A widely circulated tweet claimed that on election night in Britain, Rupert Murdoch stalked out of the Times’s party when the exit polls suggested the Tories were in trouble. As we know, Teresa May’s opportunistic calling of an early election backfired on her, and the Conservatives went from a parliamentary majority to a minority government, and her political authority and latitude are now much diminished. The second biggest loser from the election though is less obvious – Rupert Murdoch. His Sun newspaper is still the biggest circulating daily in Britain, but its current circulation (1.67 million) is only half the circulation of ten years ago (3.22m). After the Brexit victory in the EU referendum last year, the editor of The Sun Tony Gallagher texted to a Guardian journalist: ‘So much for the waning power of the print media.’ The two biggest circulating dailies, The Sun and the Daily Mail, had campaigned unrelentingly for Britain to leave, and reveled in their victory.
Gallagher could not send such a text after the 2017 election. These two papers – according to the excellent research on media coverage of British elections, directed since 1992, by Professor David Deacon of Loughborough University – were the two most stridently anti-Labour, but it seems this time their power is waning.
One central reason for their lack of impact was the much greater participation of younger voters. In the previous four elections, an average of 40 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted. In 2017 this was up to around 60 per cent. This group opted for Labour over the Tories by 67%-18%. The Sun and Mail are barely read by younger people. Not only is their circulation declining, but it is locked into an elderly demographic.
Reasons for younger voters’ participation and commitment to Labour can only be guessed at. Perhaps it was the shock of Brexit, with younger voters overwhelmingly wanting to Remain. Perhaps it was Jeremy Corbyn’s mounting a traditionally old Labour platform of greater government spending and provision of public services.
So Murdoch’s first loss in the election was the seemingly limited influence of his Sun, despite its partisan editorial excesses. But it is his pocket as well as his ego that is threatened by the election outcome. Since May succeeded Cameron as Prime Minister, Murdoch has been much more actively courting the government.
After withdrawing in disgrace following the phone hacking scandal in 2011, Murdoch has again launched his bid for a full takeover of BSkyB, up from its current level of around 40 per cent. Two inquiries have since been launched – one by Ofcom ,the communications regulator in the UK about the impact on media concentration; the other on whether Murdoch is a fit and proper person to have such a licence. Both reports have now been given to the government, which has not yet made them public or responded.
If May had won easily, Murdoch could have been confident that her government would have steered his passage through Parliament. Now he must be much less confident. The government lacks a majority, and it is not clear which of the other parties might support Murdoch. Nor will a weakened and possibly more divided government be so prepared to take political risks for him.
The 2017 election result is not just bad news for Teresa May, but also for Rupert Murdoch.
Rodney Tiffen is Emeritus Professor, Government and International Relations, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney. He is the author of ‘Rupert Murdoch – A Reassessment’ (NewSouth, 2014).