LAST WEEK there were two major announcements about Rupert Murdoch. On Tuesday the Times revealed he was engaged to fellow American citizen Jerry Hall. They’re planning a marriage. On the same day Press Gang asked Ofcom to hold an inquiry into the media mogul’s fitness to hold the Sky TV licence. We’re planning a divorce.
If Ofcom declares Murdoch “unfit”, his forthcoming bid to take overall control of the broadcaster will fail. He tried before — an attempt in 2011 was wrecked by the phone hacking scandal. If he’s found “unfit”, Murdoch will also be forced to sell his remaining 39 per cent stake in the broadcaster. It will be the end of his TV empire in the UK.
Ofcom has acknowledged receipt of our request but has not formally responded. This article spells out why this could be an important battlefield …
IN JANUARY 1999 the Sun ran a World Exclusive. The paper had discovered Jerry Hall had decided to end her marriage with Mick Jagger. “Jagger divorce” was the front page headline on January 15. The paper reported:
“The Texan model finally buckled yesterday as she ordered lawyers to start proceedings at the High Court in London.”
It was a famous scoop. But how did the Sun get it? The finger points to a young reporter who joined the paper in the late 1990s. He’d discovered a new way of obtaining stories: hacking phones.
Andy Coulson — associate editor at the Sun at the time — was impressed. It was later claimed he said of the reporter:
“He’s a one trick pony. But what a trick!”
It’s alleged the journalist was listening in to the voicemail messages of Jagger’s PR man Bernard Doherty. Coulson and the paper had been following the Jagger-Hall “marriage” — it was later ruled invalid — closely. In November 1998, for example, the Sun discovered a lawyer acting for Jerry Hall was secretly meeting Jagger’s mistress in New York.
The lawyer was hoping the woman would provide ammunition in the event of divorce proceedings. A Sun reporter was waiting for the couple when they left a restaurant. The reaction of Jagger’s girlfriend was: “Oh my God, how did you find me?” The lawyer asked the reporter: “How DID you know we were here?” (The emphasis is in the original Sun article.)
Articles like these helped to build Coulson’s reputation. In 2000 he joined News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks as her deputy. He was already her lover. Coulson was married, she was in the middle of a long relationship with EastEnders actor Ross Kemp.
In 2003, when Brooks was promoted to Sun editor, he took the reins of the News of the World. In 2007 the paper’s royal editor Clive Goodman was gaoled for hacking phones — and Coulson resigned. He later lied to a House of Commons select committee:
“… if a rogue reporter decides to behave in that fashion I am not sure that there is an awful lot more I could have done.”
The Goodman case would have been the end of most people’s career — but not Coulson’s. Just four months later Opposition Leader David Cameron made him the Tories’ Director of Communications. One of his champions was shadow Chancellor George Osborne. Osborne owed Coulson.
Coulson had been kind to the shadow Chancellor. In October 2005 the Sunday Mirror published a photograph suggesting Osborne had been a cocaine user. Taken when he was 22, the snap showed him with his arm around a dominatrix known as Madam Pain. She was the partner of a friend. In the background was a line of white powder Madam Pain claimed was cocaine. The paper’s headline: “Vice Girl: I Snorted Cocaine With Top Tory Boy”.
Coulson also published the picture but the News of the World was unusually sympathetic.
“It was a stark lesson,” Osborne said, “of the destruction which drugs bring to so many people’s lives.”
He denied using cocaine. When David Cameron became Prime Minister, Coulson joined him at No 10. When the phone hacking scandal broke in 2011, Coulson resigned. The rest is history: in July 2014 he was gaoled for 18 months for phone hacking.
There’s nothing new in the rise and fall of Andy Coulson — but it underlines the seriousness of the wrong-doing at Murdoch’s newspapers.
It forms part of our case that, by allowing Coulson to run a criminal enterprise at the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch is “unfit” to run Sky …
INCREDIBLY MURDOCH is now poised to make a new bid for Sky. Like the film Back To The Future — where a time traveller changes the past — it’s as if the criminal enterprise that thrived at the Sun and News of the World had never happened.
In 2011 David Cameron wouldn’t touch Murdoch with a barge pole. Now they’re best friends again. The once disgraced Rebekah Brooks is back as chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspapers.
The scene is set for Murdoch to make another bid for the 61 per cent of the company his 21st Century Fox business doesn’t already own. He’s been quietly preparing the ground — the company recently changed its name from BSkyB to Sky plc. And it also bought Murdoch’s German and Italian satellite interests.
There are concerns the move will increase Murdoch’s share of the British market — bringing him closer to the stranglehold Silvio Berlusconi wields in Italy. When he tried to buy Sky in 2011, he was also opposed by an unlikely alliance of newspaper groups and other broadcasters.
The BBC and BT joined the Guardian, Telegraph, Mirror and Daily Mail groups in calling for the bid to be blocked. But the real anxiety is over Sky News. There are fears Murdoch will try and turn it into a version of his Fox News in the USA. Fox has earned a reputation as an extreme right wing channel: its journalism the TV equivalent of the Sun.
This isn’t a problem for the Tories — but it is for those for oppose Murdoch. Commercial broadcasting is tightly regulated in the UK, demnding high editorial standards and political impartiality.
Murdoch plans to deal with these concerns by hiving Sky News into a separate company, guaranteeing its editorial independence in the articles of association. This solution satisfied Ofcom at the time of the 2011 bid.
Some critics are reassured: the watchdog is a formidable regulator, thwarting Sky’s ambitions on several occasions.
In 2006 Sky had bought an 18 per cent stake in ITV to prevent it merging with another company and creating a competitor to Sky. An Ofcom inquiry decided the stake gave Sky too much influence in the UK and, eventually, Sky was forced to sell the stake at a loss. Ofcom has also ordered Sky to reduce the price it charged rivals for the use of its material.
In 2009 Murdoch’s son, James, attacked the watchdog for imposing “astonishing” burdens on broadcasters. His solution was brutal:
“There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”
The danger here is that David Cameron and George Osborne also have Ofcom in their sights. In July 2009 David Cameron said that he wanted to restrict Ofcom to its “narrow technical and enforcement role s” rather than issues of public policy. “Ofcom, as we know it, will cease to exist,” he said.
The Tories were unable to carry out the pledge because they were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats until 2015. Critics fear the Tories will now move to cripple Ofcom — and then quietly relax the restrictions on Sky News …
THE PRESS GANG campaign — The People v. Murdoch — is designed to force Murdoch’s withdrawal from the UK TV scene. A week has passed since we asked Ofcom to launch an inquiry into the “fitness” of Rupert Murdoch and his family to be involved in British television.
Under the 1996 Broadcasting Act Ofcom is charged with making sure licence holders are “fit and proper” persons to hold the licence. Ofcom has already held an inquiry, in 2012.
Although it criticised James Murdoch for his handling of the phone hacking crisis, it decided there wasn’t enough evidence to take the licence away from the Murdochs.
But since then a vast amount of damaging material has emerged — see the previous article, Fightback, for more details. Alongside the campaign is a petition on the 38degrees website, here. And a small crowd-funding project has been launched to pay the initial expenses of the campaign, here.
You can also follow the campaign on Twitter — @pguk10
This post originally appeared on the Press Gang blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks