Is editor of The Independent too close to Rupert Murdoch?

By J L Samboma

With the various branches of the British establishment united in heaping ordure on media magnate Rupert Murdoch and his “corrupting influence” on public life in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, it is not surprising that many of Big Rupe’s spivs, cheerleaders and assorted fixers have gone to ground.  One of these is the former business editor of the London Evening Standard, who was recently appointed as editor of Britain’s Independent newspaper.

For a so-called objective journalist who also doubled as an attack dog for Murdoch, one has been struck that not a pipsqueak has been forthcoming from him since Murdoch’s News International hit troubled waters - with revelations that one of its papers, the News of the World, had hacked into the phones of thousands, including murder victims and those affected by the terrorist bombings of 7/7.  I have tried and failed to find a recent offering from the man, who just a few months ago called for the sacking of a cabinet minister who “openly declared war” on Murdoch.   

War on Rupert Murdoch

I must declare before going further that this piece is not motivated by personal animus.  I have never met Chris Blackhurst (right), nor have our keyboards clashed before.  I have written this piece because I believe this issue is of some public interest, especially at a time when the conduct of members of the press is coming under intense scrutiny, thanks mainly to the antics of journalists working for Murdoch.

It is not for me, a humble scribbler, to suggest to Alexander Lebedev (left) – the former KGB spy and billionaire-owner of both the Standard and the Independent – people he should or should not employ.  It is however quite legitimate for me to pose the question as to whether a Murdoch praise-singer who openly condoned his paper’s phone-tapping criminality is fit to be editor of a serious, national broadsheet.

We would need to go back to December of 2010 to pinpoint when my radar picked up the bleeps emanatring from Mr Blackhurst.  It was immediately after two reporters from the right-wing Daily Telegraph, “stung” Business Secretary Vince Cable to claim, “I have declared war on Rupert Murdoch.”  Cable, a Liberal Democrat cabinet member in the Tory-dominated coalition government, had responsibility for deciding if Murdochs bid to buy the remaining 60 per cent of satellite BSkyB, he did not already own.

The media sting saw Cable, a keen supporter of plurality in media ownership, stripped of his cabinet oversight on media competition; he would have been sacked had his party leader not stuck by him as right-wing media and Tory backbencher bayed for his blood.

The Business Secretary is no Left-winger

The Daily Telegraph scoop appeared on 21 December.  Two days later, Blackhurst wrote a comment piece for the Standard titled, “As the politicians fret, Rupert Murdoch just keeps on winning.”  I shook my head in sad disbelief as I read the article.  It was both a textbook example of journalistic praise-singing, and of how to give your game away when licking someone’s boots.  I cut the article out of the paper and filed it for future use, for I knew I would have cause one day to refer back to it.

Blackhurst begins by telling us why those on the “Left-wing” hate Big Rupe with a passion.  According to him, it is because they blame Murdoch’s Sun newspaper for former Labour leader Neil Kinnock losing the general election in 1992.  He brings up this old red herring in order to situate Cable (right) firmly within the “red block,” for he tells us – twice in the short article  - that the Lib-Dem minister was a Labour councillor in distant antiquity.

“It's a conviction that goes to the heart of why Murdoch?” we are told.  “Why, of all the newspaper barons and corporate titans, does Vince Cable (himself a former Labour councillor) single out the 79-year-old Australian for a personal declaration of war?”  Like right-wingers in America calling President Barack Obama socialist, labelling an avowed free-marketeer such as the business secretary as a Left-winger does not wash.  But let’s humour Mr Blackhurst and assume Cable was indeed redder than red. 

Does that invalidate the argument that a man who already owned four national newspaper titles and 39 per cent of BskyB should not be allowed to increase his stranglehold on the British media?  In fact, any truly objective commentator would question how one man got to own so much of the British media in the first place!

The baby builds his sand-castle

But not our Chris.  Those issues do not concern him.  He scarcely skirts them.  His preference is to apply sticking tape over those legitimate concerns by saying that the man’s detractors allege he would become as powerful as Italy’s media mogul prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.  This is another red herring, and a journalist of his standing must know it.  But it deters him not one jot.   “It's not true” he writes.  “Murdoch may be many things but he is not prime minister, unlike Berlusconi. It is the case that he will hold 40 per cent of the national press as well as a TV station that is twice the size of the BBC in terms of its financial muscle. But there again, he has 39 per cent of Sky at present: what difference will 100 per cent really make?”

The baby builds his little sand-castle with Prime Minister Rupert Murdoch in situ and then proceeds to demolish it.  How satisfying for him!  How comical to me!  But then, as if by accident, he hits the crux of the matter when he says, “But there again, he has 39 per cent of Sky at present: what difference will 100 per cent really make?”  Either he doesn’t see it – or he poses the question for the simple reason that his conjuror’s trick of an article would give the impression that he has dealt with it conclusively.

What difference would it make if a man with such huge media holdings in Britain increased his stake in in BskyB to 100 per cent?  Well, my dear sir, it would make a whole lot of difference, not least the fact that it would allow his organs to manipulate public opinion more than they already do at the moment.  The man simply does not get it – or pretends not to!  And in the very first paragraph of his article he alludes that it was Murdoch’s Sun newspaper that won the 1992 for the Conservatives!

The issue of media plurality

But even when he seems to set up an opportunity to tackle the issue of plurality head-on, this presumably serious, consummate journalist throws it away on fatuous statements which he provides no grounding for.  See this: “While the plurality threat plays strongly, there is undoubtedly a personal element at work.”  You would be correct to assume he fails to substantiate this so-called “personal element at work.”

He instead heaps ode upon ode on his hero in this short piece.  But in the process of doing so, he undermines all the “arguments” he seems to be at pains to make.  It is funny to think that one could write an article demolishing his views by using only information provided in his offering.  The following passage illustrates this:

“Allied to that are his fierce political beliefs. He loves to get immersed in politics. Next to the frenetic atmosphere of a newsroom, what he enjoys is the political battle. Running newspapers and Sky let him marry his passions. He doesn't impose his views as much as he used to but he doesn't need to. As former Sun editor David Yelland said: 'All Murdoch editors go on a journey where they end up agreeing with everything Rupert says. But you don't admit to yourself that you're being influenced. You look at the world through Rupert's eyes.'”

Ammunition to shoot down Murdoch

If you wanted ammunition to shoot down Murdoch’s bid for the whole of Sky and for clipping his other media wings, you would be hard put to find better than the forgoing passage.  We learn he is “fiercely political” and “is immersed in politics,” which could mean he influences how politics is reported in his organs.  And he does, for we also learn that he doesn’t impose his views on his editors and reporters since, by definition – according to Yelland (and Blackhurst himself, for he used to work for him at the Sunday Times) – they “look at the world through Rupert’s eyes.”

The final paragraph of the article is a study in fawning sycophancy if there ever was one: “And he is so damned successful. Others have been and vanished, Murdoch goes on and on — doing deals, wanting to add to his empire and global reach. Among his victims is Neil Kinnock (now guiding Ed Miliband) [Kinnock is the Labour leader who lost in 1992 to Margaret Thatcher; Miliband is the present Labour leader]. To them can be added Vince Cable. The Daily Telegraph may have got the dirt on Cable but there's no denying the real victor.”

After reading the piece I said to myself, Maybe this guy’s angling for a job in the empire of Murdoch. Or that he was paying his premium on employment insurance should things go awry at the Standard.  Such speculation aside, the article left a bad aftertaste in my mouth.

I ask you, dear reader, need I say more – about the judgement and independence of this new editor of The Independent, or about his principal’s suitability for a larger chunk of the British media?  I will not rest my case yet, for I have two more articles to produce in evidence.

Forcing a drug addict to inject narcotics

We have thus far considered Mr Blackhurst’s ode of 23 December.  Before proceeding, I would like to provide some context: After Cable was stripped of his portfolio on media competition, the brief was given to Jeremy Hunt, the Tory Media and Culture Secretary.  It came as no surprise to many observers when Hunt refused to ask media regulator Offcom to ascertain whether Murdoch’s bid for Sky breached competition rules.  The jubilation with which Blackhurst ended his article reflected the widespread belief that no power on earth could prevent Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB.  However, they had not reckoned on “Hack-gate” blowing up in their faces!

I came across Blackhurst’s second offering a couple of months later, titled “Nobody ever dares say no to Rupert Murdoch.”  It was published on 3 March and in it we see the scribe doing a jig in celebration for the apparently-imminent takeover of BSkyB by the object of his sycophancy.  This article is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is his “clear ambivalence” for the practice of phone-tapping as a legitimate tool in news-gathering.

The intro figures a glaring red herring: “The liberal intelligentsia are up in arms: Rupert Murdoch, just about the most hated man in their firmament, has persuaded the Government to cave in and allow him to buy BSkyB. How could those ministers who wear their social hearts on their sleeves allow such a thing?”  To say Murdoch persuaded a Conservative minister to go along with his bid is like saying that you forced a drug addict to inject narcotics!

However, it is the next sentence which says it all: “Murdoch, the boss of an empire that parades semi-naked girls in its newspapers, whose paper indulges in phone-tapping and down the years has been responsible for an erosion of our cultural life, producing chequebook-brandishing newspapers that glory in kiss 'n' tell tittle-tattle.”  If those words – with not a smidgen of censure about them – and the context in which they are presented is not an endorsement of phone-hacking, then Idi Amin was a saint!  And this from a man who just months later was to become the editor of a national broadsheet newspaper.

Murdoch’s megalomania

Among other things, the article takes a dig at the Business Secretary – “Dear old Vince spoke out - foolishly perhaps, but Cable was only saying what plenty thought” – and heaps more praise on Big Rupe as the trail-blazing entrepreneur de nos jours, which he may very well be but which does not change the fact that he is bad news for democratic plurality and media freedom.  Here is a senior journalist ridiculing a man whose job was to inject some sanity into the shambles of which Murdoch’s megalomania had reduced media plurality.

The only other gem I would extract from this masterpiece is this one: “Without casting aspersions on their objectivity, let's be realistic: in the world of business, especially media, Murdoch is a very big beast indeed. Anyone voting against him, holding out for a sum he will not pay, must live with the consequences.”  I have to say, I like his reticence about casting aspersions on others’ objectivity.  How can he when he himself is light-years away from being objective!

My final piece of evidence comes from Blackhurst’s offering of 12 May, again in the Standard: “Reshuffle Vince Cable and silence Lib-Dem moans.” As the title denotes, the piece is calling for the removal of Cable from his job and for putting the Tories’ Liberal-Democrat coalition partners in “their place.”  Although our hero’s beef is ostensibly to do with the Lib-Dems’ half-hearted challenges to Conservative policies on the police and the economy, it is no stretch to surmise that it has more to do with the fact that Cable had “declared war” on Mr Murdoch.  It would seem that, if this media enforcer has any say in the matter, Cable “must live with the consequences.”

Ironically, shares in Vince Cable have soared in the political market since “Hack-gate” hit the headlines.  He’s universally hailed as “the man of the hour.”

As I write this, the government has launched several concurrent inquiries into the Hack-gate scandal, among them one to look at corruption at the heart of the police and another into how the media operates in this country.  Opposition Labour politicians are also calling for Murdoch’s media stranglehold to be broken.  Given this backdrop, I ask again: Is it wise to have a Murdoch praise-singer who sees nothing wrong with phone-tapping as editor of a national newspaper?  Just how independent and fit-for-purpose is the new editor of The Independent?

It is certainly not a crime to like Mr Murdoch, or to admire and or support him.  But, when a supposedly independent journalist, accustomed to singing odes to a media baron with Murdoch's record, assumes the editorship of a national title in a country where most editors are "Murdoch-friendly," it behoves a commentator such as myself to ask questions.

I rest.