The question is asked frequently: how much influence does the Murdoch press have on public opinion?
Because no accurate statistical research exists, there is no clear answer.
The question usually arises in elections whether in Australia, Britain or the US. The Murdoch media goes into over-drive in support of one particular leader and starts to demonise or ridicule his main opponent.
Murdoch’s overriding interest is “to back winners”. He has no interest whatsoever in supporting second place-getters or being the champion of lost causes.
He isn’t much interested in parties either. He has backed the ALP as many times as he has backed the Coalition and he has supported British Labour leaders as well as Tories.
For example, he backed Gough Whitlam in 1972 but hounded him out of office in 1975 after The Dismissal. In the UK he championed Tory leader Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Labour’s Tony Blair in 1997 and switched back to the Tory leader David Cameron in 2010. In the US he has exclusively backed right-wing Republicans such as Ronald Reagan (1980-88) and George W Bush (2000-2008).
A case study of the influence on the Murdoch press is the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. During an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium a crowd crush tragedy resulted in the death of 96 spectators with 766 injured.
It was the worst football disaster in British history and caused grief and trauma on Merseyside and all over the football world.
Murdoch’s Sun newspaper was then edited by the owner’s favourite editor, Kelvin Mackenzie, a loud-mouthed vulgarian who preached the basest instincts of Little England, i.e. xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, philistinism and yobbery.
His front-page coverage of the tragedy came in cold, black capital letters:
. Some fans picked pockets of victims
. Some fan urinated on the brave cops
. Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life
The report claimed “drunken Liverpool fans viciously attacked rescue workers as they tried to revive victims” and that “police officers, firemen and ambulance crew were punched, kicked and urinated upon”. A quotation, attributed to an unnamed policeman, claimed a dead girl had been “abused”, and that Liverpool fans were “openly urinating on us and the bodies of the dead”.
Pummelled into line
The reaction by Liverpool fans was fierce. Copies of The Sun were burned in the street, newsagents refused to sell Murdoch’s rag, residents started a campaign to boycott the paper and businesses withdrew their advertisements.
Murdoch, Mackenzie and the paper’s general staff closed ranks and fought back. Every leading Tory from Thatcher to the humblest backbencher, every chief constable and police chief, every scribbler in the Murdoch stable – all were drawn into a campaign to convince the public that the spectators were responsible for the disaster.
And every other section of the news media, including the BBC, was pummelled into line. If anyone suggested that there was perhaps another explanation for what happened, they were denounced and ridiculed by Murdoch and his Tory servants. In other words, the Murdoch press’s version of events became the accepted wisdom. As an exercise in the power of the press it was awesome.
It was not until last year, 2012, that a judicial review team found quite different culprits – the police.
The panel concluded that NO Liverpool fans were responsible in any way for the disaster and that its main cause was a “lack of police control” and that crowd safety was “compromised at every level”.
It concluded that 164 witness statements had been altered and 116 statements unfavourable to South Yorkshire Police had been removed.
South Yorkshire Police had performed blood alcohol tests on the victims, some of them children, and ran computer police computer checks in an attempt to “impugn” their reputation.
Formal apologies were issued by Prime Minister Cameron, Opposition leader Ed Miliband and the police.
What of Kelvin Mackenzie? Appearing before a Commons select committee in 1993 when the Murdoch press was under the gun over its outrageous royal family coverage, the Sun editor said: “I regret Hillsborough. It was a fundamental mistake. The mistake was that I believed what an MP (Tory) said.”
But in November 2006 Mackenzie returned to his unyielding defamation of Liverpool fans. He said he made the apology because Murdoch ordered him to do so. “I was sorry then and I’m not sorry now,” he said.
Murdoch’s press gang originated the wide public belief that drunken Liverpool fans caused the 1989 tragedy and kept that falsehood alive for more than 20 years.
Truth only emerged due to the sheer persistence of the Hillsborough survivors and the families of the victims.
Can Murdoch’s depraved media influence elections and corrupt societal values? On this case study, the answer is “Yes”.