We live in an age of democracy, or so we are told. Since the defeat of fascism and Nazism after the second world war and the disintegration of communism in eastern and central Europe a decade ago, democracy seems to have established itself securely as the ideal form of government and the fundamental standard of political legitimacy. The tale of democracy, from its birth in antiquity to the present seems to have had a happy ending.
And even if there has never been consensus over its key terms, such as “political participation”, or “representation”, one central idea has stubbornly persisted in definitions of democracy since the 18th century. Democracy, Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract, is when government resides “in the hands of the people or the greater majority of the people.” The people are sovereign.
Reading news of the Wall Street Journal’s takeover by Rupert Murdoch, the global media tycoon, I could not help thinking back to Rousseau’s words and asking myself: can we any longer speak of democracy as the expression of the people’s free will and the realisation of their common good? Are our political institutions and those we elect to preside over them representative of the people’s general will and their collective interests?
In the classical tracts of philosophers and jurists, the old pensioner, young student, and millions of ordinary men and women struggling to make ends meet count as much as Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire media baron. This is allegedly the case even if through his global $30bn empire, with its hundreds of press outlets, television channels, and internet sites, he decides what they read, watch, think, speak of, consume and vote for. But even if we concede that democracy is a reflection of the popular will, we are still left with the question of who shapes, manufactures, and decides the direction of this “general will”.
In a 1994 address to the free-market thinktank the Centre for Independent Studies, Murdoch declared that he is more concerned with shaping ideas than he is with making profits. After all, he went on to say: “we are all ruled by ideas.” And ruling by ideas is precisely what Murdoch has sought to achieve for the last four decades in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the US.
In his native Australia, Murdoch has succeeded in exerting enormous ideological influence on the national agenda through his television channels and numerous newspapers, most importantly the national Australian, popularising hardline market economics, demonising Aborigines, and immigrants, and turning into the most potent weapon in the hands of the intellectual right in its culture wars.
Things are not much different here in Britain, where Murdoch owns the most widely read newspapers, both in the tabloid and broadsheet press, including the Sun, the News of the World, and the Times, not to mention Sky, the largest privately owned satellite network. His influence on national British politics has as a result been unprecedented. When Thatcher narrowly defeated Kinnock against whom the Sun had campaigned vociferously, the paper’s headline was: “It Was the Sun Wot Won it”.
That Murdoch rules by ideas is hardly lost to our politicians, who court his favour and fear his wrath more than that of the British electorate. Lance Price, who worked as a media adviser to Tony Blair between 1998 and 2001, writes in his memoir The Spin Doctor’s Diary: “Whenever any really big decisions had to be taken, I had the impression that Murdoch was always looking over Blair’s shoulder.” “I was left with the pretty clear impression” that discussions with the Murdoch camp had dictated the handling of the single currency. Murdoch “seemed like the 24th member of the cabinet. His voice was rarely heard … but his presence was always felt.”
But to compare Murdoch to a cabinet member is to severely underestimate him. For the truth is that the media mogul wields greater political clout than the cabinet. When asked in a 2003 BBC interview about who he would back in the coming election, Murdoch spoke more like a monarch than a newspaper proprietor, “We’ll have to see how the Tory frontbench looks … And we will not quickly forget the courage of Tony Blair in the international sphere in the last several months,” referring to the Iraq war which he has backed as staunchly as he has opposed the European currency.
In an age where public opinion has turned into an industry engineered by the likes of Murdoch, our tastes, opinions, moral views, and general outlook on life are largely shaped by what we read and watch. Since Murdoch is now the one who controls the reservoirs of information in the information era, he reigns uncontested. Since he can make and break them, our politicians are his servants. Opposing their master or seeking to circumscribe his power is political suicide. Perhaps a redefinition of democracy is in order then. Forget Rousseau and Mill, democracy is no longer the expression of the people’s will. It is the expression of Murdoch’s will.
First Published in The Guardian, Thursday 9 August 2007