Last week I sort of promised that I was going to talk about newspapers, and unfortunately for all of you I did not forget that promise. So buckle up, guys, it’s going to be a wild ride.
I was once told that, contrary to the rest of the world, the UK (and perhaps specifically London) is one of the few places where people still seriously read newspapers. I can’t say much to how true this is since I don’t give a damn about newspapers most of the time, but it certainly does seem like there’s a lot of newspaper reading going on here. Most of it takes place on the tube, which is understandable: phones don’t have reception down there, so if you’ve got solitaire or something you can play that, and if you don’t have a phone or don’t like solitaire then you read a newspaper. It helps that there is generally a newsagent stand right outside every tube station.
It also helps that there’s this little thing called the Evening Standard.
Most newspapers in London are really damn old; the Standard, a London local, has been running since 1827, for instance, and until recently was printed a staggering three times a day. It’s generally right-of-center in its outlook, since newspapers are delightfully and blatantly biased in this country. In October of last year, the Standard did something pretty crazy: it became a free paper. It’s only printed once a day now, but every late afternoon outside the tube stop you basically have to fight to not get handed one by a roving newsagent. These things are left all over the train cars, crumpled, forlorn, forgotten; I imagine if you wait long enough on the tube you’ll practically be swimming in the things. Yet, since the paper was printed three times a day before and is offered for free now, you might suspect that the Standard is pretty influential. You’d be correct.
But there’s been some controversy in the past year or so. You see, in January of 2009 the majority of the paper was bought by one Alexander Lebedev, one of the Russian oligarchs and a former KGB agent. This was a somewhat surprising development. Not in and of itself, since Russian oligarchs love to buy the hell out of British newspapers and football clubs and so on; no, rather, it was surprising because it was a huge slap in the face to one Rupert Murdoch. (I’m not even going to wiki-link that one.)
Murdoch’s media empire extends far beyond America and Fox News, which is something we in the States probably either don’t know or forget pretty frequently. His biggest success here in the UK is the tabloid The Sun, which has a circulation rate that is (forgive the pun) astronomical. It might be the most influential paper in the country, not because it’s classy (there are topless women on page three of every issue) but because it’s just sensational and obscene enough to pull in the key demographic of Guys My Age. Unsurprisingly, The Sun also tends to be a bit right-of-center — I’d say it’s a paper version of Fox News with tits, but it’s not as blatantly conservative as Fox has been in the past, nor is it close to the very wacky, special type of neoconservative agitprop Fox currently peddles.
Anyway, Murdoch tried this free daily newspaper thing before with the stupidly titled thelondonpaper, and he carried it on for years and continually lost money. Then Lebedev showed up last year, worked his evil Russkie magics, and made the Standard become a free daily paper. Don’t ask me why it happened — perhaps it was a lack of tits, or a surplus of tits — but thelondonpaper folded in September of that year and the Standard (despite having no tits at all, none!) has thus far made the business model work.
People were quick to get suspicious. Rupert Murdoch has a lot of money — like, a lot of money — and a lot of connections. Could it be possible that for some esoteric reason he somehow goaded Lebedev — or convinced him, or made a deal with him — to buy out the Standard, then move in and consolidate his hold on London’s printed media? The whole conspiracy theory is summed up here and seems to be kind of shot down by the fact that thelondonpaper folded. Back at the time, though, it must have seemed pretty scary — even though in the Guardian, the most reasonable left-of-center paper, one Roy Greenslade published this editorial about why it was all just silly paranoia.
Here we are, several months after thelondonpaper died and the Standard went free, and it doesn’t look like the end of the world.
I grabbed a copy of the Standard last week to read on the tube and, flipping through it, came across — of all things — an article on Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. There are a few things going on in it that I think I’ll point out.
First, it opens by basically saying, “Man, those crazy Americans, their television news programs don’t have to be fair and balanced like ours, how do they survive, huh?” I find this cutely ironic because, as I have said, despite however evenhanded the telly is required to be, their print media makes up for it all by being vociferously partisan.
Second, the article alleges that Rupert (as well as the rest of the extensive Murdoch clan) is actually quite embarrassed by the farce that is Fox News, especially considering the sort of farce it’s got going on now with Beck and the infamous Ms. Palin being given their soapboxes. The article itself even looks down on the channel, saying Beck just isn’t very entertaining, for instance, and giving off a general air of disapproval.
The writer, near the end of the piece, admits that he was never so simple-minded as to think that Murdoch endorsed the opinions of Fox News — certainly he was embarrassed by it, only putting up with the whole mess to make money! That’s understandable, right? Rupert Murdoch, after all, is just a regular dude, a guy trying to keep his livelihood like everyone else. Hell, he’s a dude trying to keep his livelihood and live through the economic crunch and make it through the death of print media! And to do it, he has to let these horrible American trolls blather insane propaganda with which he does not agree at all, no sir. That Rupert Murdoch, gee, he sure is swell.
Except, well, it’s funny, you know? It’s funny how this article was written by Roy Greenslade — the same guy who wrote that Guardian article I linked a few paragraphs ago, explaining how anyone who thought Murdoch was orchestrating a media coup was just plain batty, a loony conspiracy theorist. Of course he had to be reasonable, right? He was writing for the left-of-center paper, so of course if he was defending the “other team,” so to speak, he was indeed being sensible. Right? Of course! Even though… well, he also does write regularly for the Standard, which is r-o-c… and he was assistant editor at Murdoch’s Sun for a while…
Hm, well, I seem to forget where I was going with this. Certainly I wasn’t trying to point out anything strange about Greenslade, or a media conspiracy, or that you can’t trust anything anyone tells you ever. That would be crazy! And I probably wasn’t trying to point out that Rupert Murdoch is a shady guy. He’s actually… he’s actually pretty all right.