with pre-Wapping, absurdly high labour costs, world-beating low productivity, antediluvian technology and the industrial relations of the madhouse, then probably only a handful of papers would have survived.

Pressures are now building up among American shareholders in News Corporation, the parent company of News International, for Rupert Murdoch to get out of the unprofitable British newspaper industry. Their efforts are being frantically and ironically (because for utterly different reasons) being paralleled by the British left, who are now after revenge for their defeat at Wapping, and want Murdoch at last to be driven Out, Out, Out. Murdoch is resisting them all.

And I, for one, fervently hope he remains resolutely opposed to the idea of his abandonment of the British newspaper industry, and beats them all again. Our whole national life will be infinitely the poorer if he does not. If he does retreat from his current level of involvement in British journalism, in 10 years’ time we will have half the number of newspapers we have now: and, for our democracy, that will be a disaster.

  • Paper Doll

    No no no Mr Oddie, the British press will survive without him and his waning influcence will allow a freshness and maturity to enter back into our political and cultural life (or at least give it a chance). It was the Tories that allowed Murdoch to beat the unions back in the 80′s (and rightly so) but they failed to check Murdoch’s dominance in the media market. You think owning 4 newspapers and a big chunk of BSkyB was good for democracy? The next time I vote in a general election I will feel better knowing it will be a fairer fight, rather than just resigning myself to accept that Murdoch will again pick the winner.

  • Jeannine

    I happen to like Rupert Murdoch. Even though he has had some interesting business deals with China & a Saudi prince, he has done much to propagate a diversity of news interpretations. He considers The Wall Street Journal his jewel (Not an oz of pornography in there.). If anyone has ever read this paper, you will realize why it is well-respected in the journalistic world. 

    Murdoch is a businessman. His goal is to make a profit by reporting the news. Unfortunately, gossipy-type news sells very well. Besides that, in the USA, he has done much to break the monopolistic & poor reporting by most news media. If one can get beyond the sensationalism in his newspapers, the reporting can be quite good. The New York Post is an example of this.   

  • W Oddie

    Murdoch never picked the winner. He was simply in touch with what the voters wanted, and predicted what they would vote for. And yes, I do think all that was good for democracy. His creation of Sky News broke the BBC’s stranglehold over television news: and it has been politically infinitely more independent and balanced than the predictably leftward leaning BBC news coverage. As for The Times and the Sunday Times, I am proud to have written for both of them, both are papers good for democracy and not under Murdoch’s thumb in any way: if you think that the death of The Times (which without Murdoch is likely) will be good for democracy, I take leave to disagree with you. I think you are simply out of touch with reality. 

  • W Oddie

    Murdoch never picked the winner. He was simply in touch with what the voters wanted, and predicted what they would vote for. And yes, I do think all that was good for democracy. His creation of Sky News broke the BBC’s stranglehold over television news: and it has been politically infinitely more independent and balanced than the predictably leftward leaning BBC news coverage. As for The Times and the Sunday Times, I am proud to have written for both of them, both are papers good for democracy and not under Murdoch’s thumb in any way: if you think that the death of The Times (which without Murdoch is likely) will be good for democracy, I take leave to disagree with you. I think you are simply out of touch with reality. 

  • Anonymous

    I’ve always thought Murdoch’s influence on public life was exaggerated and that newspapers like the Sun and NOTW more reflect their readers opinions and interests than mould them. Admittedly, as the quote from Charles Moore demonstrates, the content of these newspapers is disgusting and frankly depressing, but if that’s what people want to read who are we to say they can’t? However, the idea that Murdoch chooses the winner of elections is too far-fetched, if anything the BBC with its left-liberal bias has more influence, it controls 70% of the news on TV and 73% of people get their news from TV. Shouldn’t the government also be addressing the enormous power of this organisation?

  • penny

    You are talking about two completely separate issues. 
    (1)The unions needed reformed
    (2) Rupert Murdoch is responsible for introducing pornography, sleaze and the mentality of the mob into familty homes. 
    He could have taken on the print unions without the porn and sleaze.  On balance, the print unions would have gone anyway, it was the way the wind was blowing.  The porn and sleaze we could all have done without.

  • mitsy

    This is the most revolting sycophantic piece of writing I have seen, even worse that The Daily Mail….No wonder this paper is so right-wing and so keen on turning th RCC to the right… I have known Rupert Murdoch has controlled the way the country votes since the 80s and I was a child then…Read Piers Morgan’s The Insider, I am re-reading it, it is suddenly very relevent.
    You are forgetting why Rebekah Brookes has been arrested, why the Phone Hacking scandal is rocking the establishment…The hacking of dead people’s phones….Milly Dowler which made the investigaters and her family believe she was alive…, soldiers that died at war (this paper that is supposed to champion the Soldier and claims to be so patriotic)…The people that read The Times and The Sun complain about being ruled by Brussels, yet they don’t mind the fact that nobody can be elected without crawling up the backside of an elderly Australian and his NI cronies//…And exactly how much control and influence does he has over the RCC, with his money and his Knighthood, a divorced, non-Catholic, peddler of sleaze who degrades women in his papers? ….His papers spread gossip and lies which are sins. my only hope is that Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brookes will find out what it is live to have their privacy invaded. It is pieces like this that ensure that I will never buy a copy of your paper, I will and do however buy The Tablet.

  • mitsy

    Sorry you can’t be that stupid……Sky News has horrible journalism and is unwatchable, it is not balanced unless you think to the right… Do you also think Fox News in the USA is “Fair and Balanced” too? That is also owned by Murdoch….He does pick the winner of our elections, he has since Thatcher,,,,if he doesn’t like a candidate whether it is Neil Kinnock, William Hague, IDS or Gordon Brown, they will relentless attack and ridicule them and lie in the press….They target the uneducated readers of The Sun and NOTW who believe what they read, just as Fox viewers believe Obama is a Nazi and a Communist dictator because Glenn Beck told them he was.  Maybe you are too much of a corparatist too care and you don’t care about the law breaking or the corruption of the Met…

  • GFFM

    The frenzy of the BBC over the “hacking” scandal is unbelievable. Of course investigations should be done of all parties involved. The utter gloating glee of many of the news commentators is nauseating. Apparently, there is no other news worth reporting? Afghanistan has disappeared, Greece, Portugal and Ireland all mired in massive debt are ready to sink, the debt crisis in the UK and the US is very real and bespeaks doom and very real gloom. If an American teaching in the UK is sick to death of the BBC’s redundant and empty “reporting”, certainly balanced Brits have to be. The high minded self righteousness on the part of the Labor party is really too much to take. There truly is a hang `em high mentality here. There is no balance anywhere and I mean anywhere in this country’s news.

  • W Oddie

    Ah, a Tablet reader. What a surprise.

  • W Oddie

    I always have: you just don’t buy the paper. simple.

  • W Oddie

    Do you realise what this looks like to anyone else reading it? How utterly hysterical it is? Why not get a grip on yourself?

  • RJ

    The overconcentration on this issue is becoming tiresome. I watched BBC News 24 last night: they went on and on about it for half an hour (aargh – sound of person chewing carpet with frustration). There seems to be a tendency in the media to assume that we non-media persons are as interested in this as they are. It’s important but not that important.

  • Chris Lane

    Rupert Murdoch should have his papal Knighthood removed.

  • erplad

    This man’s media output is the work of the devil. Nasty, vicious, lying, hateful,warmongering, bigoted, pornographic,character assassinations. . but then he did help to break those frightful trades unions so thats all right then.

  • Bob Hayes

    The Murdoch media have relentlessly promoted self-interest, self-gratification and hedonism. The promotion of Pride, Avarice, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth – the Seven Deadly Sins – continually emanate from the Murdoch media empire. This alone, quite aside from any political intrigue and criminal activities, should engender extreme caution before stepping forward in praise of Rupert Murdoch. 

    Whatever one’s view of the erstwhile power of print union oligarchs (and it was Eddie Shah – not Murdoch – who initiated the challenge to their power), William Oddie’s desire to find an excuse to praise Murdoch strikes me as quite bizarre. 

  • mrpants

    No one seems to want to Mention another of Rupert’s papers the Times. It carried on a relentless “Pope bashing” exercise for months prior to his arrival, but hey well that was fine!, only of course it wasn’t.
    While I’m here what about Maxwell that gangster. Labour are very reluctant to speak about him and his media operations, but only too willing to join the hysterical pompous hate campaign against Murdoch.

  • RJ

    It was interesting this morning to hear a man from UNICEF express his exasperation that this story has eclipsed the unfolding famine in East Africa. The blanket coverage of the issue to the exclusion of all else is almost a scandal in its own right.

  • CatholicAndy

    Every day I fight a losing battle against the forces of anti-religion, and each time an article like this gets published my job becomes that little bit harder.

    Stop being an apologist for ruthless billionaires and say something worthwhile. I’m sure you want to.

  • Ernest Chaussette

    Well, Murdoch was right to put the print unions in their place (the only things more blasphemous than Union Chapels are probably the wacky Calvary Chapels, by the way). But remember that he was doing it in his own interests, and if he hadn’t done it then someone else would have.

    I don’t shed any tears for the loss of the NOTW. There are several newspapers that I would like to see go under, e.g. the Guardian and Independent.

  • Amfortas

    Is this a Catholic newspaper or a secular Tory paper? What is this piece doing in a Catholic newspaper?

  • Matty

    6,000 people lost their jobs at Wapping and that was a good thing? Appalling morality.

  • mitsy

    Just the answer I expected….It sounds like a snide piece from The Sun against someone that dares to say they are crap, sleazy and aimed at the illierate that don’t ask questions…That is almost a David Cameron moment when he said “calm down Dear.”  .Do you care about the corruption that is exposed in the Met? Or about the families of died soldiers whose phones have been hacked? Soldiers who died in a war that Murdoch’s media heavily supported and hysterically called any American that disagreed UnAmerican and terrorist supporters…Where is his apology for peddling the lies that took use to war and how can a paper that claims the high ground and screams for traditional Catholism, openly support someone that overseas the very worst of the media. It is sleazy, misogynistic, has no respect for women unless they pose with their tits on display, hates single mothers (though most of the readers are single mothers and on benefits), lies, hacks stories with the worst level of journalism possible…(Maybe that is why you like Tradional Catholism and want women back under a veil at Mass, you have no actual respect or liking for women..) Maybe you read The Times, so you think you are above all that, but Rupert Murdoch owns both The Times and The Sun.  You too are willfully blind if you don’t see what is happening in the world…..And I don’t buy The Sun and neither bought NOTW either nor do I have a subscription to Sky. The same way I don’t buy this paper, I read it online because it so horrifyingly right wing….

  • mitsy

    Thousands of people are losing their jobs, this paper and The Sun sneers at job seekers and people on benefits, even though a huge precentage of their readership are on benefits…It has cheered on the ConDem government while it has cut services, so our churches in the UK are starting foodbanks and are having to pick up the pieces.  It is not good that innocent people lost their jobs due to a few but that was Rebecca Brookes and Rupert Murdoch trying to save themselves, they shares and they business interests around the world…Neither of them admit any responsibility for what happened or apparently even knew whose expensive legal fees they were paying….When people are immoral often innocent people get hurt too…

  • mitsy

    It appears to be both…I always knew it was, William Oddie has really exposed the paper’s true heart.
    Who knew that the TLM supporters were right-wing?

  • mitsy

    Or you don’t support Murdoch….Unless Catholic means page three is good, while claiming to be a family paper…Maybe you should try it in The Catholic Herald after all it is nothing worth complaining about right,
    Murdoch is a great man and he even has the ear of The Pope thanks to large donations…

  • mitsy…….I am sure you prefered Pinochet…

  • mitsy

    I have seen little mention of it on these pages either….