Britain is said to be approaching its Berlusconi Moment. That is to say, if Rupert Murdoch wins control of Sky he will command half the television and newspaper market and threaten what is known as public service broadcasting. Although the alarm is ringing, it is unlikely that any government will stop him while his court is packed with politicians of all parties.
The problem with this and other Murdoch scares is that, while one cannot doubt their gravity, they deflect from an unrecognised and more insidious threat to honest information. For all his power, Murdoch’s media is not respectable. Take the current colonial wars. In the United States, Murdoch’s Fox Television is almost cartoon-like in its warmongering. It is the august, tombstone New York Times, “the greatest newspaper in the world”, and others such as the once-celebrated Washington Post, that have given respectability to the lies and moral contortions of the “war on terror”, now recast as “perpetual war”.
In Britain, the liberal Observer performed this task in making respectable Tony Blair’s deceptions on Iraq. More importantly, so did the BBC, whose reputation is its power. In spite of one maverick reporter’s attempt to expose the so-called dodgy dossier, the BBC took Blair’s sophistry and lies on Iraq at face value.
This was made clear in studies by Cardiff University and the German-based Media Tenor. The BBC’s coverage, said the Cardiff study, was overwhelmingly “sympathetic to the government’s case”. According to Media Tenor, a mere 2 per cent of BBC news in the build-up to the invasion permitted anti-war voices to be heard. Compared with the main American networks, only CBS was more pro-war.
So when the BBC director-general Mark Thompson used the recent Edinburgh Television Festival to attack Murdoch, his hypocrisy was like a presence. Thompson is the embodiment of a taxpayer-funded managerial elite, for whom political reaction have long replaced public service. He has even laid into his own corporation, Murdoch-style, as “massively left-wing”. He was referring to the era of his 1960s predecessor Hugh Greene, who allowed artistic and journalistic freedom to flower at the BBC. Thompson is the opposite of Greene; and his aspersion on the past is in keeping with the BBC’s modern corporate role, reflected in the rewards demanded by those at the top. Thompson was paid £834,000 last year out of public funds and his 50 senior executives earn more than the prime minister, along with enriched journalists like Jeremy Paxman and Fiona Bruce.
Murdoch and the BBC share this corporatism. Blair, for example, was their quintessential politician. Prior to his election in 1997, Blair and his wife were flown first-class by Murdoch to Hayman Island in Australia where he stood at the Newscorp lectern and, in effect, pledged an obedient Labour administration. His coded message on media cross-ownership and de-regulation was that a way would be found for Murdoch to achieve the supremacy that now beckons.
Blair was embraced by the new BBC corporate class, which regards itself as meritorious and non-ideological: the natural leaders in a managerial Britain in which class is unspoken. Few did more to enunciate Blair’s “vision” than Andrew Marr, then a leading newspaper journalist and today the BBC’s ubiquitous voice of middle-class Britain. Just as Murdoch’s Sun declared in 1995 it shared the rising Blair’s “high moral values” so Marr, writing the Observer in 1999, lauded the new prime minister’s “substantial moral courage” and the “clear distinction in his mind between prudently protecting his power base and rashly using his power for high moral purpose”. What impressed Marr was Blair’s “utter lack of cynicism” along with his bombing of Yugoslavia which would “save lives”.
By March 2003, Marr was the BBC’s political editor. Standing in Downing Street on the night of the “shock and awe” assault on Iraq, he rejoiced at the vindication of Blair who, he said, had promised “to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right” and as a result “tonight he stands as a larger man”. In fact, the criminal conquest of Iraq smashed a society, killing up to a million people, driving four million from their homes, contaminating cities like Fallujah with cancer-causing poisons and leaving a majority of young children malnourished in a country once described by Unicef as a “model”.
So it was entirely appropriate that Blair, in hawking his self-serving book, should select Marr for his “exclusive TV interview” on the BBC. The headline across the Observer’s review of the interview read, “Look who’s having the last laugh”. Beneath this was a picture of a beaming Blair sharing a laugh with Marr.
The interview produced not a single challenge that stopped Blair in his precocious, mendacious tracks. He was allowed to say that “absolutely clearly and unequivocally, the reason for toppling [Saddam Hussein] was his breach of resolutions over WMD, right?” No, wrong. A wealth of evidence, not least the infamous Downing Street Memo, makes clear that Blair secretly colluded with George W Bush to attack Iraq. This was not mentioned. At no point did Marr say to him, “You failed to persuade the UN Security Council to go along with the invasion. You and Bush went alone. Most of the world was outraged. Weren’t you aware that you were about to commit a monumental war crime?”
Instead, Blair used the convivial encounter to deceive, yet again, even to promote an attack on Iran, an outrage. Murdoch’s Fox would have differed in style only. The British public deserves better.