In times such as these, it is something of a reflex to reach for Baron Macaulay’s well-wearing 180-year-old maxim that, “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”
In this time in particular, it is worth persisting with the rest of that particular paragraph of Macaulay’s defensive biography of Lord Byron, where he writes of the tipping moment when “…some unfortunate man, in no respect more depraved than hundreds whose offences have been treated with lenity, is singled out as an expiatory sacrifice.”
Rupert Murdoch is, to understate matters audaciously, an unsympathetic scapegoat: a ruthless billionaire press baron, certain of whose newspapers would have made brutal sport of Byron, pioneering archetype of dissolute celebrity. There is also an undeniable vindictive symmetry to the seizure of rectitude, which has hounded the News of the World into oblivion and may demolish further bastions of Murdoch’s citadel. For more than four decades, since the Australian-American tycoon bought the News of the World and The Sun in the late 1960s, he has been orchestrator-in-chief of the formidable British capacity for self-righteous seething. It is difficult to be entirely unamused by the spectacle of him experiencing the receiving end.
However, of all the allegations that have been made of Murdoch and his henchpersons, or may be made as this gripping scandal unfurls, nobody is going to charge that Murdoch, or anybody acting on his behalf, ever compelled anyone at gunpoint to purchase one of his newspapers, or watch one of his television channels – or, more crucially, grovel wretchedly in his direction once elected to public office. All tyrants, without wishing to belittle the risks of standing up to them, tyrannise to some extent by consent. A little over a month ago, News International’s summer party was dutifully attended by many of the senior British politicians who appear to have noticed, just in the last week or so, that the same company is an untouchable sink of depravity.
Rupert Murdoch has published some terrible newspapers. He has also published some very good ones (to a few of which this correspondent has irregularly contributed). Similarly, while he has, with the creation of the mesmerisingly ghastly Fox News, helped reduce American political discourse to a deafening braying of bumper sticker slogans, he has also, in broadcasting The Simpsons, underwritten the most influential and pervasive satire of our time. He has employed, wittingly or otherwise, some horrible people, and many more decent and talented ones. Right now, at his moment of maximum vulnerability, he is in what must be a dreadfully tempting position to deliver his enemies a lesson in the perils of what one wishes for. Both Murdoch’s quality British papers, The Times and The Sunday Times, lose money. We may shortly find ourselves reflecting that there are worse things than Murdoch newspapers – or that Murdoch newspapers were better than none.