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05 September 2008
How Barak Obama put Rupert Murdoch in his place
Rupert Murdoch is regarded as the devil incarnate by many on the left in Britain, but how accurate is that portrayal? Your friendly old Exile reckons that Murdoch is actually a giant with feet of clay and that the Labour government that came into office in 1997 could have slapped him down. Alas, they were led by Tony Blair, a public school pretty boy, who was as afraid of Murdoch as he was of anyone else who held real power.

Let's take the case of a politician who does have balls and who isn't afraid to use them to illustrate this theme. Barak Obama refused to appear on Murdoch's Fox News channel in spite of a repeated mixture of pleas from its executives, and taunts about his cowardice from the channel's attack dogs. Eventually Murdoch caved in and arranged a meeting with Obama at which the Democratic presidential candidate set out his terms for an appearance on Fox News.

Why did Murdoch agree to this humilation? The quick and obvious answer is that Murdoch needs to keep in with the men who control the levers of political power. It doesn't matter who they are, all that matters is that they are in charge. Obama looked like a winner in spite of everything that Fox news had thrown at him. Murdoch could not allow a hostile Barak Obama to become America's next president because that, conceivably, could threaten Murdoch's empire.

What can Murdoch give in exchange? Alexander Cockburn answered that question rather nicely in 2003:
. . .Murdoch offers his target governments a privatized (sic) version of a state propaganda service, manipulated without scruple and with no regard for truth. His price takes the form of vast government favors (sic) such as tax breaks, regulatory relief, monopoly markets and so forth. The propaganda is undertaken with the utmost cynicism, whether it's the stentorian fake populism and soft porn in the UK's Sun and News of the World, or shameless bootlicking of the butchers of Tiananmen Square.
Obama doesn't need Fox News all that much, and his climb in the opinion polls shows that clearly. However it is better to have the outfit at least vaguely neutral, rather than have it attack him day after day. Murdoch for his part must have been terrified of Obama winning against the backdrop of a hostile Fox News, and the potential consequences that could have followed from a victory under those circumstances. If Obama is sworn in as president next January, then we can expect to see the Murdoch smear machine start to go into action on his behalf. It's all about making money by keeping in with the powerful.

Sometimes Murdoch has to make concessions without getting anything immediate in return. He performs an act of obeisance because he knows that men with guns can always trump whatever cards he holds. So, in 1994, Murdoch cut BBC World from his Star TV satellite service to China, because as he admitted, the Chinese leaders "hate the BBC". Those same Chinese leaders could have pulled the plug on Star TV, so Murdoch got his grovelling in before they had a chance.

It is against this background that we need to consider Tony Blair's gutless and craven approach to Murdoch. The sad thing about it all was that he was in a far stronger position prior to 1997 than Obama is today. There was no way on God's green earth that John Major was going to get returned to office after the economic disaster that was Black Wednesday, to say nothing of the infighting that marred that government during its final years in office.

All Blair had to do was sit back and wait for Murdoch to come a-crawling as Obama did. Or he could have leaked the story that an incoming Labour administration would legislate to prevent Sky TV in the UK from owning the rights to just about all the important football matches. Had he done that or something similar then Murdoch would have read the writing on the wall and made all the changes to his newspapers that were needed to arselick his way into Labour's good books.

He did nothing of the kind. He preferred instead to crawl to Murdoch and offer him whatever he wanted. In the runup to the war against Iraq in 2003, Blair even set up what amounted to a hotline between himself and Murdoch, just so that the media mogul could be kept onside.

As we cheerfully await the demise of the rancid experiment that is Nu-Labour, any new working class party will have to remember that capitalism exists courtesy of a government's grace and favour. Political power, with its brute force and patronage, will trump whatever hand the likes of Murdoch can play.

All it needs is a party that speaks for the economic wishes of the urban working class. Once the basic constituencey has been mobilised, then the likes of Murdoch will start sending out signals that they want to talk. As Obama did, if those signals are ignored, eventually a pretty total capitulation will probably be made.

All it needs is a party leadership that has the balls for a ruck.

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