Ever since he burst into Britain four decades ago by snapping the country's largest newspaper out from underneath his competitors, Rupert Murdoch has come to secure a firm and powerful grip around the throat of the United Kingdom's media. The Australian-born, self-described "billionaire tyrant" now controls nearly 40 percent of the national press, owns one of the world's biggest book publishers, and has monopoly control over the country's satellite television service.
But as Murdoch continues to exploit his power to exert political and personal influence, his growing hold on the media has become increasingly controversial and unpopular with the UK public. When Murdoch's BSkyB television service recently swooped in to acquire a sizable stake of ITV, the largest free-to-air commercial television channel in the nation, media activists, regulatory bodies and even the government are all saying the "Dirty Digger" has gone too far.
Murdoch is known as an extremely hands-on proprietor, choosing editors who follow his orders and political dictates. "Every media property Murdoch has owned has been put to his political purposes," said Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, "as is demonstrated by how he uses the Fox networks to project right-wing politics into news and commentary and to cheapen the national culture." The same is true of his UK newspapers.
When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Murdoch's newspapers were her biggest cheerleaders, urging and applauding the Conservative government's push to privatize industries. His reward came in 1981 when Murdoch acquired the upmarket Times and Sunday Times and the required investigation by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was ignored. In 1990, his new satellite service was also exempt from cross-ownership laws at a time when other media groups were banned from owning additional newspapers and television stations.
Murdoch shifted his newspapers' influential favor in 1995 to Tony Blair's Labour Party, which went on to win three straight general elections. But such support came with a price. Desperate to keep Murdoch's endorsement, Blair avoided pursuing policies the media baron disagreed with. The public's concern about Murdoch's power came to a head with the Labour Party's 2003 Communications Act, which contained the controversial "Murdoch clause" that further loosened media ownership rules.
However, when BSkyB, run by Murdoch's son James, acquired a 17.9 percent share of ITV last November, the UK government finally put its foot down. The Communications Act did permit BSkyB to acquire 20 percent, but it was the circumstances behind the £940 million ($1.9 billion) share acquisition that generated so much contention and showed just how manipulative Murdoch's empire has become.
BSkyB's acquisition was commonly interpreted as a move to block NTL (now Virgin Media) from buying ITV and developing it into a serious competitor to BSkyB. For all of Murdoch's fine talk about competition and choice in the UK, he went on a fierce attack to prevent the very thing he supposedly defends so he can maintain his tight grip on the country's media.
Murdoch's aggression has finally begun to raise the ire of the country's regulatory bodies. As a result of the ITV acquisition, the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom have expressed concerns about whether BSkyB's dominance limits media diversity and weakens competition. In May, Trade Minister Alistair Darling ordered an investigation by the Competition Commission into the acquisition. Considering Labour's subservience to Murdoch, it's an incredible reversal.
Media reform activists in the UK have seized the opportunity around the ITV controversy to broaden the debate about Murdoch's predatory role in the nation's media and politics. A growing coalition of trade unionists, journalists, citizens' groups and politicians have recently launched a Stop Murdoch campaign in hopes of pressuring political parties before the next general election to change media ownership laws and loosen the UK from the Dirty Digger's clench.
Granville Williams is a National Council member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (cpbf.org.uk).