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Murdoch as Metaphor

Mouthing ‘Murdoch’ has become the shibboleth that sorts out the ‘we’ from the chavs

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Andrew Calcutt and Mark Beachill

Proof Set 3, May 2012 The Reformation of Journalism

‘Murdoch’ has replaced ‘banker’ or ‘Sir Fred’ as today’s top term of opprobrium. Dethroning media baron Rupert Murdoch is even more of a talking-point than the humiliation of the former chief executive of RBS (now plain Mister Goodwin after his knighthood was annulled in February 2012).

Such a high level of excitement suggests something highly unusual. Indeed it is unusual to see the global Murdoch Empire under sustained attack (even if the attacks stem mainly from that small portion of the globe called Britain). But there is also an element of ritual, as if denouncing Murdoch is almost a magical incantation.

In the UK, almost everyone except the Tories seems pleased at the prospect of the fall of the House of Murdoch. Especially excitable are the Jeremiahs who previously envisioned a ‘neo-liberal’ conspiracy with Rupert Murdoch at its head. For them, this is the day of judgement; and finally, after so many years without much authority, they are the presiding magistrates.

Among this vociferous group is a smaller cohort who really should know better; because knowing better is their job. The role of Journalism Studies academics is two-fold: (1) to study journalism in order to understand how it works and why its workings often leave a lot to be desired; (2) to act as a critical friend to journalism – offering the constructive criticism which would enable journalists to improve their performance.

Yet rather than perform this critical but constructive role, the majority of Journalism Studies academics has formed up within the anti-Murdoch magic circle. From this position, their declarations are unlikely to have a positive influence on journalism. Instead, their performance has a galvanising effect only on their own kind: it makes them and their associates feel better about themselves. Ipso facto, if you are not inspired by it, you are obviously not the right kind of person.

You can try this at home: stand in front of a mirror and, holding a Journalism Studies textbook in your right hand, repeat the words ‘Rupert Murdoch’; or, if you are over 50, ‘the Murdoch Press’. If you are one of us, your ‘life world’ will be filled with meaning; but if this is not a meaningful experience, it means you are one of them.

Mouthing ‘Murdoch’ has become the shibboleth that sorts out the ‘we’ from the chavs: it is a test of belonging. But it is also a mirror on academia, since the ritual denouncement of Murdoch accurately reflects the condition of almost the entire academic milieu in Britain.

Many in this milieu see themselves as left-wing, and they know themselves – rather, they know what they think they are, by their hostility to Murdoch. Accordingly, what’s bad for Murdoch can only be good for their identity. Thus Professor Toby Miller feels renewed by Hackgate and what it means for his old enemy:

Like any socialist who has lived where I have during Rupert Murdoch’s hegemony, I’ve taken immense delight these past months in his public humiliation and much, much more.

Such socialists made ‘Murdoch’ their call sign back in the days of CB radio (the out-of-date metaphor underlines how long ‘Murdoch’ has been used to this effect). But to repeat (10-9), this is more ritual than real. Regular reference to Rupert Murdoch has long been a way of affirming the collective spirit. It says: we know what we’re here for; he‘s the one we have to sort out. Thus it serves to conjure up the evil spirit of Rupert while warding away full realisation of what is to be done.

‘Murdoch: the mantra’ is not so far removed from Susan Sontag’s idea of ‘illness as metaphor’. According to Sontag, in modern times first ‘tuberculosis’ and then ‘cancer’ became almost unsay-able because of their deathly connotations. On the other hand, indirect reference to what could not be said directly, was also a tacit form of acknowledging the consumption of self in modern society, expressed in the recurring motif of the ‘consumptive’ individual living out a slow death.

At first sight, repeated reference to ‘Murdoch’ is the opposite of this: instead of what cannot be said, ‘Murdoch’ is what must be said in order to gain entrance to particular circles. But in other ways, constant reference to Rupert Murdoch is also consistent with Sontag’s idea. In the past, ‘Murdoch’ offered a way of not talking about the death of the Left and the demise of what it once stood for. It affirmed the collective spirit while the collective itself was dwindling away. Now, with the Leveson Inquiry still in session, it is one way of evading what’s really wrong with journalism. In both instances, strenuous repetition of ‘Murdoch’ is a form of displacement. For those disposed to deploy this metaphor, it stands in for what they cannot bear to say.

As a metaphor, however, ‘Murdoch’ also stands for something which is real, but not in the form in which it is described. In today’s world, as in the days when the spectre of tuberculosis loomed large, we really are subject to malign forces beyond our control; but not because such forces are controlled by malignant bacteria such as Rupert Murdoch – or James Murdoch or the Sun or News International or BSkyB or News Corp (‘Murdoch’ is the cipher for all of these).

‘Murdoch’ is metaphorically, not literally true, where metaphor is something like what is, but not how it really is. And it really does not help when academics who ought to know the difference, only compound these two forms of description into a single misunderstanding.

If you haven’t heard this before, please note that a metaphor is a simile without the word ‘like’: a form of words which identifies two things that are alike; but though similar the two things are not, after all, identical. As a literary device, metaphor works best when the reader or listener can see both the likeness and the dissimilarity between the two things apparently identified; though as and when the reader/listener sees this of them, they are already being compared rather than mistaken for each other.

This pedantic digression is important because the problem with the Murdoch metaphor is that those most disposed to use it, are also least able to recognise it for what it is – a metaphor. The way they say it, what is really only a likeness (and perhaps not a terribly good one), is taken for the thing it only vaguely resembles. In their mouths, Murdoch is the essence of capitalism; the evil empire’s Darth Vader. Indeed Rupert Murdoch really is a capitalist, but by no means the mastermind behind a system of world domination (if only there were such a person; but mindlessness, not master planning, is the banality behind the evils of capital). Thus ‘Murdoch’ is a case of mistaken identity, in which one man is wrongly identified as the cause of the ‘neo-liberal regime’. Moreover, the longevity of this error makes it especially sad: it has been going on for decades.

Fortress Wapping

On the picket lines outside Fortress Wapping two-and-a-half decades ago, the list of un-sayable things included: (1) all employers in the print are planning to cut costs and dump labour in much the same way as News International; (2) many union leaders are cutting ‘sweetheart deals’ with employers (we promise not to strike if you promise ours will be the only union on site) – much the same as the deal which Eric Hammond, leader of the electricians’ union (EETPU), had already concluded with News International inside Wapping (allowing the management of News International to sack its previous workforce and keep them locked out). Both of these statements were already, demonstrably true; and they needed saying. But instead of confronting the truth, many activists reached for a metaphor instead. ‘Don’t buy the Murdoch Press’ and ‘Boycott the Sun, News of the World, Times and Sunday Times‘ were the preferred metaphors of the day.

These metaphorical slogans served to displace attention from the scale of the problem facing the labour movement, then under political attack from a militant right-wing government, but without any current, political ideas to call its own. Instead, the focus shifted to the alleged peculiarities of News International and the personal attributes of Rupert Murdoch.

For example, on the routine demonstration outside Fortress Wapping every Saturday night (described by printworkers themselves as ‘social picketing’), it became an endless talking point that Australian-born Murdoch continued to own British newspapers while he applied for (and was granted) American citizenship. Speaking along these lines to print union delegates at their summer conference in Scarborough, (then) Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock managed to win them over, even though, in the course of the same speech, he also disowned militant action by printworkers in defence of their jobs. Kinnock’s denunciation of Murdoch was enough to stop their elected representatives denouncing a Labour Party that did not support labour – such was the strength, even then, of the Murdoch metaphor.

Thus the particularities of ‘Murdoch’ and ‘the Murdoch Press’ stood in for a concerted address to the generally parlous condition of workers’ organisations. Of course, phrases such as ‘workers’ organisations’ have since become utterly anachronistic. But such phrases, and the movement they represented, might not have run out of time if in the mid-1980s there had been less reliance on ‘Murdoch’ and other metaphors.

Boundless metaphor

If the past is another country, the Murdoch metaphor travels well. In 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall came down on politics like an iron curtain, closing off the old country and the class-based, ideological divide between Left and Right. But ‘Murdoch’ made it into the new territory of the early 1990s. Accordingly, when in 1992 the UK electorate surprised the pundits by preferring an exhausted Tory government over a disconcertingly non-descript Labour Party, the ‘Murdoch Press’ again served as a metaphor – a way of acknowledging but not having to explain why Labour lost to a Conservative Party that was, to paraphrase a comment of the time, ‘more dead than Marxism’.

In re-electing the Tories, voters were only expressing their instinctive pragmatism: better the devil we know. But Labour supporters, including the academics among them, seemed to think it was better not to know why they had lost. Instead they reached for the Murdoch metaphor. The election result was duly ascribed to the power of the Sun: Neil Kinnock was toast because on polling day the Sun had said: if he wins ‘will the last person to leave Britain please turn out then lights?’

In the aftermath of the general election, a reader wrote to the Guardian to say she did not like sitting next to Sun readers on the tube; and her preferred paper duly printed it. Here the Murdoch metaphor had become a contagion. Even the Sun was infected. The hardened hacks of its subs’ bench were hardly immune when they puffed up their chests with the front page headline ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’ (11th April 1992). Labour’s next generation – Mandelson, Campbell, Blair – was similarly affected. They built their New Labour apparatus on the basis of the Murdoch metaphor. Having accepted that ‘Murdoch’ was a sufficient account of what went wrong, they took it that things could only get better as long as ‘Murdoch’ was persuaded to join them.

Metaphors Old and New

In the litany of complaints against the Sun et al, ‘Murdoch’ is shorthand – metaphorical signage – for the allegedly negative effects of popular journalism. Although woefully inadequate as an account of why the working class left the Left for dead, there is surely an element of truth in the proposition that tabloid newspapers can have a deadening effect. Yet the truth contained in this proposition turns out to be more metaphorical than real.

With the Sun as its exemplar, in the 1970s and 1980s Journalism Studies first identified itself in Britain by mounting a critique of tabloid newspapers and their capacity to suck the intelligent life out of working class readers; hence, or so it was said, the incorporation of the working class into the bourgeois body politic. But this critique was unwittingly metaphorical.

In reality, capitalism does deaden humanity by transforming human beings into little more than packets of commodified labour-power. This violent transformation has long been represented in tabloid journalism, not least in the murder story: each murder splash is the story of how a human being was forcibly transformed into a lifeless thing – the corpse. Furthermore, if murder was the lead story in popular journalism (‘if it bleeds…’), conversely, the need for what was represented in the murder story, also led to popular journalism in the form in which it duly developed – the tabloid. Thus the tabloids have repeatedly described and just as often misrepresented the death of humanity under capitalism. But this does not mean that they were responsible for the death of working class consciousness in the 1980s. (To understand this we must look to the failure of the Left at that time.) However, when the new discipline of Journalism Studies distinguished itself by attributing both murders to the same tabloid villain, it transformed a deadly accurate metaphor into literal untruth.

Even when Journalism academics were constructing it, this critique was misplaced. But now, to make matters worse, their criticism is reserved exclusively for the old metaphor – ‘Murdoch’, without a word against the new metaphor which has only recently appeared: “Leveson” – and still without recognising either metaphor for what it is.

The Leveson Inquiry is already on its way to becoming ‘Leveson’, the equally metaphorical antidote to Murdoch as metaphor. The metamorphosis of Leveson into ‘Leveson’ occurs at a time when Sontag’s insight has been turned inside out. Whereas she observed reticence in reference to fatal illness, today’s therapeutic culture confronts us with the opposite – a carnival of morbid symptoms. Accordingly, already beset by the scourge of ‘Murdoch’, we are now equally absorbed in his mirror image, the antiseptic ‘Leveson’.

When Sontag wrote ‘Illness as Metaphor’ in the 1970s, she was writing about unspeakable illnesses which nonetheless spoke volumes about the society that could not bring itself to mention them. Today, however, nobody is not ill; alternatively, if you are not ill, you must be a nobody (apologies for using a double negative not once but, appropriately enough, twice); anyhow, there is nothing more to be said about you. Conversely, being ill and/or in recovery from illness is now much-used as a metaphor for human existence.

Similarly, ‘Leveson’ now stands both for the ills of journalism and for the treadmill which will supposedly bring journalism to a state of ‘wellbeing’. However, just as the hushed tone associated with ‘cancer’ once registered the social significance of the disease without adding one jot to our understanding of it, so the Leveson display – private trauma promenading with journalistic iniquity and police malpractice – both alludes to a key issue of the day and contributes nothing to its comprehension. As before, by opening up a conversation conducted through analogy, the new metaphor is a way of closing down discussion of how things really are.

In today’s context, the imbalance between private and public life is a real problem. But the hollowing out of public life is not the sole responsibility of journalism; neither will a dramatisation of irresponsible journalism suffice to replenish the deserted public realm. Instead, the histrionic humbling of journalists (and their managers and employers) on the grounds that (like almost everyone else) they have been paying too much attention to the intimate details of private individuals, is a way of acting out this problem metaphorically. The problem of public and private is misapprehended in what is purportedly the means of redress. When metaphor stands in for reality, it stands in the way of addressing it. Worse still, it has real consequences, not just metaphorical ones. Accordingly, ‘Leveson’ is already latent with therapeutic intervention: journalism is to go into detox and the newsroom must break its addiction to secretive behaviour by undergoing regular procedures to ensure transparency.

Leveson the metaphor could not exist without Murdoch as precursor. But Leveson now tops Murdoch whose metaphorical role is to support the new lead: Leveson himself. Strong against the unions and the left, Murdoch has been humbled by the ghost of a teenage murder victim. As a metaphor Murdoch may even be losing some of his black magic powers, but the Leveson genie is already working its way beyond News International, suffusing itself throughout journalism as a whole. Unless, that is, we journos muster the strength to stick this metaphor back in the bottle.

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