x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Discrediting of Murdoch has devolved to tabloid tactics

Tabloid tactics of British parliamentarians over Rupert Murdoch is bad politics.

Those not closely acquainted with the workings of the UK's House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport (most people, I assume) should read the following before assessing the latest dilemma facing News Corp's Rupert Murdoch.

Last week the committee issued a report claiming that Mr Murdoch was "not a fit person" to run a global media organisation. Headlines around the world implied that the country's main legislative assembly had condemned the man.

Select committees have powers to scrutinise, not to enact policy. Their findings are based on the insights of cross-party members of parliament and those, such as Mr Murdoch, who engage in committee proceedings (as a foreign national, he was not compelled to). The media committee does not have the heft of others, such as the Public Accounts Committee, which cover the work of government and issues of taxpayer value.

Before it got its teeth into the Murdoch phone hacking business, the media committee was considered a bit of a backwater, good for getting free tickets to Covent Garden or Wimbledon. But its profile has been greatly enhanced because it became the focal point of a wider battle between Government and the opposition Labour Party, between the political class and the Fourth Estate, between businesses seeking to extend or protect their turf and even between celebrities and tabloid editors.

This narrative runs across the related but separate inquiry taking place under Lord Justice Leveson, where similar themes - alleged collusion between politicians and media executives and media standards and regulation - are under consideration.

Thus we have questions of political influence being brought to bear on a takeover bid for BSkyB being introduced, alongside evidence by the actor Hugh Grant - who complained about undue media attention.

Nowhere have wider political motives been more obvious than in the process leading up to the Media and Sport committee's conclusions on Mr Murdoch. Tom Watson, the opposition MP whose inquisitorial style earned him the title of Mr Murdoch's "tormentor in chief", has now been accused by fellow members of shoehorning the "not fit" passage into the report at the last minute.

The findings were not unanimous, dissenters claim, further hinting that the report was intended to help the opposition Labour candidate secure the then-imminent London mayoral election.

Mr Watson has become a media darling as a result of the committee's deliberations and managed to take enough time off the business of haranguing Mr Murdoch to produce a book - also haranguing Mr Murdoch.

Mr Watson was a Gordon Brown loyalist when Mr Murdoch's newspapers switched support from the then-Labour government headed by Mr Brown to the Conservatives.

Irrespective of possible motivations, it was indecorous for a parliamentary institution to insert such an intemperate and ill-conceived phrase into a report that otherwise might have done some good. The committee, whose business was to probe into media ethics, itself resorted to tabloid excess.

After the "not fit" headline had done its damage, Louise Mensch, a Conservative member of the committee, said Mr Murdoch "is self- evidently fit to run a major company and is one of the most legendary newspapermen of all time".

She is right on both counts. The industry benefited greatly from Mr Murdoch's decision to acquire British newspapers, in the process breaking the back of the unions and transforming the economics of the trade in favour of growth, fresh launches and the survival of titles that otherwise would have closed years ago.

The CCMS report and the Leveson inquiry have ventured into territory beyond phone hacking and paying the police for tips. They have created an impression that it is wrong for a businessman such as Mr Murdoch to lobby government and others in order to further his company's ambitions and increase shareholder value.

But this is what good businessmen do. If elected officials or public servants fall for it, they are the ones who are "not fit". Evidence to the Leveson inquiry later this week, from former Murdoch executives on ties with government, is expected to shed further light on this.