Sell off the Roads! ... on James Murdoch's Bananas, Political Dynasties and a Game of Cards

By Wilby, Peter | New Statesman (1996), September 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

Sell off the Roads! ... on James Murdoch's Bananas, Political Dynasties and a Game of Cards


Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


The most interesting passage in James Murdoch's MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival--where he argued that the BBC's dominance in British media is "chilling"--was about bananas. In the 1950s, the dominant Gros Michel banana was being wiped out by a fungus and the industry replaced the entire world export crop with the supposedly disease-resistant Cavendish. Now, apparently, Cavendish bananas are threatened by another fungus and, because they are sterile clones, cannot build up resistance.

Murdoch's point was that one shouldn't interfere with the market's Darwinian processes, which guarantee natural diversity. But it was not a public body that took the banana decision; it was United Fruit, a private US firm notorious for subverting Latin American governments to safeguard its near-monopoly.

The Murdochs' News Corporation, not the BBC, is the media industry's equivalent of United Fruit. In every sector it operates, it tries to drive out competitors and prevent new ones from becoming established, as shown by its newspaper price war in the 1990s and, more recently, its attempts to hog TV rights to Premiership football. As for diversity of opinion the Murdochs own more than 100 newspapers around the world. I do not know of any that failed to support the Iraq invasion. Nor of any that questions market liberalism.

The BBC is far from perfect, and I agree its free news website raises difficult questions about the viability of other providers. But the BBC is required to offer diversity; News Corporation is not, and does not.

The death of Edward Kennedy reminds us just how many political dynasties that Americans, supposedly more hostile to inherited privilege than Europeans, seem to have. Few presidential elections in the past 100 years have not involved a Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush or Clinton at least at the primary stage. There are numerous other, less prominent examples: Rockefellers, Lees, Byrds and Longs.

Britain also has dynasties--Churchills, Chamberlains, Foots and Benns come to mind-but our last prime minister to boast an ancestor of ministerial rank was Alec Douglas-Home and, in his case, you had to go back to a great-grandfather who held minor office under the Duke of Wellington. It is hard to imagine that a prime ministerial bid from Mark Thatcher or Cherie Blair would gather much support.

One can speculate about the reasons: the nature of the US presidency, which combines the functions of head of state (historically a hereditary position) with those of chief executive; the lack of cohesive parties with firm ideological foundations; the importance of brand recognition in a large, diverse country. But the effect is that, whatever the differences between, say, a Kennedy or a Bush, nearly all politicians have shared views about the importance of defending family wealth and property.

I usually oppose privatisation proposals, but here is one I shall support. According to the Financial Times, the RAC Foundation has suggested to Whitehall officials that the roads be sold off for [pounds sterling]85bn. …

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