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The decline of Murdoch's influence

14 Jun 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The decline of Murdoch's influence

Rupert Murdoch and the right-wing tabloids' power and influence over the general election outcome has diminished greatly compared with a number of years ago. Raymond Snoddy looks at what's changed.

If you fancy a conspiracy theory - particularly one about Rupert Murdoch - then Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party is your man.

Watson is tireless in trying to expose the almost superhuman reach of the aged Murdoch into every nook and cranny of British politics.

With Labour’s unexpectedly strong showing in the polls, the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party posing on the steps of Downing Street, and a whole new can of worms re-opened on Brexit, you would have thought Watson would have other things on his mind.

But through the thick of it Watson can stay focused on Murdoch and took the trouble to write to Prime Minister Theresa May asking her if Rupert Murdoch had asked her to reappoint Michael Gove to the Cabinet or face a bad press from the Murdoch titles.

“I am writing to ask you about any influence Rupert Murdoch may have sought to exert over cabinet appointments,” Watson stormed.

How the PM, as she struggled to avoid being stabbed in the back by the original members of that Cabinet and cope with the England football team losing to the French, must be quaking in her boots.

Watson has been promised an answer in due course but when the reply comes it could be quite a short letter.

We will probably never know whether Murdoch did call Theresa May to offer comfort, support or advice and mentioned the Gove name in passing. But after the pleasantries the answer to the letter is likely to be short - as in “No.”

For the first time there is genuine political choice online, with commitment and bias, but little sign of totally fake news"

When dealing with conspiracy theories the best question to ask is usually are there simpler and more straightforward explanations for any observed event.

The Prime Minister was under pressure to broaden the range of her Cabinet following the electoral setback and Gove was an effective minister until he decided to stab colleagues in the back and go for the leadership in a cack-handed way.

She would probably now rather have him indoors and somewhere where she can keep an eye on him.

Could Murdoch want to have Gove included to try to stop any back-sliding on Brexit?

Possibly, yet so far the newly appointed Environment Secretary has been rather emollient on the issue calling for cross-party talks on the EU and the “maximum possible consensus.”

Would Murdoch like to have his man Gove, Times columnist when he is out of political luck or favour, as Prime Minister?

Probably, but not even conspiracy fans like Watson would surely think that terribly likely now.

There is also the apparent evidence of the surprise expressed at the turn of events by Gove’s wife Sarah Vine in her Daily Mail column.

If there was a Murdoch/May conspiracy, Michael Gove and his wife didn’t seem to have been in on it - unless she is lying through her teeth.

The most central reason why such a thing is unlikely is one that goes to the heart of the media and the election result - the decline in power and influence of the right-wing tabloids.

God knows the Sun gave its best shot at trying to trash the personality and campaign run by Jeremy Corbyn.

The election special front page offered: Don’t Chuck Britain in the...COR-BIN, complete with “We’ve had enough of Jezza’s rubbish and no less than ten accusations on the front page ranging from “terrorist’s friend” to “Marxist extremist.”

The front page was up there with the best of the Sun’s biased election coverage under Kelvin MacKenzie in 1992 when Neil Kinnock was placed inside a light bulb with the advice that the last person to leave Britain was invited to turn out the lights.

The whole point about Murdoch’s “power” over the general election outcome is how diminished it now is compared with 1992.

The entire national newspaper industry, with the exception of the Daily Mirror and the Guardian, came out against Jeremy Corbyn and Labour - and a lot of good it did them.

What seems to have made the difference, and undone the best efforts of most of the opinion polls again, is the large surge in the youth vote who disproportionately voted for Labour.

It is a powerful movement and one that having seen the political impact it can have will probably increase in subsequent elections whenever they might come.

It is a powerful marker of the changing of the generations and a self-evident truth that not many of the under 35s have ever formed the habit of actually buying a newspaper. That is another trend that is likely to accelerate in future.

Many, of course, see stories from newspapers online - the overall reach of newsbrands is at an historic high.

What was new this time was the arrival of left-leaning websites such as The Canary, Evolve Politics and Skwawkbox which received millions of hits with the help of social media giants such as Facebook.

At the very least for the first time there is genuine political choice online, with commitment and bias, but little sign of totally fake news.

The Pope backed neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn.

The paradox, which makes Watson’s priorities seem so strange, is that by general consent Labour beat the Tories for the first time on their sophisticated use of social media.

As the Prime Minister tries to enter the Brexit negotiations as if nothing had happened to carry out the “will of the people,” the march of the generations could be relevant both to her and arch Brexiteer Rupert Murdoch.

As Anthony Hilton noted in the Evening Standard, the “will of the people” could have changed greatly by 2019 when we are due to leave the EU from what it was in the 2016 referendum vote.

Two million older voters who largely supported Brexit (many of whom read the Daily Mail, Sun, Express or Daily Telegraph) will have died and been replaced by 2 million new young voters who are likely to be more pro-Europe and not in the thrall of Murdoch newspapers.

As for Tom Watson, who with Labour supports Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act and the launching of a Leveson 2 inquiry, it is difficult to image who he will seek to blame when Ofcom enables Murdoch’s ownership of Sky to proceed.

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10 Dec 2019 

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