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Mogul's evil empire a dangerous myth

In his terrifying history of modern psychiatry, Michel Foucault told the story of three deranged inmates who thought they were rival kings.

Their keeper needed to break up a fight between them so he took one man aside and asked him: 'Why do you argue with these men who are evidently mad? Doesn't everyone know that you should be recognised as Louis XIV?'

Flattered by this homage, the madman withdraw in regal victory, and peace was restored.

This story occurred to me watching Harriet Harman, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband lead the Labour Party into battle against Rupert Murdoch.

These three were battling each other as much as David Cameron, as they scrambled to wear the shiny crown of probity and accountability.

Their exiled king, Gordon Brown, struck the tuning-fork from the backbenches with a blistering attack on the Sunday Times.

He sabotaged his speech, though, by placing the blame for his failure to order judicial inquiries into illegal newspaper tactics on the UK's obstructive cabinet secretary.

Brown's tender regard here for the opinions of a mere mandarin must have caused old Whitehall hands to gag in surprise. Brown, of course, was famous for simply ignoring the arguments of almost 90 per cent of his staff while at the Treasury.

And Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell reminded people last week that Brown had no qualms about using the tabloids to lever Blair out of power in 2007.

Brown's crass attempt to draw a "values" line between Labour and the Tories on the tabloid issue was still-born in the House of Commons, and was later obliterated by Murdoch's own matter-of-fact statement that the British politician with whom he felt closest over recent years was Brown himself.

When such an assiduous, even craven courter of the non-Labour press like Brown joins the anti-Murdoch scrum, then it is time to step back from the melee.

There are many small problems and one big problem to be faced here.

The smaller or more manageable problems include the thoughtful challenge posed by John Witherow from the Sunday Times when he insisted that low cunning and subterfuge can never really be removed from journalism.

The blundering in the London Metropolitan Police must also be tackled, though it is not beyond the wit of men who are in earnest to design a new code of conduct to cover the interaction between police and journalists during criminal investigations.

The big problem raised by Murdoch's testimony before the Commons concerns the general attitude towards his kind of newspapers.

Listening to some of the aggressive reportage on the BBC one would have been forgiven for forgetting the positive contribution his newspapers have made in Britain and in Ireland.

The former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, Thomas 'Slab' Murphy is not likely to forget the relentless battering he received from the Sunday Times, the paper who finally broke him in the libel courts under Alan Ruddock's editorship and thereby rendered a service to Irish democracy.

The same might be said of their colleague RW Johnson's outstanding reporting on the failures of the ANC leadership in post-apartheid South Africa -- his critique of Mandela's failed presidency is a must read.

Paul Williams' fearless crime reporting at the Irish News of the World also deserves commendation.

The basic assumption behind the BBC's disdain for this kind of work is the unstated claim that without Murdoch's "evil empire" every serious person would be a socialist.

The image of a zombified population in thrall to Murdoch's brainwashing lurks behind the BBC's insistence on framing its coverage in terms of "bias", "empire" and "agenda".

This whole approach to the problem of public opinion is of course deeply anti-intellectual because it cannot account for the persistence of non-leftist opinion without invoking a global conspiracy.

The BBC shudder is especially palpable when discussing Murdoch's American channel, Fox News. The assumption here again is that Fox has created and stoked the modern American culture wars for commercial gain.

Even those of us who suffer migraines after 10 minutes of Bill O'Reilly's manic "no spin zone" prattle on Fox know that he is a product of a complex and long-standing conservative culture in America that pre-dates Murdoch.

The BBC cannot really see that modern American conservatism is not the plaything of one Australian's megalomania, but rather the child of the radical structural reforms imposed on American society by a dynamic US Supreme Court led funnily enough by an Irish-American judge named William Brennan between 1956-1990.

Brennan's judicial opinions desegregated the public schools, voided school prayer, liberalised abortion laws and came within a hair's breadth of abolishing the death penalty in 1972.

Far from being an imposition born of multinational capital, Fox is the end point of decades of attacks on Brennan's judicial handiwork from tough black intellectuals like Myron Magnet and Thomas Sowell who knew their minds decades before Murdoch arrived.

The last British general election also illustrates the dangers of ascribing omnipotence to his "empire".

Gordon Brown still miraculously managed to prevent an outright Tory win even after the tabloids turned on him.

The vulgarity of the Murdoch debate prevents many commentators from recognising the fact that even if News International collapsed, millions of Britons would still vote for another Blair figure who promises sound money, social solidarity and a no-nonsense approach to foreign dictatorship. And Miliband's failure to see this suggests big trouble down the line for him.

John Paul McCarthy holds a PhD in history from Oxford

Sunday Independent