Rupert Murdoch and the rise and fall of the press barons: how much power do newspapers still have?

Simon Potter, University of Bristol

Global media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has announced his retirement as chairman of Fox and News Corp, making way for his son Lachlan. He has been demonised as a puppet master who would pull the strings of politicians behind the scenes, as a man with too much power. But what influence did he and his fellow media moguls really wield?

The day after the 1992 UK general election, Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun claimed credit for the Tory victory with the notorious headline “It Was The Sun What Won it”. Murdoch subsequently denied he had such influence.

But in 1995, and with another general election on the horizon, Labour leader Tony Blair certainly thought it was worth courting the media mogul. Blair, along with his chief press secretary Alistair Campbell, travelled to Hayman Island, Australia, to address a News Corp. conference. Two years later The Sun turned its back on the Conservatives and backed New Labour, which emerged victorious from that year’s general election.

Commentators have argued that Murdoch’s US media empire, notably Fox News, gave Donald Trump significant public support in his quest for presidential power. Although Murdoch now seems to have gone cold on Trump, his latest biography quotes the tycoon’s ex-wife Jerry Hall as telling him: “You helped make him president.”

More than a century ago, commentators were worrying about the power of the “press barons”. The archetype of this malign figure was Lord Northcliffe, who as Winston Churchill put it, “felt himself to be possessed of formidable power” after helping to unseat a prime minister and install the next one. According to Churchill, “armed with the solemn prestige of The Times in one hand and the ubiquity of the Daily Mail in the other”, during the first world war Northcliffe “aspired to exercise a commanding influence on events”.

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Of course, the media landscape has changed dramatically since then. Indeed, it has even been transformed in the years since The Sun’s political interventions of the 1990s. Today’s press barons have had to come to terms with a digital revolution which has uprooted the traditional business model of newspapers: readership has declined and advertising revenues have collapsed, hoovered up by tech giants such as Google and Meta. Local newspapers have borne the brunt of the financial damage caused by this and by collapsing print sales, but national newspapers have struggled too.

Four frontpages from The Sun newspaper
Front pages of The Sun backing – and mocking – different political leaders.

One good example is the Telegraph Media Group: bought by the Barclay Brothers for £665m in 2004, but valued at just £200m by 2019. The group is now up for sale again.

Meanwhile “alt truthers”, like Russell Brand, amass huge followings on social media while railing against a “media elite” that seems to include most of the traditional newspaper press.

As the 2024 election looms, it is timely to consider how the power and influence of newspapers – and newspaper owners – has waxed and waned, and to ask what this history might tell us about the state of the press and public life in the UK today.

A ‘free press’ is born

By the middle of the 19th century, the British newspaper industry was one of the most diverse and sophisticated in the world. Campaigners had, over the previous decades, successfully lobbied to see the dismantling of government restrictions and taxes on the press. Britain now had a “free press”, with no prior censorship of what could be printed and an essentially free market with little state regulation. Campaigners hoped this would usher in a period of democratic political expression in print. The free market would supposedly give everyone a voice, allowing a multiplicity of viewpoints to be published each day.

For a fleeting moment, this seemed to be borne out in an immediate flourishing of new titles. In the six years after the 1855 repeal of the newspaper stamp duty, 492 new newspapers were established, many of them in provincial towns and cities which had never previously had their own newspapers. The reforming Manchester Liberal MP John Bright applauded the “great revolution of opinion on many public questions” that was taking place thanks to “the freedom of the newspaper press”.

However, many of the new titles quickly went to the wall and during the later 19th century a very different type of newspaper industry emerged. A new generation of entrepreneurs realised that they could benefit financially from market opportunities by applying novel technologies and techniques to newspaper production and distribution.

Recently constructed national and international telegraph networks allowed them to bring in the latest news from around the country, and around the world, scooping their rivals. Steam engines could be used to power printing presses, allowing them to print vast numbers of newspapers quickly enough to sell them the same day. And steam trains provided a way to get those newspapers to readers across the country using the new rail network. Fleet Street became the centre of a truly national industry.

Edward Levy (later Levy-Lawson) led the way. From 1855 he owned The Daily Telegraph: the name of the paper was itself a reference to the new technologies being deployed in the newspaper industry.

Full length photo of a balding man with glasses taken in the 1900s.
Edward Levy Lawson 1st Baron Burnham. Image taken in the early 1900s.

Levy-Lawson’s Telegraph combined serious, up-to-date news reporting with American-style journalistic innovations, including lurid crime reporting, plenty of sports coverage and publicity stunts, such as backing H. M. Stanley’s 1874 expedition across Africa on the Congo River.

The purpose of all this was to sell more newspapers. By 1877, the Telegraph’s circulation approached 250,000 – the highest daily sales figure for any newspaper anywhere in the world.

Levy-Lawson saw newspapers primarily as a business, not as a route to political influence or social advancement. Although he was made Lord Burnham in 1903, the established elite looked down on his commercial origins. That snobbery was reinforced by antisemitic prejudice. The most disgusting public attacks on Levy-Lawson came from Henry Labouchere, editor of a newspaper called Truth, who raved against the influence of “Hebrew barons” on British public life.

Levy-Lawson established a template for a new type of press proprietor who was, first and foremost, a businessman. These entrepreneurs formed public companies to raise the vast sums of capital required to build their newspaper empires. They priced their newspapers aggressively low to attract the largest possible readership.

As a result, sales revenue fell well below enormous running costs. They made up the shortfall by raking in money from advertisers attracted by the large circulations and national reach of their papers. The battle was now for scale. Each press baron wanted to control the biggest possible newspaper empire.

The Napoleon of Fleet Street

By the late 19th century, a fortune could be made from owning newspapers. Alfred Harmsworth came from a modest background but built up a stable of publications aimed at entertaining, amusing and interesting the enormous new literate public created by Victorian universal primary education and rapid urbanisation.

Harmsworth used a range of eye-catching schemes to publicise his papers, including a competition that awarded the winner a pound a week for the rest of their life. By 1894, his newspapers and periodicals had a combined circulation of almost two million, constituting the world’s largest publishing business.

Sepia photo of a gentleman reading a newspaper in 1896.
Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe in 1896, the year he launched The Daily Mail.

In 1896 Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail, a daily paper selling for a halfpenny. It targeted an aspirational lower-middle-class national readership, made up of women as well as men – an attractive demographic for advertisers. The paper was to contain everything that could be expected from a “serious” daily, presented in a respectable-looking package, but with more life, human interest and entertainment.

Content was condensed into short articles, presented in a punchy, accessible style, aimed at the new breed of office workers and commuters. Harmsworth’s brother Harold (later Lord Rothermere) ran the commercial side of the business on efficient, industrial lines.

In 1905, Harmsworth was made Lord Northcliffe. He chose this title in part because it allowed him, half-jokingly, to initial his correspondence “N”, in the style of Napoleon. He became infamous for his dictatorial, erratic, pedantic, obsessive and abusive management style. He would sometimes appoint two people to the same post and make them compete with one another to keep their job. Employees faced lavish rewards, alternating with frequent threats of dismissal. Fleet Street journalists warned prospective job applicants that Northcliffe would “suck out your brains, then sack you”.

Northcliffe cultivated informers in the Daily Mail office to tell him what was going on behind the scenes and to monitor private telephone conversations. He liked his staff to be his “creatures”. A later newspaper editor thought that there was “something more than a little nauseating about his relations with many of his chief associates; one wonders how they could stomach the humiliations he imposed and retain their self-respect.”

The political elite, and many journalists, looked down on Northcliffe and his popular papers. Lord Salisbury famously dismissed the Mail as being produced “by officeboys for officeboys”. Northcliffe’s former employee, E.T. Raymond, thought that the press baron had “an uncanny way of arriving at the results of thought without thought itself”. Another contemporary described Northcliffe as “brainless, formless, familiar and impudent”.

Northcliffe’s purchase of The Times in 1908 marked an attempt to expand his political influence, but some contemporaries still doubted whether he was very important. Lord Esher remarked that “he evidently loves power, but his education is defective, and he has no idea to what uses power can be put”. Many of Northcliffe’s press crusades seemed harmlessly apolitical, such as his campaigns to promote the consumption of wholemeal bread or to grow better sweet-peas.

However, others worried about the consequences of allowing a small number of very rich men, running enormous corporate conglomerates, to dominate the British newspaper industry. The writer and journalist R. A. Scott-James lamented in 1913 that “privilege” now dominated public debate, and that the press had become “a vehicle for false notions and antisocial ideas”.

The writer Norman Angell (a former Northcliffe employee who subsequently became a Nobel-prize-winning peace activist) similarly argued that the “modern industrialised Press” had become the most powerful instrument for the “capture of the mind by our industrial aristocracy”. Newspapers, Angell claimed, now worked to “exploit human weaknesses” for the purpose of profit, corrupting public debate.

Press, politics and the first world war

Concern about the power of press barons grew exponentially during WWI. From 1914, Northcliffe used his newspapers constantly to critique the Liberal government’s coordination of the war effort. His main targets were Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and the secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener. In 1915, Northcliffe accused Kitchener, in print, of failing to supply the army with enough high explosive artillery shells. Initially, this made the Mail unpopular. Circulation dropped dramatically and the paper was ceremonially burned on the floor of the London Stock Exchange.

However, as its claims about government mismanagement began to seem justified, the Mail’s popularity recovered. The “shell scandal” contributed to the fall of the Liberal government and the establishment of a reconstituted coalition under Asquith’s leadership.

The ambitious Liberal politician David Lloyd George worked closely with Northcliffe in order to further his own career and Lloyd George was rewarded when he was made Minister of Munitions in the wake of the shell scandal.

But Northcliffe’s criticism of the government continued and Cabinet members worried that German propagandists were exploiting his public attacks on the British war efforts to undermine morale. Northcliffe’s campaigning finally helped precipitate the resignation of Asquith in December 1916. The Daily News (a national newspaper founded in 1846 by none other than Charles Dickens) branded Northcliffe a “press dictator” for his role in the prime minister’s downfall.

Northcliffe’s ally Lloyd George took Asquith’s place as prime minister. However, Lloyd George now cannily kept the press baron at arm’s length, giving him relatively minor official jobs that came with little power while making it difficult for him to attack a government with which he was now identified. At the end of the war, Lloyd George finally broke openly with Northcliffe, attacking the press baron in a vitriolic speech delivered in the House of Commons. Northcliffe was deluded, Lloyd George suggested, in thinking that as part of his “great task of saving the world” he had the right to dictate the terms of the 1919 peace settlement with Germany. Lloyd George spoke of Northcliffe’s “diseased vanity” and tapped his own forehead meaningfully as he delivered the speech to the assembled MPs.

By this point Northcliffe had become a serious liability to Lloyd George, and was indeed ill, both physically and mentally. His behaviour had become more erratic and aggressive than ever, and his language increasingly foul and paranoid. At one point he was reported to have brandished a revolver at his doctor.

Northcliffe died in 1922 leaving no legitimate heirs, although he had had several mistresses and two secret families. Management of his media empire passed to his brother, Lord Rothermere, who sold The Times and went on to expand in more profitable directions, conducting vicious commercial warfare against his rivals. Rothermere later became a prominent public supporter of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and an admirer and personal acquaintance of Hitler.

The rise of Beaverbrook

The first world war also saw the rise to prominence of another archetypal press baron, Max Aitken. Like Northcliffe, Aitken came from a humble background. He was born in Ontario, raised in New Brunswick, and made his fortune through somewhat dubious Canadian business dealings. He came to England in 1910, forged new political connections and was elected as a Conservative MP.

By the end of 1916 Aitken had purchased a controlling interest in the Daily Express, the main rival to the Daily Mail. He was involved in the behind-the-scenes political intrigue that toppled Asquith as prime minister and brought Lloyd George to power that year, though his exact role was never made clear. Lloyd George treated Aitken more generously than he had Northcliffe: Aitken was made Lord Beaverbrook and in 1918 was appointed minister of information, taking charge of British wartime propaganda and entering the cabinet.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Beaverbrook turned the Daily Express into the biggest-selling newspaper in the UK. The paper adopted an aspirational, aggressive, populist tone to appeal to a broad audience and maximise advertising revenue. Beaverbrook used the Express to support his political allies, and to attack enemies like the Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin.

Following the Wall Street Crash, Beaverbrook launched his “Empire Crusade” in the Express, seeking to turn the British empire into a tariff-protected economic union (a little like an English-speaking version of the later European Union). This campaign, also supported by Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail, constituted a further direct threat to the leadership of Baldwin, now prime minister.

In a speech in parliament, Baldwin famously used words provided by his cousin Rudyard Kipling to castigate Rothermere and Beaverbrook. He argued that by weaponising “direct falsehoods, misrepresentation, half-truths” the press barons aimed at “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

Baldwin eventually defeated Beaverbrook’s crusade, but the press baron continued to prosecute his personal vendetta. In supporting the embattled Edward VIII during the abdication crisis of 1936, Beaverbrook admitted in private that his main aim was to “bugger Baldwin”.

Conrad Black – the ‘moneylogue’

Half a century later another wealthy Canadian, Conrad Black, used his fortune to build his own press empire. Black inherited substantial Canadian business holdings from his father, which he refocused on newspaper ownership. During the 1980s and 1990s he built up a vast portfolio of media investments in north America, the UK, Israel and Australia. In Britain, his key possession was the Telegraph Group.

Unlike some other notable press barons, Black revelled in the glamorous lifestyle that his wealth brought him. Newspapers were, for him, partly a status symbol. “The deferences (sic) and preferments” that the UK’s political culture “bestows upon the owners of great newspapers are satisfying,” as he once put it. But his press investments also helped fund his lavish spending. By the early 1990s, The Daily Telegraph was generating substantial profits and supporting Black’s other businesses interests.

Max Hastings, editor of The Daily Telegraph between 1986 and 1995, concluded from his time working for Black that it was, at root, all about the money.

Whatever the professed convictions of proprietors, most are moneylogues rather than ideologues. Their decisions are driven by commercial imperatives. Stripped of their own rhetoric, the political convictions of most British proprietors throughout history add up to an uncomplicated desire to make the world a safe place for rich men to live in.

True to form, Black anticipated the coming slump in the newspaper industry and sold off many of his press interests while their value was still high, including the Telegraph Group in 2004.

In 2007, Black was sentenced for fraud in the US and served 37 months in prison. In 2019, US President Donald Trump granted him a full pardon. The previous year Black had published a flattering biography: Donald J. Trump: a President Like No Other. Commentators were left to draw their own conclusions.

Enter the ‘Dirty Digger’

The preeminent press baron of our time has, of course, been Rupert Murdoch, who from the 1960s extended his Australian newspaper empire to the UK (buying The Sun and The News of the World in 1968 and The Times in 1981). From the 1970s he also made inroads into the US newspaper industry.

Murdoch established a reputation for selling newspapers using previously unacceptable levels of sensationalism and sex (Private Eye magazine labelled him the “Dirty Digger”). He later bought into the global film and television industry, building a US$17bn (about £14bn) fortune and establishing a reputation for meddling in politics around the world.

Biographer Michael Wolff has suggested that Murdoch does not greatly value his personal wealth or relationships, writing: “Working isn’t the means to an end; it’s the end. It’s one man’s war – a relentless, nasty, inch-by-inch campaign.”

According to Wolff, what Murdoch loves is playing the game of high-stakes business, being in the room where it happens, doing the deal, owning more newspapers, and destroying his rivals. He enjoys gossip and gathering information about those with political power, using it to protect his commercial interests and to support the political agendas of those he favours. Beneficiaries have included Margaret Thatcher, Blair and Trump.

In running his media concerns, like Northcliffe and Beaverbrook before him, Murdoch is aggressive, interventionist and hands-on. Wolff claims that Murdoch did not want his employees to be partners but would rather they serve him as subordinates, and so surrounds himself with sycophants. He is seemingly willing to accept short-term financial losses to secure long-term market dominance. This approach is rooted in the golden age of the press barons, when the dominant business strategy was to take over or shut down the competition, allowing the victor to rake in windfall profits unopposed.

Perhaps this strategy still makes sense: as the profits made by traditional newspapers dwindle, the remaining rewards might go to the last man standing.

Murdoch’s media empire has endured its periods of commercial crisis. The disastrous failures of journalistic ethics at the News of the World embroiled the newspaper in the phone hacking scandal and the paper was closed down by Murdoch in 2011. In the US in 2023, Fox News settled a lawsuit over on-air accusations concerning the role of voting machines during the US elections of 2020, costing the network almost US$800m (£650m).

However, other elements in Murdoch’s empire continue to produce a profit. After an initial near-disaster, Murdoch’s takeover of The Wall Street Journal has proved a financial success. He paid US$5.6bn (about £4.4bn) for it in 2007. Now thanks to a stunningly successful drive for subscribers (3.78m of them, 84% digital-only) the paper is worth around US$10bn (£8bn). In the UK, successful management of the digital transformation has similarly meant that The Times and The Sunday Times have gone from a £70m annual loss in 2009 to a £73m profit in 2022.

Press barons of the future

The figure of the press baron has recently found a new fictional archetype in Logan Roy, the dark heart of HBO’s series Succession. Roy has a number of reasons for wanting to own newspapers and other media outlets. Primarily, he simply needs to acquire more stuff, compulsively buying new titles to build an empire capable of eradicating all challengers.

Like Murdoch, expansion – doing the deal – is for Roy a reward in and of itself. He also loves the influence his media interests bring and wants to dominate those with political power, partly to protect his business, but largely because he craves control. The wealth and the lifestyle that accompany his media empire, in contrast, seem to give him little pleasure.

Succession reflects continuing concerns about who owns the media, how they make their money, and what they want to get out of their media outlets. As the show’s British writer, Jesse Armstrong, reflected:

The Sun doesn’t run the UK, nor does Fox entirely set the media agenda in the US, but it was hard not to feel, at the time the show was coming together, the particular impact of one man, of one family, on the lives of so many.

But does the press still have such influence over politics and public life? The many challenges facing traditional newspapers do seem to threaten their historical role. The UK’s newspaper industry has been rocked by scandals about phone hacking, professional ethics and behind-the-scenes links between journalists, politicians and the police.

And then there is the declining readership and advertising revenue. In 2019, a somewhat uninspired official report on the future of British journalism summarised some of the challenges, but offered few meaningful solutions. That was the same year the Telegraph Media Group was valued at just £200m.

London’s Evening Standard is meanwhile facing an annual loss of £16m, and relies on loans from its Russian-British proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, to stay afloat. The same Lebedev who was controversially given a peerage in 2020 by then prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Newspapers are also in danger of being dismissed as “mainstream” or “legacy” media: old-fashioned, obsolete and unable to counter the mendacities and conspiracy theories of online “alt truthers”. Recently, following allegations presented in newspapers and on television, the comedian Russell Brand immediately sought to discredit “coordinated media attacks” which he claimed served some shadowy hidden agenda.

Meanwhile, as their own profits dwindle and they lay off more journalists, the capacity of newspapers to investigate public lies and misdeeds is drastically reduced. Some worry that the newspapers themselves are having a damaging effect on public debate – apparent, for example, in the polarising and sometimes inaccurate press coverage and comment that accompanied the Brexit referendum and its aftermath. Fuelling culture wars, rather than mounting an informed defence against them, seems to be a key tactic in staying afloat for some titles.

Yet the reasons why press barons want to own newspapers remain much the same today as they did for Northcliffe, Beaverbrook, and Black: making money, securing a place in the national (or global) economic and social elite, generating political influence, and delivering the thrill of the great corporate deal.

And the old media dynasties endure: in 2022 the 4th Lord Rothermere, great-grandson of the Daily Mail’s co-founder, took the Daily Mail & General Trust group out of public ownership, and became its chief executive.

Above all else, traditional newspaper titles retain their appeal to potential owners because, in a crowded marketplace for online news, they can represent a trusted and prestigious brand. The fate of Buzzfeed has demonstrated the difficulties of creating a viable online presence without such an established base.

Traditional newspapers will continue to scale back print runs over the coming years. Probably, at some point, they will just stop printing newspapers. But some of these companies will live on as profitable online brands.

In a post-Murdoch age, future press barons – digital media emperors – will want to invest in these brands because they offer recognition and respectability, following the early example set by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased The Washington Post in 2013.

Potential buyers for the Telegraph Media Group take in UK businesses, including the Mail’s Rothermere and the owner of the rightwing GB News. But there is also interest from Europe and the US, as well as the Gulf states. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Barclay family has itself assembled a portfolio of potential Middle Eastern finance to try to buy the business back from Lloyds.

Some of these international players may see the Telegraph Group as offering a respectable voice in the British media landscape and a route to political and popular influence, something that only a traditional newspaper business can provide. And they are no doubt interested in the brand’s asset of nearly one million subscribers, many of them digital – data being the be all and end all in today’s market.

Whichever way that sale goes, we are still a long way from the dream of a democratic utopia promoted by 19th-century campaigners for press freedom. They believed that the free market would liberate the press and, by doing so, liberate us all. Sadly, it seems like Logan Roy was closer to the truth when he said to his wannabe successors: “Money wins. Here’s to us.”

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Simon Potter, Professor of Modern History, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.