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Fox and its non-fanciful foes

September 12, 2017

That sounds like some kind of fairy tale – and maybe that’s right; an old media magician tries to weave one last spell with a company named after a wild rural animal. Just as it looks like he’s going to succeed, along come the politicians and regulators with their ‘non-fanciful’ concerns over his commitment to plurality and his fitness to run a major broadcaster.

The surprise isn’t that there should be these concerns – that is no surprise at all. It is more that Rupert Murdoch, often styled a King maker in British and American politics, should have squandered all the political capital that once would have counted for him.

Of course, it isn’t just that he’s lost it, it has, in true fairy tale style, simply disappeared. Social media and the direct outreach it offers means politicians don’t fear newspapers anymore, at least not nearly as much as they used to.
Even television doesn’t hold the thrall that it used to. Except, maybe, Fox News – and that’s the problem. Murdoch – despite the kind of privileged wealthy background he shares with D.J. Trump – has always defined himself as an outsider shaking up the establishment. More DJT parallels. Both like to husband mavericks who will ‘take on’ the powers that be; among many others, Larry Lamb and Kelvin Mackenzie in his UK newspapers, Sam Chisholm at Sky and, above all, Roger Ailes at Fox News. The one thing he doesn’t share with President Trump is that Murdoch is always loyal to his acolytes, even when that is no longer in his interests.

And this is where Murdoch has lost his power, his influence, even to some extent his credibility. First, the leaders of his newspaper empire in the UK came to believe they needed to deliver the kind of sensation that kept them afloat at any cost – including hacking the phones of celebrities (bad) and those associated with murder victims (wicked). The Hacking Scandal cost him his last bid for control of Sky.

In the US, the late Roger Ailes and his acolytes created a ‘news’ channel that ushered in the concept of a post-fact world and promoted a victim mentality among a large minority of Americans that lead directly to the rise of President Trump. There is some speculation that the small part of journalistic DNA that undoubtedly clings on in Murdoch, means he has been pretty queasy about some of Fox News antics. But Frankenstein never could bring himself to destroy his own monster, especially when it is a money-making machine. Indeed, a cash machine of such proportions it would rather pay out millions to dump a succession of stars and execs accused of sexual harassment rather than put them through a proper disciplinary process.

Oh, except in the UK where Fox News has just been axed as uneconomic. This is as plausible as a White House press conference. It was a too small, and way too late, gesture to try and say (literally) ‘nothing to see here,’ to the UK establishment.

To ask a commercial broadcaster (or newspaper publisher) to believe too deeply in plurality is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. The government and its regulators have to make the judgements about that. But you can ask – expect – a broadcaster to show they are ‘fit and proper’ to run an organisation that will have huge market reach and influence. I think history shows the bar isn’t really set all that high. But some still fall below it. Or do they? Assuming the culture secretary doesn’t have her ‘mindedness’ changed, we shall see in about six months time.

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