Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Murdoch: some thoughts

Those who bring about institutionalised corruption in any country at any time - the sort which absorbs virtually the entire elite (politicians, police, the judiciary) and renders it almost impossible to gain power without yourself being absorbed by it - only ever get away with it because they have sensed, and exploited, a pre-existing public demand for what they are good at cheapening and perverting, and also sensed that the mass won't be able to tell the difference between what they do and the real thing. A good comparison is between Rupert Murdoch and John Poulson, who in his time was at the centre of as sensational an affair as this (and one which arguably, through discrediting both old-school Toryism and post-war Labour utopianism, gave Murdoch a far greater space in which to operate). Poulson was only able to corrode and corrupt British public life in the way he did because of the initially wholly progressive post-war desire to build a "New Britain", which he duly perverted beyond recognition. Murdoch, likewise, was only able to do what he has done because of the longings and desires of '60s pop culture, which he initially exploited when he first bought into the British market in a way no other newspaper proprietor at the time would have dared to.

But this comparison - at least for a defender of other, better aspects of post-war British development such as myself - opens the way to a more nuanced view of pop culture than I may have displayed in my previous post. If I do not blame Le Corbusier for the corruption indicted when the Poulson affair went public, I also cannot blame '60s pop culture for the corruption and distortion of British life that Murdoch's power has brought about; the parallels, in terms of a positive and progressive movement being perverted almost beyond recognition for the empowerment of the venal, self-serving and destructive, are astonishingly close. It would be as unfair for the people who make the music associated with Channel AKA, or those behind the non-exploitative, non-tabloid channels which have used the Sky platform (and there are some!) to be tarred with Murdoch's brush as it was for certain architects who stood for everything Poulson didn't to be tarred with his brush, as they inevitably were in the Mail/Express mind, after everything went public. Almost immediately after that, of course, Britain suffered the disastrous year of 1974, when the extremist, Europhobic wings of both major parties were decisively empowered, and the centrist, European-minded wings of both fatally weakened; an all-round corrosion of balance and reason within the British political mainstream whose horrendous consequences we still suffer every day, not least because The Sun gained strength as a direct result of the void thus created. Every abuse of trade union power from 1974-9, culminating in the height of futility which was the 1979 ITV strike (whose political impact was, arguably, the real birth of Sky) represented thousands of alienated Mirror readers and, accordingly, thousands of mental blank canvasses for Murdoch. In its own way, this whole business is the single worst aspect of the corrosive legacy of socialism's fatal February, which appeared to some at the time - both its critics and its supporters - to be potentially a world-changing victory, but was in fact the beginning of a terrible, long-term defeat.

One argument I absolutely do not endorse is the idea that if "somebody else would have done it anyway" that makes the bad things that actually happened somehow more defensible, not least because, when it comes to extreme forms of corruption, somebody else probably wouldn't have done it anyway. Someone else probably would have exploited the "New Britain" dreams to build cheap crap, and someone else probably would have exploited the impetus of '60s pop culture to publish cheap, crowd-pleasing crap (even if he hadn't been so politically odious, Robert Maxwell would undoubtedly have done just this had he won the battles for the News of the World and Sun in 1969, quite apart from everything else we know all too well). But someone else probably wouldn't have done the other, more profoundly damaging things that Poulson and News International have both done in their respective times. The difference is important, and should be kept in mind when cynics and reactionaries on the Right, or SWP tribalists on the Left, say "it was always inevitable anyway" - an absolute fundamentalism which renders any kind of progress impossible. It is possible for popular, mainstream media to be wholly socially responsible if properly regulated and balanced. Even today, Ofcom has sufficient power - just - to ensure that no major channel could become quite so shameless and venal (which of course is precisely why the Murdoch tabloids constantly attacked it as though it had the IBA's powers), while the pre-Murdoch history of British mass television offers a shining example, probably better in that field than anything else that has ever existed anywhere in the world, of cheerful populism combined with a fearless sense of moral responsibility.

Which brings me round to the argument that what may happen now doesn't really matter because Murdoch's real business and real wealth comes from the United States and other international markets, and the UK is small beer for him. While technically true, this doesn't really apply if you've lived your whole life in the UK and intend to stay here for some time to come; of necessity, your concerns will lean more towards his impact on the world you grew up in and felt had been snatched from you before you could fully inherit it. His impact on American television simply cannot be compared to his impact here; while Fox undoubtedly changed the content of US network TV, appealing to an audience that previously hadn't been recognised and willing that audience's cultural norms to become far broader (and thus, ironically, upsetting many of the viewers of the news network that uses the same name), it didn't bring about a comparable change in the form, which had always been structured on populist, market-led grounds virtually as a foundation stone of American broadcasting itself (which is precisely the reason why the pre-1990 ITV was set up as it was - or, more accurately, wasn't).

The changes he brought about in Australia, where it all began for him, were possibly more profound, but replacing a cultural cringe towards one empire on the other side of the world with a cultural cringe towards another empire, also on the other side of the world, hardly compares with Murdoch's impact in Britain (and was already such an irresistible force in Australian society that someone else would undoubtedly have exploited it - as indeed a "someone else" as significant as Kerry Packer also did). Also, while the official, establishment culture of pre-Murdoch Britain obviously depended to some extent on the suppression of the working class, it does not compare with the absolute, over-riding racism which was the foundation stone of the nascent Australian state, and much of Australian society, at that time. It is worth noting at this point that even a soul act as mainstream and melodic as the Supremes only managed (I think) three Top 40 hits in Australia during the '60s: the first-gen Murdoch model of absorbing American pop culture in place of a dying imperial culture in fact retained exactly all the faults, down to and including the inveterate racism, of the culture it supposedly swept away, in exactly the same way that the Murdochisation of British culture would do in my own lifetime.

We must not let the chance to build a better, more equable future for Britain slip away from us. We must keep up the pressure. We must see any reduction in Murdoch's power that may follow as the start, not the end. We must tell ourselves that the unfolding story vindicates every refusal we have ever made to conform to the ruling ideology of the day, just as much as 1989 vindicated every refusal the dissidents of Eastern Europe had ever made. But we must not become complacent. If things really do change for the better, we can tell ourselves with pride that we never gave up, just as much as Walesa and - in his own way, in his own context - Mandela could. But we have a long way to go yet. Let's seize the moment. Let's push things forward.

(It has been pointed out elsewhere that I do not mention the Wapping dispute in this piece. That is merely a byproduct of the way I tend to come at these things - mainly because nobody else does - and not any kind of ignorance of the event's importance in modern British history, which is indeed immense, not least as the closest thing to the miners' strike that was ever experienced in London.)

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