It seems Alex Salmond’s years of wooing Rupert Murdoch have paid off, but what’s in it for both men, asks Dani Garavelli
THE courtship was protracted. It involved gifts, trans-Atlantic trysts, billets-doux and an unprecedented display of loyalty under fire; and last week it paid off big time. After years of wooing Rupert Murdoch, Alex Salmond found his affection very much requited when the newspaper tycoon took to Twitter to pronounce him “clearly the most brilliant politician in Britain”.
Minutes earlier, Murdoch had given the clearest indication yet that he was warming to the prospect of independence, saying: “Let Scotland go and compete. Everyone would win.”
The budding bromance – which began when Salmond was elected First Minister in 2007 – was marred only by Salmond’s slightly stand-offish response. “We are in a debate in Scotland and internationally about Scotland’s future and I welcome all contributions to that debate, including Mr Murdoch’s,” he said, sparking speculation among those who see a vote of confidence from the media tycoon as only slightly less damaging than a vote of confidence from President Assad, that Salmond’s own ardour was cooling. “After the crisis at News International, it’s the endorsement every politician dreads,” opined Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems.
Most political commentators, however, believe Salmond was being coy. Despite the hacking scandal, the Leveson inquiry and Murdoch’s growing pariah status, they say he is delighted by the support, especially if it means the Scottish Sun, with its 300,000-plus readership, and its newly-launched sister the Scottish Sun on Sunday, come out in favour of a Yes vote in the 2014 referendum.
Murdoch’s support for the SNP is not unprecedented; in 1992, whipped up into a Braveheart frenzy by the then Scottish Sun editor, Bob Bird, who took a piper all the way to Wapping, he was persuaded to back the Nationalist cause. Murdoch, however, proved fickle. In 2007, on the eve of the Scottish Parliamentary election, the front page of the Scottish Sun carried a hangman’s rope in the shape of the SNP logo, with the headline “Vote SNP today and you put Scotland’s head in the noose”.
Since then Salmond, who in that election became First Minister leading a minority government, has courted Murdoch assiduously. But why has Murdoch chosen this moment to give his personal backing to the SNP? Has the Australian-born US citizen – who has always felt a strong connection to the Caledonian home of his forebears – been overcome by the romantic notion of Scottish independence? Is he trying to cock a snook at the British establishment that he feels has deserted him in his hour of need? Or is he genuinely convinced that, as so often before, he is backing a winner?
Few who have met Murdoch doubt his deep affection for Scotland – the land of many of his ancestors and birthplace of his second wife Anna Torv – the mother of three of his children: Elisabeth, Lachlan and James.
His yacht and the Long Island estate he recently sold for £9m both bear the name of Rosehearty – the small town on the Moray Firth where his great-grandfather, James, a Presbyterian preacher, lived. The homestead Murdoch was raised in was called Cruden Farm after the parish in which James’s son, Patrick, also a minister, lived and worked before emigrating to Melbourne to escape the strife caused by one of the many schisms in the church.
Their Calvinist work ethic – if not their rejection of luxury – was passed down to Murdoch, who built up his business after inheriting two small newspapers from his war correspondent father, Keith.
“In the late 1980s, Murdoch used to drive up with Anna from Wapping in his Jaguar and, unbeknown to anyone, but me, the two of them used to toodle about Aberdeenshire,” says Jack Irvine, launch editor of the Scottish Sun. “One night they flew up in a private jet and as we were driving in from Glasgow Airport, she was pointing and saying: ‘That’s the Broomielaw there.’ This really sophisticated lady with an American/Australian accent could reel off all the places in Glasgow.”
Murdoch’s biographer and Vanity Fair writer Michael Wolff, who spent hours interviewing him for his book The Man Who Owns the News, agrees News Corporation CEO’s affection for the country runs deep. “In every respect he regards himself as having a direct connection to Scotland and an antipathy to England and I think that’s sentimental, emotional and useful to him,” he says.
“There is a subtle class division within the Australian perspective, too. It’s important to them to say we’re not the English riff-raff that came later – we were of a higher order – already quite successful and of means if not wealthy.”
Despite this background, when the Scottish Sun was launched back in 1987, it was a Tory newspaper, with the paper told to talk up Malcolm Rifkind [then Secretary of State for Scotland]. When Ravenscraig closed, with the loss of hundreds of jobs, however, Irvine realised this position was no longer sustainable. He approached Kelvin McKenzie and was told, with Murdoch’s backing, to “kill him”. The next day, Irvine says, the Sun carried a cartoon of Rifkind climbing out of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag.
By 1992, it had become obvious the Tory party was a dead duck as far as Scotland was concerned and the Scottish Sun had to change tack if it wanted to sustain its readership. The Daily Record was backing Labour, so Bob Bird and his piper traipsed to Wapping and persuaded Murdoch the nationalist route was the way to go.
But five years later, when New Labour looked set to sweep into power in 1997, the Sun felt unable to back different horses north and south of the border and changed allegiance to Tony Blair.
Even then, however, News International was not averse to giving a platform to the SNP view, with the News of the World paying Alex Salmond £15,000 a year for a weekly column between 1998 and 2003.
The Scottish Sun, in common with many other newspapers, was openly hostile towards the SNP in the run up to the 2007 election. But as soon as Alex Salmond became First Minister, he started pursuing Murdoch, meeting him just months after he entered office, hosting a News of the World dinner for Bird in Bute House in 2009.
Last year, the publication of a series of letters exposed the lengths to which Salmond was prepared to go to curry the favour of a man widely regarded as a kingmaker. Not only did he offer him tickets to see Black Watch in New York and tickets for the Ryder Cup, he asked him to be guest of honour at The Gathering, the cultural centrepiece of the Year of Homecoming, offering Sky the rights to film the spectacle (although Murdoch only once replied to his letters and never accepted the hospitality).
Salmond also attended the opening of Murdoch’s Eurocentral printing plant in Motherwell, invited by Les Hinton, a senior Murdoch executive who later resigned over the phone hacking scandal.
The informal way in which Salmond addressed him (on one occasion he called him Sir Rupert although he has never been knighted by the Queen) and his failure to confront him on the phone hacking allegations provoked accusations of sycophancy.
Although most leaders court newspaper proprietors, the aggressive nature of Salmond’s approaches took even veteran political operators by surprise. Irvine says that shortly before the last election, he let slip to someone close to Salmond that he would be having dinner with Rebekah Wade. Irvine intended to tell Wade that – with the Sun going back to the Tories south of the Border – it should swing its weight behind the nationalists in Scotland. He arrived, he says, to find, that Salmond had got in first, inviting himself for a breakfast meeting the same day.
“Rebekah found him very arrogant,” Irvine says. But the Scottish Sun backed him anyway, running the headline “Play it Again Salm” and an opinion piece which said: “[Salmond] is ambitious for the country and has the drive, personality and policies to lead us through these troubled times”. The then editor David Dinsmore later offered the First Minister tickets to La Boheme (which he did not take) and congratulated him on “an astonishing victory”.
Given Salmond’s track record for schmoozing big, international “beasts” such as Sean Connery and Donald Trump, allowing, some say, their international power and stature to blind him to their flaws, his fascination for Murdoch was unsurprising. Less predictable has been the way in which Murdoch’s faith in Salmond seems to have grown in the last 12 months, culminating in last week’s tweets. A few have suggested he has been lured in by the SNP leader’s enthusiasm for lower company taxes, which might benefit his corporation, although this seems unlikely.
“Given that the vast majority of his business is in the US, which is of course why some commentators believe the shareholders in those corporations are telling him to get rid of his British newspapers, I kind of doubt the Scottish economy is going to hold any advantage or disadvantage to him,” says Ewan Crawford, former adviser to John Swinney and lecturer in journalism at the University of the West of Scotland.
More credible is the notion that a man who already sees himself as something of an outsider, is wreaking his revenge on both Labour which, through Brownite MP Tom Watson, has driven the hacking inquiry, and Westminster, which he feels has done nothing to protect him.
“Murdoch is a born troublemaker and he doesn’t like the English, especially now he has this enormous trouble with the British authorities,” says Wolff. “I think he feels, if they’re going to make trouble for him, he will make trouble for them.”
Of course, Murdoch’s personal backing does not guarantee an endorsement from the Sun, which is yet to reveal its hand in the referendum campaign. Indeed, some insiders say there are tensions at the top as, though he backed the Nats at the election, Dinsmore, now general manager of News International, is lukewarm about independence.
On the other hand, current editor Andy Harries, who is said to be enthusiastic about Salmond, although not governed by Murdoch’s opinion, is nevertheless likely to be emboldened by it.
Irvine says that, since Murdoch is not much involved in the Scottish Sun any more and gets his information on Scotland mostly from Salmond, he is being led by a romantic notion of Scotland.
On the other hand, even the pro-unionist paper the Daily Record has softened its stance on independence over the past few weeks. “The important thing about endorsements, particularly if you look at the last election, is that they’re a sign of momentum,” says Crawford. “Newspapers like to fall in behind who they think is going to win, it can bring further momentum to the campaign.”
Could it be senior newspaper executives at both papers can smell the scent of change in the air? And if they fall in line behind Salmond, could it alter the course of the referendum in his favour?
SNP campaigners certainly hope so. Far from finding Murdoch’s support embarrassing they are buoyed by the belief that it is a reliable indicator of future success. “Rupert Murdoch has a track record of backing winners – Thatcher, Major, Blair and now Salmond. What is the ideological thread that links them? There isn’t one. What they have in common is they all got elected,” says one SNP insider. “If Murdoch is a weathervane forecasting the fortunes of the SNP government then the likelihood of a successful referendum seems high – I’d be happy with that.”