Editorial
Canker-in-chief

The line has always been that Rupert Murdoch does not direct his editors. This is the pretence of his empire: that he doesn’t need to direct his staff because they already think the way he thinks. The only problem with this is that it’s not true.

The Murdoch who emerges from a 200-page motion for summary judgement filed in the United States this week is interventionalist and vindictive. He is filled with liver-spot cunning. He is opportunistic and unscrupulous. Democracy and truth are hostage to his extraordinary, implacable profit motive.

Murdoch, according to his own deposition, talks frequently with his chief executive about what is aired on Fox News: the topics of the day, which guests to have on. He routinely suggests stories. When he doesn’t like what a host is saying, he will tell senior management to counsel them. Producers will intervene while the broadcast is still running. “I’m a journalist at heart,” he says, without irony or heart or any sense of being a journalist. “I like to be involved in these things.”

His son Lachlan is just as hands-on. He directs the network on content and guests and even where stories should be placed on the website. He texts notes on Trump coverage, directing programs in real time. He complains about the text crawling along the bottom of the screen: it is too hostile to his preferred candidate.

Lachlan Murdoch’s directions are explicit. They are issued with full knowledge of how they will distort reality. He talks about narrative, believing he should control it: “News guys have to be careful how they cover this rally. So far some of the side comments are slightly anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this is a huge celebration of the president.”

In the filing, part of a defamation case being brought by Dominion Voting Systems, Rupert Murdoch is openly concerned about alienating Trump or his base. “If he says ‘Don’t watch Fox News’ maybe some don’t.” When Bill Sammon correctly called a Republican loss in Arizona, Murdoch personally made the decision to sack him: “Maybe best to let Bill go right away.” This was intended as “a big message with Trump people”.

Murdoch remains deeply invested in political outcomes. He presses his chief executive on the “importance of giving exposure to Republicans in close Senate races”. He directed hosts to “say something supportive” about chosen candidates. There is no distance between him and the politicians who serve him. The pronouns blur into one ugly, suppurating, mutually assured mass: “We cannot lose the Senate if at all possible.”

Murdoch’s techniques have never been subtle but rarely have they been as explicit as this: “Just made sure Fox banging on about these issues. If the audience talks the theme will spread.”

He knew his hosts were running a dangerous, fictive line when they claimed the 2020 election was a fraud. He did nothing. “I could have,” he said. “But I didn’t.”

This case is about the interests of a private company, a voting system defamed by wild conspiracy theories, but it is really about the impact Murdoch has on society. He didn’t care that his station was broadcasting a conspiracy theory. All he cared about was that it was good for business.

Murdoch is a canker on democracy, a man in complete knowledge of his influence and without the slightest regard to his responsibility. Everything to him is money. Sitting to give his deposition, he agreed with a phrase that will come to define him, the perfect description of what matters to him and what he will destroy to get it: “It is not red or blue, it is green.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "Canker-in-chief".

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