The Loudest Voice is one of many recent dramatisations of life inside Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Succession, starring Brian Cox as an ageing and grumpy patriarch at the helm of a warring family and sprawling news network, is a “close approximation” of the Murdoch Universe, and is probably the funniest show on TV. Bombshell, which was in cinemas in January, was a powerful depiction of the Fox News channel’s recent sex scandals that drove out legendary president (and, as it transpired, prolific sexual abuser) Roger Ailes.
In The Loudest Voice, we get the full Roger Ailes backstory, tracing his political career (he advised Nixon, Reagan and Bush Snr) and the sensational launch of Fox News in the mid-nineties. Russell Crowe plays Ailes as a cross between Henry VIII and Jabba The Hutt. He waddles and slobbers his way through the Fox newsroom, screaming right-wing vitriol and groping at staffers’ backsides, scheming up evil plots to destroy Obama and anoint Trump.
It is convenient for us to believe that people like Ailes are super-villains with sinister agendas presiding over mass brainwashing schemes
As the sort of metropolitan liberal Ailes would have despised, I get a peculiar buzz from watching him portrayed as a semi-comedic monster. Like a conservative Geppetto, we see Ailes manipulate American public opinion with his grandly meticulous misinformation masterplan.
But just like liberals believe the conservative masses to be slack-jawed dingbats who merrily lap up the prejudices of right-wing media, we liberals are just as dozily suggestible. It is convenient for us to believe that people like Ailes are super-villains with sinister agendas presiding over mass brainwashing schemes. The truth is that Ailes was a TV producer from Ohio with a common touch who applied the lessons learnt in entertainment to the tired and tedious world of news. He started a small cable news channel and gave it two major points of difference: firstly, it was fun, light and conversational. Secondly, and even more remarkably in the context of the American news media, it was right-wing.
But so what? Isn’t that what a pluralist democracy needs? Sure, Fox News has facilitated the dissemination of all sorts of iffy, offensive and sometimes slightly disgusting views over the years. But they were rarely, if ever, views generated out of a void by Ailes and his team. They were reflections of the views that, wrongly or rightly (by which I mean wrongly), existed across the American heartlands.
Having worked in various newsrooms over the years, I am always amused when I see depictions of these places as hotbeds of intricate moral debates and nuanced political decisions. Newsrooms are mad houses where everyone’s single agenda is just get the story out on time. Did Ailes have a secret strategy to shift the American public’s mindset – beyond putting newscasters in short skirts and being rather more laissez-faire about what his journalists could say on air?