The fading aura of the press barons

From political events to grassroots activism, media owners like Rupert Murdoch are under pressure from all directions. 

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Fans of schadenfreude will have enjoyed a tweet by John Prescott on election night last month. As the nation was coming to terms with the implications of a hugely surprising exit poll – one that showed Theresa May had not only failed to achieve the landslide victory most pundits expected but had actually lost her parliamentary majority – the former Labour frontbencher tweeted some insider info from News Corp HQ.

“Heard from very good source who was there that Rupert Murdoch stormed out of The Times Election Party after seeing the Exit Poll,” said Prescott, followed by the ‘crying with laughter’ emoji. This irresistible piece of gossip felt like a seminal moment. Whether true or not, it reinforced the view most people already held; that Murdoch himself had lost in the election, and lost big.

For decades Murdoch has appeared untouchable, able to exert an inordinate amount of influence on governments and public opinion through his News Corp media empire, which in the UK owns The Sun and The Times. He also has a stake in broadcaster BSkyB and is currently trying, once more, to buy all of Sky. Since Thatcher in the 1980s Murdoch has had the ear of successive prime ministers and has ruthlessly deployed his media assets to achieve the outcomes best suited to his interests.

The Australian-born tycoon was even able to ride out the phone hacking scandal of 2011, his long-term standing unchecked despite some short-term repercussions. Depressingly, before the election there were familiar reports of Murdoch meeting in private with May, the establishment nexus swinging into full force once more.

Prescott’s tweet was for many people the first sign of a crack in a seemingly unbreakable edifice of power. Predictably The Sun had viciously gone after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the election campaign, publishing on the day of the vote a front page that showed Corbyn in a bin with the headline “Don’t chuck Britain in the Cor-bin”. The paper also featured an exhaustive list of accusations that included “Terrorists’ friend”, “Nuclear surrender” and “Open immigration”.

The forceful, vitriolic nature of the splash called to mind The Sun’s front page mocking Neil Kinnock on the day of the 1992 general election, and its famous self-congratulatory “It’s The Sun wot won it” headline once Kinnock’s defeat to John Major was confirmed.

The Sun headlines

But The Sun didn’t win it this time around. Labour grew its vote share by its highest proportion since 1945, and May lost seats. If Murdoch really did storm out of The Times party, it may have been due to shock as much as disappointment, as though an unnerving, unfamiliar pang of human fallibility had shattered his usual god-like aura. Despite his power play, Murdoch had failed to influence the outcome, and he simply didn’t see it coming.

This kind of shock would force anyone onto the defensive, and there have been signs since the election of The Sun desperately trying to shore up a status quo it now regards as under threat.

Despite May’s evident flaws and hugely weakened political position, the paper has been forced to throw its lot in with the PM, fearful that her downfall would result in another general election that could hand power to Labour. A Sun editorial this week urges the Tories “to stop playing the blame game and let Theresa May crack on with making Brexit a success”.

At the same time, the paper has criticised the huge swathe of young voters that proved so influential in backing Labour at the election, essentially pleading with them to see sense. In a remarkable editorial on 21st June, The Sun painted young people as indulged, impertinent brats who should pipe down and be happy with what they’ve got.

“Labour’s new young middle-class supporters have grown up in an era that takes capitalism for granted,” it said. “Now, far fewer than half believe this system which has lifted billions out of poverty in the last 25 years is even a force for good. They assume the economic privileges they enjoy every day are the natural order — and Corbyn will merely iron out its flaws. It is utterly delusional.”

To talk of economic privileges so brazenly, when so many young people feel they lack such privileges, shows just how out of touch the Murdoch machine has become – particularly with the generation of young people they are now struggling to reach.

Indeed the editorial also shows The Sun’s clear frustration with social media and its corrosive impact on its influence. “If [young people] ever read anything beyond their Facebook feeds they would know where socialism always leads: food shortages, destitution and early graves,” it says. The editorial feels historic for what it reveals: the desperation of a powerful public organ that fears the tide is turning against it.

The parallels with the Daily Mail are even more remarkable. Like The Sun, the Mail and its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, threw all their weight behind May in the election campaign, again attacking Corbyn in the strongest possible terms. The day before the vote, the paper dedicated its first 13 pages to attacks on Corbyn and Labour’s Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, under the front page headline “Apologists for terror”.

The election result will undoubtedly have rocked Dacre too. Sure enough the Mail has produced its own temper tantrum editorial in the weeks since. On 22nd June, the paper issued a lengthy complaint about a Martin Rowson cartoon, published by The Guardian, which depicted the van driven by the anti-Islamic Finsbury Park terrorist attacker as featuring the slogan “Read The Sun & Daily Mail”.

As the Daily Mail lashed out against “the fascist Left”, it argued that such a depiction was unfair and that it was wrong to call its content Islamophobic. The editorial due further derision for attempting to claim that the Mail Online is a completely separate entity to the Daily Mail, and that the Mail Online’s decision to employ columnist and vehement critic of Islam, Katie Hopkins, was nothing to do with the newspaper.

In the weeks before the election, when The Sun and The Daily Mail seemed to have full confidence in a Tory victory, few would have predicted that just weeks later, one paper would feel compelled to issue a wholesale defence of capitalism as an economic system, and that the other would resort to weasel words about its corporate structure in an attempt to dissociate itself from one of its most controversial writers.

The Stop Funding Hate effect

Alongside such an unforeseen twist of political fate, Murdoch and Dacre are confronted with a motivated army of grassroots activists growing more powerful by the day. Stop Funding Hate launched last year as an online campaign aimed at pressuring brands into pulling their advertising from those newspapers it sees as promoting hate speech, particularly with regards to immigrants and refugees. The campaign specifically accuses the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and The Sun of conducting “divisive hate campaigns”.

In little over a year Stop Funding Hate has gone viral across social media. The campaign’s 76,000 Twitter followers and 235,000 Facebook followers make it their mission to hound brands on these platforms whenever they spot an advert next to a suspect article. This week, for example, EE felt the wrath of Stop Funding Hate supporters after one of its digital display adverts appeared next to a Sun opinion piece warning of the “evil lurking behind immigration”.

The weight of such pressure is already telling, with heavyweight advertisers like Lego and The Body Shop opting to sever their investments with the Daily Mail, and others like Vodafone introducing new guidelines aimed at paying greater heed to anything deemed as inappropriate content. The overall effect is to place in jeopardy a key source of revenue for these newspapers, at the same time as their political influence is apparently stuttering.

As the establishment weakens, the people grow stronger. Just as social media has democratised communications, the internet has democratised the route to investment. In March Stop Funding Hate raised over £100,000 from nearly 5,000 supporters on Crowdfunder, more than double its initial target. The organisation has since used some of the funds to set itself up as a registered community interest company that can employ members of staff and pursue its work with greater vigour.

Stop Funding Hate founder Richard Wilson believes that concerns about newspaper content are part of a wider fear about the rise of hate speech and divisions within communities. Indeed a Freedom of Information request by The Independent recently revealed that racial and religious hate crimes reported across the UK have increased by the highest rate on record since last year’s EU referendum, with the various recent terror attacks contributing to the trend.

“It continues to feel like these issues aren’t going away,” says Wilson. “What’s horrible is that there seems to be an almost symbiotic relationship between the extremists on both sides. I think that a lot of the people interested in our campaign are trying to push back against that black and white polarisation, as they are the people in the middle.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as very politically engaged but they are looking at what’s going on in the world with horror and thinking what can I do to push back against this kind of break down in civility and break down in decency that seems to be coming from multiple directions.”

Wilson is cautious about whether the influence of the Murdoch and Dacre machines is truly on the wane, but he sees signs that they are beginning to at least listen to activists’ concerns. He cites the example of a video made by a group of young Muslims from south London, in which they made a direct appeal to the editors of The Sun and the Daily Mail, arguing that the newspapers’ content was having an adverse effect on their community.

Although not a direct Stop Funding Hate initiative, the organisation shared the video on its platforms and within 24 hours, The Sun had been in touch to offer a meeting. “It’s only a small thing but for the editor of The Sun to take the time to actually sit down with a group of people like that – it felt like quite a win for them and an opportunity for them to have a conversation with him that maybe he wouldn’t have had before,” says Wilson.

Stop Funding Hate is now working with other groups such as Citizens UK and Tell MAMA (which stands for Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) in order to help give a voice to other people who have been subjected to abuse and hate speech. The organisation is going international too, having had contact with Sleeping Giants, a similar group in the US which is putting pressure on advertisers over the same issues.

“People are looking at what’s going on in the world with horror and thinking what can I do to push back against this kind of break down in civility”

Richard Wilson, Stop Funding Hate

In May, Wilson was even invited to speak on behalf of Stop Funding Hate at an inter-governmental meeting of UN member states that was called to look into solutions to the rise of racism and xenophobia. Having been encouraged by the reception to his speech, Wilson is looking further ahead to the possibility that one day a global standard for ethical advertising could exist in a similar fashion to the Fairtrade movement.

“If all of us can come up with a set of sensible, practical, realistic, guiding principles for what ethical advertising would look like, and if you can persuade companies that’s a good idea, then you can shut down the [advertising] campaigns because you’ve kind of embedded that thinking in their business practices over the long term,” he says.

“That’s the opportunity and that’s what we’re talking to the UN about and when you get the UN involved it’s when it starts to look possible.”

It’s certainly enough to cause the Murdochs and Dacres of this world a few more sleepless nights.

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