If the west could find the courage, it would order an immediate freeze of Rupert Murdoch’s assets. His Fox News presenters and Russia’s propagandists are so intermeshed that separating the two is as impossible as unbaking a cake.
On Russian state news, as on Fox, bawling ideologues scream threats then whine about their victimhood as they incite anger and self-pity in equal measures. Its arguments range from the appropriation of anti-fascism by Greater Russian imperialists – the 40 countries supporting Ukraine were “today’s collective Hitler”, viewers were told last week – to the apocalyptic delirium of the boss of RT (Russia Today) Margarita Simonyan. Nuclear war is my “horror”, she shuddered, “but we will go to heaven, while they will simply croak”.
Russia would never give genuine western journalists airtime. But it can always find a slot for its favourite quisling: Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. He pushes out Russian propaganda lines or perhaps creates his own lies for Russia to use. Ukraine, not Russia, is the real tyranny. Nato provoked poor Vladimir Putin. The west is plotting to use biological weapons. Last week, he floated the theory that the war was not the result of an unprovoked invasion by a colonialist dictatorship but of the Biden administration’s desire to avenge Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
It was a big hit in Moscow, reported BuzzFeed’s Julia Davis. “State TV propagandists loved it so much, Russia’s 60 Minutes included it not once, but twice in their evening broadcast – neatly bookended by the Kremlin’s war propaganda.”
Putin’s appeal to both the far right and the Chomskyan wing of the far left in Europe and North America is worthy of a study in itself. He was a dream for ultra-reactionaries: a white, Christian strongman, who was anti-liberal and anti-EU. His victories heralded a world in which might was right and morality was for losers.
In Europe, Russia’s atrocities have forced everyone from Arron Banks and Nigel Farage to Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini to find urgent reasons to change the subject. In the US, there remains a market for Putinism among a large minority of Republican voters. Their yearning for dictatorship, as evidenced by the support given to denying legitimate election results and to the fascistic forces that stormed Congress, is greater. The hatred of liberals in power is deeper.
Murdoch is boosting Russian morale and, conversely, undermining Ukrainian resolve by supplying a dictatorship with foreign validation. Do not underestimate its importance. Russians who suspect their TV anchors are state-sponsored bootlickers are more likely to believe foreign commentators who assure them that the lies they are hearing are true. Reporters risk their lives but Putin cannot fire or imprison Fox News presenters, steal their wealth or poison them with Novichok. Russian forces will not reduce their towns to rubble, rape them, torture them, burn them alive in theatres or shoot them in the head by the side of forest roads. Murdoch and his employees have nothing to fear from Putin. Their endorsement of Kremlin war propaganda carries conviction because it is freely given.
As useful to Russia is the wider chilling effect. I have seen journalists start off making eloquent and plausible critiques of the left’s hatred of free speech, for instance, or its tolerance of regressive religion, only to find that careers in the worst of the rightwing media come with a price tag. To succeed on Fox News in the US, they don’t have to agree with banning abortion or denying climate change but they must never make their objections public.
The UK’s sanctions regulations include among the reasons for freezing an oligarch’s assets “obtaining a benefit from or supporting the Government of Russia”. The Biden White House promises to punish those “responsible for providing the support necessary to underpin Putin’s war on Ukraine”. On both interpretations, there is a plausible prosecution case for freezing the assets of Murdoch’s NewsCorp.
Because it is a media conglomerate, sanctions would be an attack on free speech. I say this plainly because so many writers and political actors pretend that they are not demanding censorship when that is precisely what they are doing. Nevertheless, in this case the threat to freedom is minimal. Murdoch would not be punished for revealing embarrassing truths about the west but for spreading demonstrable lies for a hostile foreign power.
If you still feel queasy, imagine if Murdoch’s media organisation were exactly as it is today and producing the same arguments the Kremlin uses to justify its crimes. The one difference is that Murdoch is Russian rather than Australian. I don’t believe there would be the slightest hesitation in removing him and his family from control of their businesses. Indeed, the UK, EU and US have already announced sanctions against Russian broadcasters and individual journalists. I have not heard anyone claim that they are attacking press freedom, rather than trying to cripple the propaganda capacity of a warmongering state.
The Murdoch empire contains the Times and Wall Street Journal, whose Russian coverage has been admirable, and HarperCollins, which with a bravery few other publishers would match, fought off a vicious legal assault by the Russian oligarchy and their pet London lawyers against a critical study of Putin’s power.
But good deeds count for nothing in assessing the desirability of sanctions. The tycoon Oleg Tinkov spoke for many rich Russians when he denounced the “massacre” in Ukraine and called for an end to the “crazy war”. The oligarchs the west has sanctioned are losing their fortunes and what little influence they had. Of course they hate Putin’s strategy. Western governments don’t care because, as Tom Keatinge of the Royal United Services Institute explains it to me, they know that a large portion of oligarchical wealth is at Putin’s disposal. Their private thoughts and, when they dare risk assassination attempts, public protests are irrelevant. The need to end war in Europe comes first.
Tender-hearted readers may object that Murdoch is now 90 and may well not be in full control of his organisation. But surely this is an argument for removing him? If in his dotage he is allowing himself to become a cross between Lord Haw Haw and Tokyo Rose, it would be a kindness for western governments to save him from himself.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist
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