You can be sure Rupert Murdoch was tuned into news from Scotland on 27th March, the day the successor to Nicola Sturgeon was announced. Aside from the newsman’s hunger for news, Murdoch would have been keen to know of events in the land of his ancestors. That Humza Yousaf just squeezed out Free Church of Scotland member, Kate Forbes, may have caused a ripple of reflection across the media tycoon’s mind.
Rupert Murdoch’s grandfather, Patrick John Murdoch, was born in the fishing community of Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, in June 1850. Patrick Murdoch was a son of the manse and followed his father into the church. Young Murdoch had a good start in life, graduating with an MA from the great and ancient University of Aberdeen. Having given himself a sound grounding in the humanities, he completed his education at New College, Edinburgh, becoming a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in 1876.
What distinguishes Scottish Presbyterianism from organisations like the Church of England, the Roman Catholic church and Episcopalians is a fundamental distrust of permanent hierarchies, a disdain for gaudy ornamentation, devolution of significant powers to lay members and an organisational structure rich in democratic tradition.
With his wife, and his mother and father, Patrick emigrated to Victoria, Australia in 1884. In 1909, he refused to give a court sight of a letter in his church’s possession. He was jailed for contempt, spending a night in the cells. Quite a thing in a land where criminality had no place in the lives of respectable Australians, most especially men of the cloth. A man of independent mind, he rose to the top of his faith, serving as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in 1905. Moderators serve for a single year, a practice designed to stop a leader getting too powerful, or be corrupted by office.
Traces of influence
You can see in Rupert Murdoch traces of his grandfather’s church. He has the journalist’s suspicion of establishments and their institutions. He likes power. He’s not impressed by rank or title. Like his father (who founded the then one-newspaper Murdoch media business) he’s a newspaper man to his toes. Words are his currency, just as they are for ministers in pulpits.
Murdoch must surely have been offered honours by British Prime Ministers hungry for his support. As an American citizen (he gave up his Australian citizenship for commercial reasons) he would be entitled only to an honorary knighthood, but none has appeared. A British honour would have been his for the asking. He’s almost certainly refused anything offered. Indeed, at one time his papers campaigned against the honours system. The only knighthood Murdoch has is one from the Catholic church. A non-Catholic, his Papal knighthood was conferred in 1988, for charitable services. What his Presbyterian Scottish grandfather would have thought of his grandson accepting an honour from the Roman church can only be speculated.
What will his legacy be?
Rupert Murdoch, aged 92, has recently announced he is to be married, for the fifth time. His media empire spans the globe. There’s spirit in him yet.
He shows no sign of lessening his grip on the business, particularly on his stable of great newspapers. Newspaper and media magnates are not long remembered after their demise. History is likely to record him being a champion of conservative political populism, of turning his newspapers and TV stations into partisan platforms for divisive figures like Donald Trump and equally divisive policies like Brexit. In the UK, he lent his power to Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. He likes backing winners. He likes being a kingmaker. Few in 100 years are likely to know who he was.
He is not immortal. His time will come. What will his legacy be?
People close to Murdoch say he thinks himself significantly Scots. During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign, it was believed he was close to instructing The Scottish Sun to back the Yes cause. That didn’t happen. The paper stayed neutral.
What is the stronger instinct in Rupert Murdoch? Power, wealth, conservatism, influence, or the Scottish characteristics of straight talking, skepticism about the powerful, suspicion of political institutions, little respect for the sashes and medals of high office, high regard for the ‘common man’ or just independence of mind?
His record as a business tycoon is one of enormous success and the accumulation of great wealth. Andrew Carnegie, another Scot, who went from far humbler beginnings to being among the richest men to ever live, had a view of wealth that changed his reputation from that of robber baron to global benefactor. His creed was “the man who dies rich dies disgraced”. He gave away almost all his money. Murdoch, who makes significant charitable donations, is unlikely to be in accord with Carnegie’s maxim. His great fortune will stay tied up with his family and media empire.
So, how can he move from being an important figure of today to being an important figure for the rest of time? He can do what he didn’t do in 2014 and back Scottish independence. In doing so, he will be celebrating his family roots and those ideas, perceptions and strands that moulded him. He will annoy the hell out of the British colonial establishment and his London media rivals of Left and Right. He will be cheered in many homes in Australia and the USA. As Robert Burns wrote, “The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the man’s the gowd for a’ that”.
It would be the most enormous shift for Murdoch. His Scottish papers, most notably The Times in Scotland, are virulently anti-SNP and independence, to the point of tedium. It preaches daily to the converted, with a string of writers whose sole occupation has been to weaken the independence cause. While the Tories in Westminster have fractured the whole of the UK, The Times in Scotland bores on and on, striking fear of calamity and damnation into every chink of light for Scottish sovereignty. Changing the paper’s tack would release it to debate the formation of a more successful Scotland, unleashed from failing Westminster. Not a doom-laden paper, but a paper constructively holding the powerful to account. Not bashing only for the sake of bashing. A paper of serious intellectual record, not a paper of columnists competing for the next parish pump scandal.
A new Scotland
For Scotland is about again to become an energy powerhouse. The bounty of oil and gas in its seas never landed on its shores. What should be now a land of high living standards and a strong, diverse economy is not that. It shares with the wider UK economy an outlook of a sustained period of decline. Westminster sees Scotland’s new status as a renewable energy giant as there to help England mitigate some of the damage of the Tories’ foreign policy and economic mismanagement. This repeat of the waste of a great natural resource (and one destined never to run out) will surely not be tolerated by Scotland for a second time?
Scotland is about to be an energy winner and for as long as the wind blows, the tides ebb and flow and Highland lochs fill with water. It has too abundant fresh water, an asset becoming both scarce and highly valued across the globe. Businesses are already starting to move to water-rich lands. Add to all this our great universities, successful manufacturers, the finance sector, world class food and drink, and the media, Arts, culture and hospitality sectors and Scotland’s future is not lacking in the elements needed for sustained success.
Scotland can be a winner. Rupert Murdoch should back this winner.
When Patrick Murdoch sailed for Australia, he took with him something uniquely Scottish. He took his education from the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Places that celebrated critical thinking and greatly valued the democratic intellect, the idea that each part of society contributes to the other. It’s a philosophy Patrick Murdoch would have studied and understood. Come on Rupert, leave a legacy your grandfather would surely celebrate. A new Scotland.
Now there’s a way to live on in history.