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Inside the Murdoch Empire's summer reset
Future News 162: Presenters, polls and politics as votes in the US and UK loom
At least a Labour leader didn’t have to fly halfway around the world this time to meet the old man. No, with the party more than a decade out of power, Keir Starmer simply popped down the road, as you do, to schmooze with Rupert Murdoch.
The News Corp founder and CEO reportedly gave the opposition leader what our American friends would call a brush-by – a brief one-on-one chat during a midsummer reception at Spencer House, London.
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Murdoch’s five minutes with Starmer speaks to the current state of British politics. Labour may hold a double-digit poll lead over the Conservatives, but Starmer, a former lawyer and head of the UK’s Public Prosecutions body, is still seen as an unknown quantity.
He certainty lacks any fire, brimstone and excitement of the early New Labour years, summed up by Boris Johnson’s labelling of Starmer as ‘Captain Hindsight’.
Perhaps the Labour leader’s cautious and managerial style has prevented him from getting the kind of five-star treatment Murdoch gave Tony Blair by infamously inviting him to a News Corp conference in Hayman island, Australia, in 1995.
Or is it the case that Murdoch and his newspapers are starting to carefully hedge their bets as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attempts to steady the ship as the UK still faces lousy GDP growth, a cost of living crisis and an inflationary environment.
As it stands, Starmer’s two great traits are that he’s not Jeremy Corbyn, who scared the heebie-jeebies out of middle England, and he’s not a Conservative. Who exactly is he? The jury is still out. We do, however, know a lot about his shadow cabinet.
That is because The Times and The Sunday Times, the flagship News Corp newspapers in the UK, have run extensive profiles on the likes of Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting.
Deputy leader Angela Raynor, a former staunch ally of Corbyn, has also been given her fair share of the limelight thanks to Murdoch’s outlets.
The relationship between Labour and News Corp titles, which also includes The Sun, has run both ways.
Political correspondents have sought to expand their contact books ahead of an expected general election next year, while Labour hope to put the heat on the Conservatives with a series of negative stories cooked-up by the shadow cabinet’s political advisers.
There is also a strong public interest case that readers should know what the potential next government is thinking, saying and doing. Downing Street has also given Labour an opening thanks to its current style of news management.
Instead of a continual flow of briefings and inside information, Sunak’s team have decided to turn the tap off and only ‘go big’ on key, strategic announcements.
The trouble is turning the tap back on closer to the election – away from the current electoral phoney media war – may not be as easy as Number 10 thinks.
One senior Lobby correspondent, who has reported under successive governments, went as far to say that he was not sure that Downing Street had a media strategy.
Others have vented their frustrations about their lack of access and the overall approach (Future News’ previous reporting on the Lobby can be found here). It should also be noted that the Cabinet Office is still advertising for a deputy spokesperson to the Prime Minister.
The civil service role, separate to the directly appointed special advisers helping run the news operation in Number 10, will see the appointee brief the parliamentary press, develop media strategies and have financial responsibility of Downing Street’s press office.
For its part, Downing Street remained silent when Future News reached out to get their side of the story, which perhaps speaks for itself.
As for Murdoch, his British outlets, including The Sun, The Times and Sunday Times, TalkTV and Times Radio, could be the difference between Labour securing a good majority, a small one or the UK facing a hung parliament or another Conservative government after the next general election.
The news editors and political reporters will no doubt start reading the runes after parliament’s summer break, with the House of Commons rising on 20 July and returning on 4 September. Before the politicians can get away, there is some diarised drama on Thursday, when the Conservatives will face a triple whammy of by-elections.
Most eyes will be on Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Boris Johnson’s old London constituency. The Tories are fighting a rear-guard action in the seat, where they have a majority of more than 7,200.
The Conservatives are attempting to turn the vote into a referendum on the Mayor of London’s plans to expand one of the capital’s vehicle levies, the ULEZ charge.
Other by-elections on the day include Somerton and Frome and Selby and Ainsty, where the Conservatives have leads of around 20,000 votes. If either were to fall into opposition party hands (the Liberal Democrats fancy their chances in Somerset’s Somerton, while Labour are on the march in North Yorkshire’s Selby), Sunak would face more trouble from Tory backbenches.
A new Daily Mail columnist, Boris Johnson, may also throw in his two pennies' worth. But the Prime Minister has wisely got a cabinet reshuffle in his back pocket should the electorate send a strong message of dissatisfaction to Number 10.
Starmer, meanwhile, may get more than a brush-by from Murdoch if things go awry for Sunak from Thursday onwards, culminating in a summer of discontent in the media for the Conservatives.
Across the Atlantic, the Murdochs have also been tending to their political relationships and media outlets as the US long election campaign whirls into life.
The Lachlan Murdoch-led Fox Corp has seen its share price recover to around $31.60 (class B stock) after falling earlier in the year on the back of the Dominion defamation settlement and Tucker Carlson’s exit from Fox News.
The broadcaster unveiled Carlson’s potential long-term successor, Jesse Watters, on Monday as part of a new line-up.
Laura Ingraham’s The Ingraham Angle is now in the 7pm ET slot, followed by ‘Jesse Watters Primetime’ shifting to 8pm. ET, with Sean Hannity’s ‘Hannity’ remaining at 9pm ET and Greg Gutfeld’s ‘Gutfeld!’ beginning at 10pm ET.
Despite Fox Corp’s stock bouncing back, it still lags behind the NASDAQ composite, which has risen by more than 25% across the year thanks to an AI-powered bull-run for technology stocks. Fox, in comparison, has seen its stock price increase by only 2%.
The broadcaster is also facing substantial financial headwinds in the shape of the cord-cutting phenomenon, where consumers cancel their subscriptions to TV services, and the disbursement of the American right-wing media following Donald Trump’s presidency.
Some analysts have subsequently downgraded the stock, while Murdoch will hope to get the show back up and running as the US starts to turn its attention toward the White House.
The good news is that Fox News is still the numero uno cable news channel, averaging 1.1 million daily viewers in June. By way of comparison, MSNBC came in second with 796,000 daily viewers and CNN placed last with 463,000 viewers.
But which horse will the Murdochs be backing at the election? Despite some early buzz at the start of his campaign, Ron DeSantis is starting to languish. The Republican (GoP) Governor of Florida has apparently tried to reset his campaign by changing personnel and shaking up his media strategy, including a planned sitdown with CNN.
The interview with Jake Tapper will be DeSantis’ first grilling outside of Fox News, which seems to have turned sour on the presidential hopeful. Murdoch’s other media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and New York Post, have also reportedly started to pour cold water over DeSantis’ campaign.
“Mr. DeSantis was always bound to be subjected to more scrutiny as a candidate, rather than a candidate in waiting. His decision to challenge Mr. Trump — who remains a favourite of Fox News’s audience and some of its hosts, including Ms. Bartiromo — was also certain to result in sideswipes from fellow Republicans,” Nicholas Nehamas and Maggie Haberman wrote.
“But taken together, the signs of scepticism from previously friendly conservative megaphones suggest that Mr. Murdoch’s media empire might now be reassessing him as the early shine comes off his campaign.”
DeSantis is trailing Trump by more than 33 points, according to an aggregate poll-of-polls from RealClearPolitics. The GoP primary vote will run from January to June in 2024, with the general election planned for November. The elections are expected to give the US media a much needed boost amid layoffs, bankruptcies and mergers and acquisitions.
No doubt the geopolitical landscape was one of many topics explored at the off-the-record Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, Idaho, last week.
The ‘summer camp for billionaires’ included Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple head Tim Cook, to name just some of the leading lights of the world of media and finance at the event. Economics, of course, will play a clear factor at the election.
The issue dominates voters’ concerns and every US President in the 20th and 21st century has been re-elected when there has been no recession. Trump, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford are just some of the victims of economic decline.
The economic landscape will also naturally concern the Murdochs, who are now facing competition from a Twitter-Carlson nexus. The former Fox News host has reportedly teamed with ex-White House staffer Neil Patel to form their own company and raise funds. Back in the UK, Starmer comes with his own headache.
Labour has said it will oppose a controversial piece of legislation (Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013), which could force the press to pay both sides of court cases, whether they win or lose, if they do not sign-up to a stricter regulator.
“We know this will trigger a fight with the press,” Labour ‘sources’ have boldly declared. Let’s see what Mr Murdoch has to say.
Other important media and technology news I found interesting…
The Telegraph, which is still up for sale, has launched a weekly six-part series podcast, The Telegraph Women's Sport Podcast, that will feature episodes themed around the topics of activism, injury, motherhood, success, menstruation and coaching.
Politico sees a shake-up in its top ranks with John Harris being named top editor. He succeeds Matt Kaminski, who has been at the outlet for more than a decade.
The 2024 movie box office could be in jeopardy as the Hollywood strikes continue. The walkout is being led by the 160,000-strong Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists or SAG-AFTRA for short. The dispute, which is around pay and other forms of remuneration (namely, residuals), is the first time in 60 years that both actors and writers are on strike.
Meta’s Threads could usher-in a new age of interoperability between social media apps.
Is a re-bundling afoot? The New York Times is disbanding its sports desk and will be using content from The Athletic, which it purchased for $550m in January 2022, going forward.
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