Edition number 44; dateline 2 August 2011
On your bike: why Murdoch matters to sport, leisure and culture
The implosion of the Murdoch empire amid a dust cloud of illegality and venal self-interest was as spectacular as it was sudden. Even for those who were well aware of the way News International went about its business, a large group that included anyone who had read the occasional issue of Private Eye over the past ten years, the actual event came as a surprise. Who could have guessed that such an established and influential powerbase could suddenly be exposed in an act too close to the denouement of The Wizard of Oz to be anything other than ridiculous; an old man might have been wearing a shell suit and the curtain might have been a car door but the essential elements are strikingly similar.
Murdoch’s debasement was at the same time an illustration of the tipping point at work (qv Malcolm Gladwell’s entertaining skip through popular social psychology available at all good airports) and of how power and politics work in the UK. In what other circumstances have our elected political representatives ever been so egregiously and so collectively exposed? It was embarrassing (for them) and horrifying (for us) to be shown just how spineless, grandiose, frightened and fawning our politicians have been. That successive prime ministers of both parties have felt themselves not sufficiently powerful to invite Rupert Murdoch and his shabby acolytes to go and screw themselves in the name of the people of Great Britain would be laughable were it not so shaming. That several of them have then scrambled to explain how they never liked him moved many of us watching the scandal unfold from feelings of anger to bathos without recourse to sympathy.
However fascinating and incredible this story has been, does it really qualify as directly relevant for those working in the sport, leisure and culture sector? From a personal perspective, The Leisure Review could be said to owe its existence to Mr Murdoch in the sense that the individuals who went on to become TLR’s editor and managing editor first struck up a professional friendship based on the fact that neither of them allowed Murdoch output into their homes. Such pointless pomposity got us where we are today but there is still an argument to be made for the Murdoch business to be the business of the sector in which we ply our trade. It is surely indisputable that Murdoch, his companies and his minions have had a profound impact on British culture since he first arrived to dip his toe in the British media. He has also had a profound effect upon the political and governmental process that has favoured the interests of wealth over welfare, tax cuts over public service, small-mindedness over big ideas and the gutter over the stars. Generations of politicians in his thrall have told us that we are obliged to accept reduced public spending, redundancies, reduced pensions, pared public services and stunted local government, the very same people who have willingly danced to the tune of Murdoch’s bizarre and hypocritical personal political agenda and the machinations of his thuggish employees. Our elected representatives, including the current culture secretary, have been charmed and persuaded by those whose standard business practices have been based on threats, coercion, bullying and criminal acts, practices that have been common knowledge around Westminster for decades.
And to what end? The creation of a business monopoly (how consistently the advocates of the free market are shown to abhor a free market!) that can threaten the health and existence of the BBC, exert proprietorial control of all our major sports – step forward football, cricket, two codes of rugby, motor racing to name only a few – change them fundamentally and remove them from public view to generate maximum revenue for the broadcaster. In terms of television the modus operandi is the antithesis of the creative process. Having established a profitable platform with the connivance of the politicians so simply and openly bought off with easy and empty promises, Murdoch then buys up anything that has proved successful in attracting an audience, taking them safely behind a pay wall. If it is true for television it is also sadly true for his involvement with British Cycling, the employees of which, having spent decades establishing one of the most effective development programmes ever seen in British sport while delivering success and accolades unimaginable just a short time ago, now have to walk round with the Sky logo on every item of clothing they possess. Where was Sky ten years ago when British Cycling was in the early stages of establishing its credentials and how long before Sky takes coverage of its Tour de France team away from terrestrial viewers?
So what lessons could the sport, leisure and culture sector take from the Murdoch scandal as they head off on holiday or to the next round of holiday sessions? That the people who go to birthday parties, weddings, sleepovers and winter picnics with Murdoch and his lackeys are the same people who tell us that there is no alternative to cuts, closures and the big society. While News International makes billions in profits yet pays very little tax to the UK exchequer, while the News International papers are overtly and covertly supportive of decisions to wage war all over the globe at huge financial and human expense to the nation, while a minister of state tells us that everyone working in the public sector needs to feel a bit more fear to be effective, we are told that we have to bear the sacrifices in the interests of the greater good.
In this world of Murdoch it seems there is always time for lunch and always the money available to bomb someone. The downfall of Murdoch’s business interests and political influence in the UK – if it comes to pass – should be an end to the whole system of vested interests, personal contacts and private briefings that have been the mainstay of a political system that has left the UK culturally, ethically, intellectually and, let’s not forget, financially bereft.Put that on the headstone of R. Murdoch Esq, newspaper proprietor, when the time comes and remember it when you are shaking a tin of small change to keep your library, your pool or sports club open.
letter from the editor
The Leisure Review editorial