Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

29 April 2004 Edition

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Media moguls - the real untouchables


While the bribery trial of media magnate and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resumed on Friday week last, a somewhat revelatory nugget suggests that concerns about media ownership need to be voiced closer to home.

Last week, this paper reported that the former owner of the Irish Times labelled one of his editors a "white nigger" due to the paper's coverage of events in the Six Counties in 1969.

Major Thomas McDowell had lunch that year with the British ambassador in Dublin, Andrew Gilchrist, who reported on their conversation to the British Foreign Office, observing that McDowell was "increasingly concerned" about the political line his paper was pursuing under editor Douglas Gageby. McDowell was, according to the former owner of the Britain's Daily Mirror, Cecil King, a member of British Intelligence, MI5. McDowell sought urgent and continuing help from the British Government in undermining the editorial integrity and independence of his own newspaper.

While there is certainly more than a whiff of eccentricity in Gilchrist's depiction of the Irish Times chief executive, it would be wrong to dismiss this anecdote as a mere historical aberration. History, and indeed more recent evidence, suggests that such meetings between intelligence agencies or political lobbies and media interests have had far more impact on our lives than we often suspect.


We need only cast our minds back, for instance, to the halcyon days of Tony Blair's first election as British Prime Minister in 1997, when a great deal of attention was accorded to the fact that Blair and his since-deposed spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell, had spent some days meeting with media mogul Rupert Murdoch in his Australian home prior to the electoral campaign. The meeting prompted speculation that New Labour had sought to woo the media magnate. Events since then would seem to confirm this.

Rupert Murdoch is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of News Corporation. He owns 31% of News Corporation, which accrued a buoyant revenue of £7 billion a year. Newscorp Investments is his main holding company in Britain, which controls News International, his newspaper company. News International owns The Times, The Sun, The Sunday Times and the News of the World and it includes the 20th Century Fox film studios, the Fox TV network in the USA, the New York Post, 200 newspapers in Australia and the LA Dodgers. News Corp also owns the publishing company Harper Collins (which owns Fourth Estate, one of the largest independent publishers in Britain). The Australian billionaire may be most famous here as owner of Sky Global Networks, owners of BSkyB. Incidentally, BSkyB paid for a large party for Young Labour (in the world famous Palace Discotheque in Blackpool) at the 1998 Labour Party Conference, organised by Matthew Freud (the boyfriend of Murdoch's daughter) and hosted by Chris Evans.

Murdoch has been highly supportive of Tony Blair, especially of his more recent policies on Iraq. He meets with him regularly, visiting Downing Street at least every six months. In June 1998, Murdoch coyly remarked that in some of their policies the Labour Party were "more Thatcherite than the Tories. But they'd kill you if you said that."

Blair was a guest of honour at a huge News Corp corporate meeting in Australia, before the 1997 election, when The Sun newspaper famously switched sides (from its traditional allegiance to the Tories) to support the Labour Party. Gordon Brown gave a speech at the next of these News Corp meetings at the Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho in 1998. After the 1997 election it was alleged that Blair had phoned the Italian Premier Romano Prodi to assist the expansion of Murdoch's media empire in Europe.

Dr Irwin Steltzer, an American economist who writes a weekly column in the Sunday Times, is a close friend and key advisor to Murdoch. Steltzer has been a regular visitor to Blair and at one point was being paid as a consultant by Downing Street (Murdoch is known to have paid him more than £1 million a year). Rupert Murdoch's daughter, Elisabeth Murdoch, is a close friend of Peter Mandelson.

Although their accounts show profits of £1.387 billion since 1987, Newscorp Investments has, curiously, effectively paid no tax in Britain since 1988; it received tax rebates in some years that have cancelled out payments in others. In 1992, the company received a tax rebate of £8 million, in 1993 £5 million and in 1989 £3 million. Curiously, all 127 of Murdoch's newspapers backed the war on Iraq.

Recently, Murdoch has hinted that his newspapers may throw their support behind Michael Howard's Tory Party at the next general election, causing much concern for New Labour. On 13 November last year he told Jeff Randall, in an interview for Newsnight on BBC2, that he was was "torn" between the Tories and Labour.

"We'll have to see how the Tory front bench looks, [if] it looked like a viable alternative government, which it hasn't so far.

"And we will not quickly forget the courage of Tony Blair in the international sphere in the last several months, so we may be torn in our decision. So let's wait and see," Murdoch said.

His comments were seen as a pre-emptive pitch, rather in the manner that a prospective coalition partner might do before the general election campaign here. Murdoch, however, will be an unseen coalition partner, but will most probably be the determining factor for both parties in the election. Following Neil Kinnock's (the former Labour leader's) election defeat in 1992, Murdoch's Sun had much justification in claiming "It's the Sun wot won it", after publishing a front page on polling day that declared: "If Neil Kinnock wins today, would the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights."

As regards the next election, Murdoch told Randall, "the jury's still out".


The same could be said for Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, albeit in a different sense. He stands accused of bribing judges, an offence for which his former lawyer has already been given a five-year prison sentence.

Berlusconi is Italy's richest man and his reach is hard to escape. An Italian can spend a Saturday shopping at his or her local supermarket, relaxing at home perusing a paper, or flicking through a few TV channels to watch AC Milan play football, and these services will in all likelihood been provided by his Prime Minister. Berlusconi has a massive $13.8 billion media empire. Unsurprisingly, he is also a man given to electioneering,

In 1993, Berlusconi founded his own political party, Forza Italia — "Go Italy" — named after a chant used by fans of AC Milan football club - which he also owns. As judges in Milan purged the country's old political class in "Operation Clean Hands", aimed at eliminating corruption in public life, Berlusconi saw his chance to enter the fold. In 1994, he became Prime Minister, forming a coalition with the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League. However, rivalries between the three parties, coupled with Berlusconi's untimely indictment for tax fraud by a Milan court, led to the collapse of the government just seven months later. Refusing to be deterred, Berlusconi spent the next few years reorganising his party and by 2001 he was re-elected Prime Minister.

The current corruption trial involves claims that he tried to bribe judges to stop a business rival taking over state-owned food group, SME, in the 1980s. While Berlusconi describes the charge as "fantasy" and says he is the victim of a political campaign by left-wing judges, his control of the media is very real. This, and the example of Murdoch's support for Labour, surely asks questions regarding global media control. How can we trust such men to run the world and doesn't their dominance in the field of propaganda bespeak of something Hitler's spin-doctor, Goebbels, could only have hoped to mastermind?


Once last year, when asked if his interventionist policy in newspapers was not a danger to democracy, Murdoch pointed his finger at Tony O'Reilly, media magnate and Ireland's richest man (according to the "Rich List" in his own Sunday Tribune of 11 April). Murdoch said that, unlike O'Reilly, he had no overt interventionist policy regarding his newspapers, a claim, needless to say, that O'Reilly rejected.

"Sir Anthony O'Reilly", as he prefers to be called, owns huge chunks of Irish business, with vast interests in Eircom, Waterford Crystal, mining company Arcon, and Fitzwilton power. Two of these companies, at least, have contributed to Fianna Fáil coffers. His business power, as Vincent Browne noted in the Sunday Business Post of 28 March, is "massively buttressed by his control of the dominant media group in the country, Independent Newspapers".

This group controls a myriad of local newspapers and dominant national newspapers. It has a half-share in the Star, and a half-share in the Star Sunday; it owns the Sunday Independent, the Irish Independent, the Evening Herald, the Sunday World, the Belfast Telegraph, and the Sunday Tribune.

In the case of the latter paper, Browne observed, O'Reilly "is in clear defiance of a Ministerial order issued by Desmond O'Malley in 1991 when he was Minister for Industry and Commerce. It prohibited Independent Newspapers not just from taking a larger than 29.9% shareholding in the Tribune, but from exerting control of the newspaper through any other means of financing it".

O'Relly, in short, has a finger in nearly every Irish-made pie, and he has quite substantial interests in other countries, not least England and South Africa. The long and the short of it is that readers should consider, when perusing such papers, why so much space is taken up in often vitriolic ramblings against left-wingers, most particularly those of the republican variety.

The paper famous for the slogan "open your eyes", the Irish Independent, and particularly its Sunday edition, is most notable for its unswerving crusade to close all eyes to Sinn Féin. Columnists such as Ruth Dudley Edwards, Alan Ruddock, Eoghan Harris and Eilis O'Hanlon routinely lambaste the party, devoting copious column inches in Ireland's best-selling Sunday paper to the most trite, badly-written propaganda. Need we ask why?

Well, the point surely is that we should ask why this travesty of democratic freedom has been allowed to take place for so long, not just in Ireland, but throughout Europe and beyond. It is certainly high time that media ownership, probably the most decisive issue in politics worldwide, was elevated to where it should logically be on the socialist political agenda.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1