We are living in the age of the nonagenarian: the Queen continues to gain popularity against her elected officials, and Rupert Murdoch has been given everything he’s ever asked for, just a few weeks from his 91st birthday.
In between meetings in Saudi Arabia, Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, announced the removal of legal restrictions designed to prevent the media mogul from interfering in the editorial independence of the Times and the Sunday Times, hurdles put in place by Margaret Thatcher when he bought the newspapers in 1981.
Murdoch has long railed against these restrictions, which he described as state interference, but which allowed him to avoid a deal-busting referral. It took until July 2019 for his complaints to gain any traction, the same month Boris Johnson became prime minister.
This shows how much has changed in the past decade: I was told that when Murdoch’s directors wanted to discuss these restrictions after the phone-hacking scandal, they were rebuffed. Now he has got what he wanted all along. Having weathered scandal and breakup, Murdoch really is like the fictional character he is most often compared to; like Succession’s Logan Roy, he is not just still standing at the end of season three, but continuing to win.
Murdoch’s strength stands in marked contrast to the prime minister, a former journalist once sacked by a Murdoch publication for falsifying a quote, who suddenly needs his friends in the media more than ever. The revolving door between Downing Street and Fleet Street has already seen Johnson’s director of communications become deputy editor-in-chief of the Sun, a paper which failed to break any major “partygate” stories. Some publications featured extensive stories and headlines about the partying prime minister, while others – particularly on the Sun, the Express and the Mail – have struggled to get these stories on their own front pages.
When David Davis called for his leader to go, the Mail harangued Johnson’s critics by splashing with the headline “In the name of God, grow up”, while announcing that the latest Johnson baby was recovering from Covid.
The Times and particularly the Sunday Times have not acted like tabloid fanboys over the latest controversies. Even the Telegraph has reported on the signs of distress in the Conservative party. But the angle papers take on the day’s news is not the only sign of how a relationship is working.
In the first 14 months of his premiership, Johnson met Murdoch three times, for one “general discussion” and two social events. Johnson’s sister, Rachel, had to backtrack from a throwaway line she made about Murdoch asking the prime minister to “get rid of the BBC while dandling his baby son Wilfred on his knee at Chequers”. The problem with this joke was that the image seemed so plausible that the story still lives without a disclaimer three months on.
Murdoch’s closeness to politicians of all persuasions is no surprise; he came in through the back door at Downing Street to meet prime ministers from David Cameron to Gordon Brown. But his meetings with Johnson have been surprisingly numerous, particularly given the fact that for some of the time Murdoch was of an age to be shielding.
He also had dinner with Michael Gove, a favourite former Times journalist, lunch with the chancellor and a “lunch with friends” with Jacob Rees-Mogg. These encounters are not minuted, of course, which only leaves us to ponder what exactly was discussed.
Murdoch has always offered assurances that his titles will remain free of his influence, like when he appointed an independent board to oversee the Wall Street Journal. Someone described these arrangements to me as “eye candy for governments”. The six similarly independent directors of Times Newspapers Ltd, paid about £15,000 each a year, meet the editors of the daily and Sunday titles every three months and write a report to parliament. The only time in recent memory they disagreed with an appointment – when John Witherow moved from the Sunday to daily title – the objections were eased with further meetings and a six-month delay. Besides, the kind of seven-day operation the two papers can now institute is already working for most newspaper groups. But fig leaf or not, this 1981 agreement is now going to end.
Murdoch is on record as saying that he has “never guaranteed anyone support of my newspapers”, but that doesn’t stop politicians trying to win it. At the same time as shamefully giving status to online slurs about a child abuse scandal to attack his political opponent, Johnson also falsely claimed that Keir Starmer “used his time prosecuting journalists” – not only wrong, but a sure sign that Johnson is on the side of News Corp over the phone-hacking scandal.
Johnson, who made a career out of tendentious journalism, appears to be continuing the trick while leading the country. Just write or say anything to get you out of a hole and get important people to like you. He has been found to have lied and made mistakes, and his biggest critics to date are Conservatives like John Major and Michael Heseltine, worried about the impact on all political reputations in the same way all journalists are tarred when some lie or misbehave.
The lesson from Murdoch is that sitting out the bad times and waiting for the good times to return could work. The problem is that with trust in politics and media at an all-time low, most of us don’t have that luxury.