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Murdoch and the crown jewels

31 August 2012

In the cause of press free­dom: Friday's Sun

In the cause of press free­dom: Friday's Sun

THE Sunday Express has been running a "Crusade for Better Mental Health" since February. When I learned this - from a story headlined "Jesus Christ 'may have suffered from mental health problems', claims Church of England" - I wondered how to fill the rest of the column.

In fact, I wondered how to fill the rest of my life. I felt like Tom Lehrer, who, when he heard that Henry Kissinger had won a Nobel Peace Prize, resolved on the spot to give up satire, since it was no longer distinguishable from reality.

But we stumble on. I take comfort from the fact that the story (based round a distortion of a year-old press release) was described with unwonted tact as "exclusive".

A slightly more conventional sense of "exclusive" was supplied by the Sun, which printed the grainy cameraphone pictures of a naked Prince Harry on what seems to have been the personal instructions of Rupert Murdoch. Certainly, Murdoch tweeted afterwards: "Simple equation: free, open uncontrollable Internet versus shackled newspapers equals no newspapers. Let's get real."

That he also tweeted: "Prince Harry. Give him a break. He may be on the public payroll one way or another, but the public loves him, even to enjoy Las Vegas" shows once more that he is a true newspaper man, confident of his superiority over all the poor fools he writes about.

Of course, the idea that The Sun had to publish the pictures because they were freely available on an American gossip site is nonsense. If the position had been reversed, and the pictures had been bought exclusively by The Sun, the paper would have had an even greater commercial incentive to publish.

But people like me, who try to distinguish between the public interest and what the public is interested in, have to look Murdoch's argument squarely in the face. What makes newspapers pay is their ability to publish what the public is interested in, not their service to the public interest.

The Guardian thinks of itself as serving the public interest. It is also losing more than £40 million a year at the moment. This is not a trend that can continue for more than a very few years.

It is a global problem, too: the Australian Fairfax group, which publishes the Sydney Morning Herald, recently wrote down the value of its newspaper holdings by $2.6 billion; Murdoch's own News International outdid that earlier, with a write-down of $2.8 billion, mostly, it said, from the Australian operations.

It may not be high-mindedness that has ruined the Australian newspaper business; but low-mindedness can seem a commercial imperative in times like them.

STILL on the Murdoch papers, Monday's Times came out unequivocally in favour of gay marriage. This is an astonishing shift in opinion.

In 2005, Matthew Parris wrote: "I am one of the transitionals, in that for gay couples I still prefer the word 'partnership' to 'marriage' because to so many people the word 'marriage' has a clear and limited meaning." The year before, the paper's leader had concluded: "The final objection to the [civil partnership] Bill comes from gay people who want total equality, including the word 'marriage'. The trouble is that 'marriage' still carries such strong religious connotations, and to use the word in the context of gay relationships would unnecessarily inflame the feelings of many social conservatives and faith communities."

And yet, on Monday, the paper took direct aim at Cardinal Keith O'Brien: "Roman Catholic parishioners throughout Scotland listened yesterday to a letter declaring the Church's support for marriage. That goal is unsurprising and admirable. The Times shares it. Indeed, knowing the benefits to those who enter a state of matrimony and to society more widely, we want the institution to be extended to couples who are at the moment prevented from marrying for no better reason than that the partners are of the same sex.

"That is where the Church and this newspaper part company. . . Marriage . . . will not only survive its extension to same-sex couples: it will be enriched by it."

It's not always entirely wise to trust The Times's account of religious matters, but I think that these two leaders express very clearly a great shift in the opinion of the British middle classes. The new orthodoxy is pretty much exactly that society benefits from faithful, stable monogamous relationships, but that Churches can no longer define who should enter into them. The next Archbishop of Canterbury will have to take note.

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