When will Rupert Murdoch announce his backing for Labour?

Snoddy: When will Rupert Murdoch announce his backing for Labour?
Murdoch (left) and Blair in 2008 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The silence is becoming deafening as Labour holds on to a strong lead in the polls. What a different story to the Blair era.

Will he or won’t he? Or, more precisely, why hasn’t he already?

The “he”, of course, is Rupert Murdoch and the question is why the media tycoon has shown no signs so far of murmuring sweet nothings in the ear of Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader.

The silence is becoming deafening as Labour holds on to a 20% lead in the polls month after month and the government of Rishi Sunak looks holed under the water line.

It was very different last time a Labour party under Tony Blair was far ahead in the polls and heading for a landslide victory.

The Murdoch/Blair dalliance

Two years before that election had been called, Murdoch invited Blair to speak at an internal News Corp conference on Hayman Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Much to the consternation of many in the Labour party, Blair accepted and what was described as a “flirtation” between the two sides got under way.

At the time, Murdoch was quoted as saying that “if that flirtation is ever consummated, I suspect we will end up making love like two porcupines — very carefully”.

The deal was done and Murdoch later revealed to the Financial Times that The Sun would be backing Labour in the 1997 election before he had actually informed the editor of The Sun.

He explained at the time that he called the shots at The Sun, but claimed the editors of The Times and The Sunday Times were free to make up their own minds.

Up to a point. It was Murdoch who appointed the editors of both papers and neither could be unaware of the views of  “the boss”.

Greater glory

The record shows that, over the past 20 years, The Times has always ended up supporting the party that has won most seats in general elections.

Murdoch’s abiding interest has always been the greater glory of the media company he created. Therefore he has always backed political winners for the hoped-for access, and possible influence, that follows.

He is 92 years old and his eldest son, Lachlan, is now executive chairman of News Corp, but it inconceivable that the views of the elder Murdoch will not hold considerable sway on matters of political allegiance.

Once again, the leader writers, political reporters and columnists of The Sun, happy to vilify Starmer and his work on a daily basis, may have to suddenly go for the “reverse ferret” and start singing a different political song.

The mystery is: what is keeping Murdoch?

Out of touch?

As things stand, The Sun, the Daily Express and — even more vociferously — the Daily Mail continue to give their support to the Conservative government and attack Labour and its politicians at every conceivable opportunity.

This is despite the fact that Labour, at the moment, has a 45% share of the vote to 25% for the Conservatives and Sir John Curtice, the polling expert and professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, is convinced large swathes of the electorate have already made up their minds. He believes the Conservatives have lost their way because of Partygate during the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, said recently that he had never seen the right-wing tabloids so out of touch with political reality and the views of their readers.

Come the Labour landslide — if it happens — where are such tabloids going to go in the face of possibly 10 years of Labour governments?

Scepticism among the ranks

Some light was shed this week by David Parsley, chief news correspondent of i, on why Murdoch and News Corp executives seem to be holding back.

Parsley, founding editor of City AM, reported scepticism within the News Corp board about Sir Keir’s ability “to hit the home run” — particularly if, as they believe, the election will be delayed until November in the hope (in Conservatives’ minds) that something will turn up.

The situation is also very different from the Blair era. Sir Keir, already in trouble with his left wing, will be wary about cuddling up to the Murdochs.

On the News Corp side, Parsley noted “a grain of bitterness” that Starmer had backed the prosecution of Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News Corp in the UK during the phone-hacking scandal.

It looks like Murdoch’s call for Starmer and Labour will come late, but will come when they are finally convinced that Labour is going to win.

Tough balance at Fox

The approach of Fox News in the US is even more tricky. With Donald Trump rampant in the primaries, it is virtually impossible — unlike a recent devastating editorial in the Houston Chronicle — to do anything other than support his candidacy.

Fox viewers will be overwhelmingly Trump supporters.

It is, however, unlikely that there will the raucous Trump support from Fox as in 2020 and its violent aftermath, with enthusiastic peddling of conspiracy theories by Fox hosts. The $787m settlement with Dominion Voting Systems and the sacking of Tucker Carlson, with a number further lawsuits pending, will add up to a strong argument for caution.

Trump will receive mild, unenthusiastic backing from Fox at best.

Different approaches

The clearest sign that this is so came from a Bret Baier interview with Trump.

When Trump was asked what he was going to say that would appeal to suburban housewives, Trump went into his usual riff: he had won the 2020 election, but ballot boxes had been stuffed and the FBI had been in on the conspiracy to prevent his election.

Baier was having none of it and repeatedly told Trump that he had lost fair and square, that all recounts had properly gone against him and that there had been only the tiniest proportion of illicit votes — far too few to affect any of the outcomes.

It was a very different Fox News and not what Trump had come to expect.

So it looks like News Corp — or at least Fox News — will take the hit of backing a possible loser for the sake of business, while eventually, some time around July, and however reluctantly, there will be Murdoch support for Sir Keir.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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