Here's Why Rupert Murdoch, Billionaire Media Mogul, Loves This Trade Unionist

In an unusual move, Murdoch's famously anti-union newspapers have given column-space and editorial backing to one particular trade unionist's leadership campaign.
Gerard Coyne​: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Gerard Coyne: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The world’s most famous anti-union media mogul has been backing one trade unionist for over a decade.

Rupert Murdoch controls a number of media titles around the world through Newscorp, the company he founded. These include a stable of UK newspapers, from the upmarket Times to the tabloid Sun, owned through Newscorp subsidiary News UK, which will not recognise unions among their staff.

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Despite this, his UK titles have consistently weighed into elections for the general secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest union, trying to get two supposedly moderate  brothers elected.

Unite has 1.4 million members in transport, manufacturing and more, across the private and public sector. Its general secretary, Len McCluskey, is stepping down, and there is currently an election to replace him. Known as “Red Len” in the right-wing press, McCluskey is a left-winger who supported former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Three candidates are running: Steve Turner, Sharon Graham and Gerard Coyne.

Turner and Graham are seen, like McCluskey, as broadly on the left. Coyne by contrast was critical of McCluskey’s support for Corbyn. He was disciplined for speaking to a group of backbench Labour MPs organised by Chuka Umunna, the MP who would later leave the Party to form the short-lived centrist party Change UK, then to join the LibDems before he left politics altogether to join a corporate lobbying company.

Coyne was backed this month by Trevor Kavanagh, one of the top columnists of the Sun, a Murdoch owned right-wing tabloid. Kavanagh, who is said to have a direct line to Murdoch, argued Coyne was a “moderate” who would bring “an end to division and conflict”. Coyne would fight for “immigration controls”, he said, and would “stymie the loony Left.”

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The Sun also gave Coyne his own column in the paper. This is despite the newspaper being consistently hostile to trade unions – for instance presenting attempts to reform UK trade union laws which are some of the most draconian in Europe as attempts to “plunge Britain back into 1970s-style strike chaos”.

It’s not often – if ever – that the Sun picks out favoured leaders of UK trade unions, but the paper’s support follows over a decade of Murdoch papers singling out Coyne for support.

In 2009 Kevin Coyne – Gerard’s brother and political ally – ran for election as Unite joint general secretary, again with support from a range of Murdoch’s papers. A 2009 Times editorial made clear it supported both Coyne brothers, saying the union’s “hierarchy does in fact contain some talent. The Coyne brothers, Kevin and Gerard, are moderate, articulate and properly focused on getting a good and durable deal for their workers.”

This Times editorial also said that there was “less need” for unions to worry about pay because of the minimum wage, which was introduced in 1998, so they should focus on offering “financial, personal and legal advice”  and helping bosses develop “skills academies” and “training” for workers.

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The other Murdoch papers also got behind Coyne, in what looks like a coordinated push. The News of the World, Murdoch’s defunct Sunday paper which typically covered celebrity sex scandals, attacked Simpson, accusing him of misbehaviour and rule-breaking in the Unite election campaign against Coyne. In December 2009 Murdoch’s News of the World had to apologise, admit their claims were “entirely mistaken” and pay Simpson a substantial sum in damages.

Murdoch newspapers made other false claims in support of Kevin Coyne’s election campaign. In February 2009 the Times claimed that Kevin Coyne had received twice as many branch nominations for general secretary of Unite as Simpson. It later had to issue an apology and admit that “in fact the opposite is true”.

Kevin Coyne came third in the 2009 Unite election, beaten by both Simpson and another left-wing candidate.

In 2017 his brother Gerard Coyne ran for Unite general secretary, challenging Len McLuskey. Just as in Kevin Coyne’s 2009 run, the Murdoch press heavily supported Coyne.

The Sun gave Coyne space to write an editorial – something it almost never does for candidates for trade union leadership. This was backed up by a host of pro-Coyne articles in the Sun in 2017.

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The Times also allowed Coyne to write editorials in their paper. Both newspapers emphasised Coyne was a “moderate”, and argued his opponent, McCluskey, was too supportive of then-Labour leader Corbyn.

But Murdoch’s interest in trade unions is certainly not limited to politics. Professor Des Freedman of the Media and Communications department at Goldsmiths, University of London, who like many has argued Murdoch and his executives use their papers as a political operation that runs coordinated campaigns, pointed to the way “Murdoch has long promoted what he sees as the 'acceptable' face of trade unionism”.

“Murdoch's support for Coyne as general secretary of Unite is very much in keeping with his determination to divide and weaken the labour movement,” Freedman told VICE World News.

Murdoch is a hugely significant figure in the UK media and smashing unions was a key part of his business success. In 1986, he moved his operation from Fleet Street in the City of London – the traditional home of British journalism – to a fortified HQ in Wapping, east London, and excluded the well-organised print and journalists trade unions from his newspapers. This led to a months-long battle with picketing trade unionists. With support from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the police, Murdoch won. 

The Wapping dispute was a key moment both for Murdoch and for weakening union power in the UK. The newspaper print unions were one of the strongest sections of the labour movement. Their defeat at Wapping weakened the whole movement almost as much as the defeat of the miners’ unions by Thatcher’s government a year before. In 1997 when Tony Blair was campaigning to become prime minister with a policy of some mild reforms to employment law, he promised in an article for the Times that under a Labour government “the scenes from… Wapping or the miners’ strike could no more happen under our proposals than under the existing laws.” 

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When current Labour leader Keir Starmer was campaigning to be elected to his post and briefly wanted to appeal to left-wing Labour members, he emphasised how he had been a legal observer on the Wapping picket lines, watching for police abuse of the pickets.

Murdoch has denied any independent union recognition at his UK newspapers ever since.

Ann Field was a print union officer during the original Wapping dispute, who later  became a national officer of the Unite union before retiring.

She told VICE World News that Murdoch has always “made it his priority to buy, manipulate or coerce to attain and maintain power and influence.”

“Given the corrupt and corrupting nature of his influence and the virulent anti-trade unionism which pours out of the columns of his newspapers the Sun and the Times, I hope that Gerard Coyne dissociates himself from the support which these newspapers have given him thus far. Failure to do so can only lead to voters in the ballot for the general secretaryship of Unite to give Coyne a wide berth.”

Approached for comment about his backing from Murdoch by VICE World News, Gerard Coyne said, “I want readers of News UK’s papers to join a union. In fact, I want them to join Unite the Union. I make no apology for reaching out to working people who read the Sun. The more of them we can convince to join a union, the stronger we will be as a movement.  

“My whole campaign, my reason for standing to be general secretary, is about changing Unite so it becomes a stronger and more effective union for its members. If anyone thinks that we will be made weaker by cleaning up the union; focusing on our members jobs, pay and conditions; improving the value people get from joining Unite; and stepping away from hard-left politics and wasteful pet projects… they are welcome to that opinion.”

VICE World News contacted News UK for comment but received no response.