The late Mike Royko, a Chicago Pulitzer Prize winner, said, “No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.” Rupert Murdoch is probably the most evil newspaper owner since William Randolph Hearst, who brought us the Spanish-American War and who helped pillory silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, among numerous other crimes. To call Murdoch an evil genius is to abuse the term genius because he has animal cunning rather than a well-developed mind — but he knows how to grab attention and sell newspapers.
His latest stunt had The Times (London’s, not New York’s or Los Angeles’) claiming that the topless pictures of female models that regularly appear on Page 3 of The Sun, Britain’s largest-selling paper (2 million circulation roughly), would be pulled. No more “Tit-Elation” (as The Sun’s headline writers would put it) The Times reported Jan. 20. Murdoch owns both papers.
Murdoch brought Page 3 topless shots to The Sun on Nov. 17, 1970, less than a year after he bought the paper. For 45 years, the photos have been a staple of the title along with down-market reporting. Feminists have railed against the institution as degrading to women, and the usual decency brigade took offense as well. During the Falklands War in 1982, the models were often moved from Page 3, but they continued to appear a bit farther back.
The end of the Page 3 topless shot would be a big deal, and when the Jan. 17-21 editions ran without a bare breast in sight, it seemed that The Times had it right. But this being a Murdoch operation, nothing was quite so easy.
Dylan Sharpe, a spokesman for The Sun, teased the world with a message during the whole affair on Twitter that read, “Page 3 will be in @TheSunNewspaper tomorrow in the same place it’s always been — between Page 2 and Page 4.”
And then, on Thursday, Jan 22, we had this on Page 3 of The Sun, “Further to recent reports in all other media outlets, we would like to clarify that this is Page 3 and this is a picture of Nicole, 22, from Bournemouth. We would like to apologise on behalf of the print and broadcast journalists who have spent the last two days talking and writing about us.” Nicole was topless, and every day since, Page 3 was as it has been for 45 years.
It is an old routine in politics and PR. Stage a fake fight. Draw attention to yourself, and make the other guys look silly. When the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent newspapers followed The Times in reporting the demise of Page 3 breasts, Murdoch managed to undermine some of their credibility and to set the agenda for the news business in the U.K. for a few days. Moreover, he got politicians to hail his move only to pull the rug out from under them later.
It all goes back to something else Royko said, “[H]is goal is not quality journalism. His goal is vast power for Rupert Murdoch, political power.” Murdoch already claimed he was maker and breaker of Prime Ministers. The Sun claimed “It’s the Sun Wot Won It” when John Major squeezed by in 1992, and when The Sun backed Labour in 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed to owe Murdoch.
Worse, his papers have no problem with hacking into voicemails for a story — his News of the World closed over it. This includes voice mails for the royal family and senior politicians. In comparison to his other shenanigans, the Page 3 dust-up is a minor event, but it demonstrates just how far Murdoch will go to keep himself on top of the world.
But don’t think it’s just a British problem. The old bastard owns the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal as well.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.