By Dean Carroll
As British newspaper titles like The Times and The Sun ramp up their arguably Eurosceptic coverage of Brussels in advance of this year’s European Parliament elections and a possible referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union in 2017, it is worth noting the source of such anger towards the EU. The famous Australian-American protector of British sovereignty – and News Corp chairman – Rupert Murdoch not only tried to persuade Tony Blair to take a hard-line stance against Europe. He also pressed another United Kingdom prime minister, John Major, for “policy changes” relating to the country’s relationship with supranational institutions. This even went as far as calling for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union – alleges Major.
In his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, Major stated that just before the 1997 general election Murdoch “made it clear that he disliked my European policies, which he wished me to change”. Major added: “If not, his papers could not and would not support the Conservative government. So far as I recall he made no mention of editorial independence, but referred to all his papers as ‘we’.”
Before the UK House of Commons Media Select Committee, Murdoch himself admitted that the only thing he had heated discussions with Tony Blair about during his premiership was “Europe”. Presumably, there has been no need for such feisty debate with David Cameron – given that they are both singing from the same hymn sheet on European matters. But what the Major/Blair revelations did make clear was the strange contradiction with Murdoch’s own evidence before Leveson – when he claimed: “I have never asked a prime minister for anything.” Now, either someone was not being straight with Leveson and the watching British public at the time or a huge breakdown in communication occurred. In all likelihood, we will never know for sure which one it is.
But, perhaps, more interesting than the allegations of selective memory sometimes aimed at those appearing before Leveson was Murdoch’s determination to wage a bitter battle against the EU; a campaign of negativity that has reached new heights this year in the run-up to May’s EP elections and the appointment of a new European Commission in the autumn. Murdoch may have resigned from a number of company directorships but he still has his hand firmly on the tiller and those British newspapers in question still report directly to him.
So just what has this man got against Brussels – to the point that it allegedly becomes discussion point number one with every British Prime Minister he meets? Deputy chairman of the London Press Club Professor Martyn Bond previously tried to solve this conundrum. “The immediate answer lies in the potential of the regulatory authorities in Brussels, particularly the anti-competition authorities, to hamper the growth of Murdoch’s media empire,” said Bond. “While he is clearly the major single player in the UK market, with both press and broadcasting interests, his holdings on the continent are considerably more modest.”
Professor Antony Glees has also touched upon the issue. “Sky News itself is having a field day with the eurozone crisis,” he said. “Of course, Murdoch never liked the euro or the EU for that matter.” Murdoch’s anti-EU stance could quite possibly stem from the desire to avoid regulation of his media empire, from Brussels. We know for sure that pre-Leveson he had plans for even greater penetration and influence in the UK media market. I mean, whether you are a Europhile or a Eurosceptic, do we really believe that Murdoch is interested only in defending British institutions like the pound rather than expanding News Corp’s portfolio in mainland Europe and beyond?
For, before the select committee in 2012, he readily admitted he was more focused on speaking to the editor of The Wall Street Journal than wasting time on his senior journalists in Britain. Hardly, the ultimate defender of British sovereignty his UK newspapers paint him to be. Whether the media magnate’s rants on Britain’s place in Europe, in the company of British prime ministers, took place or not – the mood music itself is worrying enough.
The Leveson Inquiry raised many serious questions around editorial independence, media monopolies and the willingness of our most senior politicians to kowtow to newspaper proprietors. And it all left a rather nasty taste in the mouth. Of course, it could be that British citizens are naturally Eurosceptic in the main. But the daily drip of media poison into their ears damning EU red tape and unelected Brussels bureaucrats will certainly not have done anything to encourage a more mature debate on Europe.
The only trouble now is that even if Murdoch eventually sells his British newspapers – as some commentators are predicting – they may go to a Russian, Chinese or Saudi oligarch. What is to come may, in fact, be much worse. We dread to think. Alternatively, he could retain ownership of The Sun and The Times beyond 2017 – subsequently warping the debate in favour of the antis should there be a UK plebiscite on EU membership.
So despite the uproar and the promises by British politicians that they would distance themselves from close relations with media moguls, the status quo seems to have returned. Behaviour did change. However, it was a temporary blip and the natural order has now been restored with our political leaders pandering to the dominant right-wing Eurosceptic press in the UK once more. But ask yourself this – do you feel comfortable that Murdoch’s empire still has such power and control in modern Britain? At Policy Review, we certainly do not.
Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev