David Runciman
November 12, 2011

Why were politicians so frightened of Rupert Murdoch? Once, this might have seemed a stupid question. He’s the fearsome Rupert Murdoch, right, everyone is afraid of him. But then Murdoch made his appearance before the Commons culture, media and sport select committee in July. This was one of those rare moments in British public life when everyone seemed to have the same thought more or less simultaneously: not so scary after all. Who knew that the all-powerful media mogul was really just a tired and confused old man with no more idea of how he got into this mess than of how he would get out of it? Well, presumably the politicians knew. After all, unlike the rest of us, they were the ones who had spent every possible opportunity hobnobbing with him. If this was the real Murdoch, then it’s not such a stupid question. What were they afraid of?

The answer is that they weren’t afraid of him. They were afraid of his newspapers and their power to cause trouble. But this is also something of a mystery. Maybe only a few people knew that Murdoch is a tired, old man, but we are all meant to know that newspapers are a dying industry. Most of them (including this one) are losing readers, advertisers, money, siphoned off by the irresistible force of the web. One of the few seriously profitable ones left was the News of the World. Murdoch showed how much it mattered in the grand scheme of his global empire by shutting it down at a moment’s notice. Plenty of his investors want him to dump the rest of his British press holdings (including the Times, the Sunday Times and the Sun), since they are a drag on the real money-making parts of the business, in television and new technologies. They’re only newspapers, so they’ve got to go sooner or later.

But it’s these same newspapers that have given him his hold over the politicians. In the immediate aftermath of Murdoch’s decision to abandon his bid to take over BSkyB, David Cameron felt obliged to publish a full list of his contacts with the media in the year since he became prime minister. There were 75 of these, of which more than a third were with representatives of News International. That wasn’t the real surprise (it wasn’t really a surprise at all). What was truly striking was that almost all Cameron’s other meetings were with national newspaper editors or proprietors. A few more were with magazines (the Spectator and the Economist). Only three were with TV executives. Only two were with someone who has a web presence but no print operation (in both cases the same person: Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home). That’s a hell of a lot of clout for a dying industry.

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