Back in July 2011, Rupert Murdoch appeared before MPs to declare that his appearance that day was “the most humble day of my life”. From that point on, the bad and often illegal behaviour by those connected with his organisation would be ended, all future investigations carried out in accordance with the utmost probity. It was an unequivocal and sweeping gesture. And it was a complete and total sham.
Hopefully soon at Leveson 2
The Screws, which had been run during the editorship of Andy Coulson as a borderline criminal enterprise, was closed, but its successor, the Sun on Sunday, was soon back to the old ways, embracing the likes of the “Fake Sheikh” Mazher Mahmood, despite doubts about his past and his modus operandi. Maz’ long run came to an end when a judge caught him lying and he was jailed. Not much, it seems, had changed.
Then, after the Sun had campaigned vigorously - and often dishonestly - for Britain to leave the EU, and Sterling had plummeted in the wake of the referendum result, back came Murdoch for the 61% of Sky he did not yet own. His first attempt to gain 100% control over Britain’s most valuable broadcaster, let us not forget, was abandoned in the wake of revelations about phone hacking at the Screws.
With the new Sky bid came the return to the UK media scene of Murdoch’s son James, whose conduct had so unimpressed MPs the first time around. Yet the opposition to this new bid was nothing like that of 2011. It was almost as if the rest of the media establishment had been cowed into submission, were frightened of objecting.
The thought entered that the Murdoch empire, subjected to a properly rigorous “fit and proper” test, particularly of Murdoch Junior, would have problems convincing a regulator which was on its guard and truly committed to media standards. That thought was only reinforced when the empire’s Stateside business interests took a recent knock.
Roger Ailes, who had built Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) more or less from scratch, became embroiled in sexual harassment scandals - several of them. Paying off the complainants was not enough; Ailes had to go, and he duly went. In his place as Fox News CEO came … Rupert Murdoch. This new broom allowed FNC to carry on very much as before. And that is where he made a big mistake.
The male-dominated culture of FNC was already well-known, yet it appears Murdoch did nothing to ask whether there might be more unwelcome news lurking in the background. Just like he appeared not to ask too many questions about how the Screws was getting all those stories that featured phone calls and messages. This was not the mark of a humbled man, but one carrying on as if nothing had happened.
Now we know what Murdoch missed: the sexual harassment was not confined to Ailes, and did not stop when the former CEO departed. Worse, there was a viciously racist attitude to African-American employees (faces that are not white are still a rarity on Fox News screens). The result is mirroring what happened to the Screws.
The racism claims have featured in a New York Magazine article by Gabriel Sherman, where he notes “Monica Douglas, Fox News’ manager for credit collections, alleges that she was subjected to years of racist slurs by Fox’s longtime comptroller, Judy Slater. Among the allegations, Douglas asserts that Slater complained she had ‘black eyes’ as opposed to the ‘Aryan race’ who have blue eyes and blond hair; called her Brooklyn neighborhood ‘the murder capital of the world’; and expressed ‘an unwillingness to even be near black people’”. And Fox News’ response did not wash.
“Last month, Fox fired Slater, saying in a statement: ‘We take any complaint of this nature very seriously and took the appropriate action in investigating and firing Ms. Slater within two weeks of this being brought to our attention’ … But today’s amended court filing challenges that claim. Douglas says Fox News executives knew about Slater’s conduct for years despite the fact that Slater allegedly pressured Douglas not to report her behavior”.
The impression that inappropriate behaviour was ignored, or, worse, tolerated until the situation became untenable makes it sound all too familiar to UK Murdoch watchers. And that is before the harassment claims. As I posted recently, these involve FNC’s top rating host Bill O’Reilly - the man who brings the channel’s biggest ratings.
Bill-O and FNC had paid off a number of claims made against him. And, as with the years of misbehaviour at the Screws and Sun that were tolerated because the punters kept on buying their papers, so it was with O’Reilly and Fox News. Bill-O brought ratings, and ratings meant advertising revenue: just how much has been revealed by the Guardian.
“O’Reilly is Fox News’ top revenue producer, according to the research firm Kantar Media, bringing in over $178m in ad dollars in 2015 and $118.6m in the first nine months of 2016. Fox News itself makes up one-fifth of parent company 21st Century Fox’s profit, according to estimates from Anthony DiClemete, a media analyst with the Nomura investment bank”.
It wasn’t broken, and so there was no need to fix it. So on rolled the Fox News juggernaut, trampling critics and competitors as it went, until what happened to the Screws came back to bite it: the advertisers began to pull their ads from The O’Reilly Factor.
The roll-call of advertisers had reached 12 when the Guardian published; it has now reached 18. Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, BMW, Mitsubishi, Allstate, GlaxoSmithKline - all have pulled their participation in “The Factor”, as Bill-O modestly calls his show.
The Murdoch Times, which has always been well-informed about the machinations of the Murdoch mafiosi, has put it bluntly in two Tweets: “Surprised at lack of leaking from either side in negotiations beginning on getting Bill O'Reilly out of @FoxNews. Opposite of Ailes exit … Murdoch Family already knows this ends with Bill O'Reilly being sacked, contract paid out, and Rupert retiring as @FoxNews CEO. Why delay?”
That is the minimum that needs to happen if the Murdochs are to remain credible bidders for 100% of Sky - even with the craven and complicit Government that presently holds sway in Westminster. What should really happen is that the bid should be rejected, on the straightforward grounds that the Murdochs have failed the “fit and proper” test.
Or the Government should put it all on hold until Leveson Part 2 has been enacted. Then they will know for certain of Murdoch’s lack of fitness - and then reject the bid. Either way, there is no way the Murdoch mafiosi should be handed control of Sky. End of story.