It was about two decades ago, but I can still remember how long it took and how much atmosphere it sucked out of the room. In a sort of dress rehearsal for more recent events, a pair of Guardian reporters had produced a book about the inner workings of the lurid Murdoch tabloid style, and of its targets and beneficiaries. To listen to some media critics—especially of the pre-Tony Blair vintage—was to hear people who seemed to believe that the ruthless Antipodean actually decided election results, especially in Great Britain. The Times Literary Supplement wanted me to review the book. In theory and practice, as owner of Times Newspapers, Murdoch was the proprietor of the TLS. If I said yes to the commission, I’d be reviewing a book about the boss, in an outlet owned by the boss, at a time when—either as author, contributor, possible subject of reviews of my own work, etc., etc.—I had every reason to hope for a good relationship with the Times in general and the TLS in particular.
There was a further element of calculation involved, this one of an ironic nature. Along with the Village Voice, which he had possessed for some time, Murdoch enjoyed the reputation of always having left the TLS completely alone. Nothing to worry about, old chap—he’ll probably never even see what you write. This was the way in which he treated his “quality” and less lucrative titles. (One was never quite clear, then, if a hint of contempt didn’t attach itself to the very idea of quality.) Finally, wasn’t there real power of a kind in the ability of an owner to assure a contributor that it couldn’t possibly matter what he or she said, or thought, or wrote? Could the charm of repressive tolerance be pressed any further?
I knew at once that there was no possibility of my saying no. I had to be sure that I could live with myself, and had not taken the easy option. But I also had to be sure—did I not?—that I wasn’t just going to gratify those to whom Murdoch was a convenient symbol of war-mongering, profiteering, and influence-peddling. Ticklish job, if I do say so myself. I remember sternly trying to introduce the idea of “sewer” as distinct from “gutter” journalism: a trope that’s recurred recently. I also recall taking a high moral tone about the new auto-journalism technology, which could seemingly generate prefabricated stories that would meet even the whims of a proprietor.
I laid special attention on the life of Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor of theSun. (In those days, it was more the potency and cruelty of the Sun than the News of the World that fascinated and upset the Murdoch-watchers.) On certain days, it seemed, after gloating on the front page about the torpedoing of a large crew of Argentine sailors in the Falklands/Malvinas combat, MacKenzie would receive an approving call from on high and strike an assertive attitude. Other days found him less gratified, or perhaps less easily pleased.
At this epoch, the Sun was strange in a way that it should have been an Anglicized version of Peronism: “anti-elitist,” pro-military, ambivalent toward the United States and the European Union. But the diminishing returns didn’t take long to start kicking in. Could the Murdoch empire, by telling British workers to vote for Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, have persuaded them to do so and to elect a Labor government out of “sync,” as it were? And if not, what is so totemic and exceptional about Murdoch’s version of Beast or Brute, or so courageous about opposing it? I could never be persuaded that Labor was in fact electable in what was allegedly its most electable of years, so I couldn’t claim enough of the satisfaction—the high ground—that went with reproving Murdoch in one of his own flagship outlets. If I could just have traveled a bit further back, and accused him of disloyalty or distortion in the great battle over the butcher’s bill at Gallipoli, where it seems that we do know what keeps his pulse primed and his well of outrage (even vengeance) replenished—why then I might know I’d been in a real fight. I can still remember feeling that he was in the room when I was writing.
So, during the period of controversy over that book, and in the time that I spent hedging and partly hedging over it, and trying to look as if I was capable of simultaneous detachment and moral courage, and all the while wondering if it would one day come back to haunt me in some fashion, I suppose I was dwelling as a temporary resident in the bizarre little world that Rupert Murdoch has since helped create for a huge swath of the British political class: What does Rupert think of me? Does he even think of me? What does he know? Care? Most of all, how would I find out? It seems that I could be told, as an elected prime minister, that my son’s diagnosis with an acute wasting disease was a matter for my chief media tycoon/endorser to disclose. And from this decision, actually delegated to a favorite of the said endorser, there could be no appeal.
To devote a lifetime to the accumulation of power and influence, and to ask this out of the eminence you have acquired for yourself, is to prompt the slightly sententious question with which I actually did end my original review: What can such a man want out of life, or hope to get out of it? There was something almost bizarrely therapeutic about this week’s “hearings,” with the old lion looking querulous and baffled and burned out: at once involved with a crouching-tiger wife who was young enough to be his daughter, and a female editor who appeared to be the daughter he never had. But where was the great issue of state: the trigger of pride and jingoism and swashbuckling empire-building? And why are senior elected politicians so willing to fall into abject postures of deference, either to gratify a sadism and prurience on Murdoch’s part or a sad, vicarious masochism on their own? Hard to decide which of those two verdicts is less appetizing.