Phone Hacking Trial Ends, But The Questions Remain

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News from London yesterday that Andy Coulson has been found guilty and Rebekah Brooks not guilty of conspiring to hacking phones while they were editors of the now defunct News Corporation paper News of the World have been reported widely around Australia this morning.

Newscorp’s big Sydney outlet The Daily Telegraph relegated the story to page 19. In other publications, it was granted more prominence.

Newscorp reporters didn’t bother to include the formulaic reminder for readers that the owner of Australia’s dominant media company is the very same Murdoch family that owned News of the World at which phone hacking occurred on a routine, industrial scale.

They probably didn’t need to and in any case most of the copy was posted from other UK Newscorp outlets and wire services. If any readers are concerned about the implications of the verdict of current quality of Newscorp products, a senior executive in London was quoted as saying that wrongdoing like this will never occur again.

Everywhere in Australia Newscorp’s phone hacking is reported and discussed as a far off event of only passing relevance to Australia. It’s easy to forget how shaky the global operation seemed back in 2011 when phone hacking transformed from a Guardian investigation to a global scandal. Even corporate friend, British Prime Minister David Cameron, distanced himself from News International admitting, “Because party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers, we turned a blind eye.”

Cameron was so supportive that he even hired Andy Coulson as his communications director, after Coulson was forced to resign from Newscorp as a result of the phone hacking scandal.

Prime Minister David Cameron, apologising for hiring Andy Coulson.

Cameron called it ‘giving him a second chance’ and has dutifully apologised for getting it wrong, now that Coulson has actually been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than just a common sense view of the available evidence.

Back in 2011, as evidence of the large scale criminal conspiracy involving scores of journalists, hundreds of victims and thousands of stories emerged in London, it was an awkward moment for the most powerful media company in Australia.

While no Australian government has even been bold enough to limit Murdoch's power, there has always been a deep vein of public concern about the power of Newscorp in Australia, which has the most concentrated media in the developed world.

The then Newscorp Australian CEO John Hartigan was in damage control as he hastened to assure readers that the unethical and criminal practices being uncovered in London had nothing to do with its independent operations in Australia.

When you think about it, this proposition was unbelievable. Newscorp, like all global operations, has a strong top down culture with local differences. For instance, in Australia, with our coal export driven economy, Newscorp has campaigned harder against climate science than anywhere else.

It is involved in rugby league, so that gets blanket coverage. In London, the company targets the BBC, here it is the ABC.

This is how global companies work, but as a journalist, it seemed to me back in 2011 that Hartigan was being let off the hook too easily with the plea that because phone hacking may not have actually happened in Australia, phone hacking was not relevant to its Australian operations.

Although Australia's media environment is far less competitive than in the UK, Newscorp publications have a substantial dose of syndicated copy from bases that are close to the celebrity and entertainment global culture that fills its pages.

As you would expect, when News of the World phone hacked scoops broke in London, they were run here too where Australian editors judged there were profits to be milked

So back in 2011, I sent Hartigan a list of questions. He quickly responded that he would not answer them.

The questions were discussed at the time at Fairfax and New Matilda. The full list of questions can be found on my blog.

One of the questions I wanted answered was whether Hartigan had discussed phone hacking with editors who continued using News of the World scoops after the scandal began to seriously unravel in London. Surely that was the moment when any independent executive or editor might have been tested?

But Australian Newscorp editors have very limited independence. Indeed if editors of Newcorp’s six tabloid outlets had ignored the staple diet of celebrity stories flowing through from London, especially when journalistic resources are so stretched, they would have been very swiftly shown the door by Rupert Murdoch.

Phone hacking victims lives were plumbed for sellable stories in Australian as well as UK papers. Remember back in 2004 the frenzy around soccer star David Beckham and an affair which so upset his wife Victoria?

Straight after the News of the World broke that story, The Australian and the Daily Telegraph – with a full 1000 words – as well as other Australian Newscorp publications climbed on board.

Phone hacking, we learned, got the story when Beckham’s father was one of 130 victims who settled civil damages with News of the World early last year.

The settlement seems to have been mentioned by Fairfax media, but not, as far as I can see, in Newscorp’s Australian publication.

Phone hacks also produced lots of Australian stories about actors Sienna Miller and Jude Law.

Law, who gave evidence against Coulson at the recent trial, later claimed the “repeated and sustained surveillance” had left him paranoid. Newscorp has since paid him about US $200,000.

David Blunkett provides another example. Compared to Beckham and Law, he was a comparative unknown to most Newscorp readers, although he was the UK Home Secretary. But courtesy of Newscorp’s phone hacking, Blunkett briefly became a celebrity here too when he became a big story in 2004.

Tapes and drafts of stories about Blunkett were found in the safe of News International lawyer Tom Crone.

The trial of Coulson was told that on August 13, 2004, Coulson confronted Blunkett and told him News of the World intended to publish a story about his affair with a married woman.

Andy Coulson is mobbed by media outside the British phone hacking trials.

In a tape of the meeting, Coulson could be heard telling Blunkett, “I would not be exposing myself in this way if I did not believe this story to be true.”

Blunkett refused to confirm the affair.

It was phone hacking that provided News of the World with all the proof it needed.

On August 15, News of the World published the story. A day later, The Australian jumped on the scoop, sourcing it back to NOTW. The Gold Coast Bulletin, Adelaide Advertiser, Courier Mail, Herald Sun and Hobart Mercury all followed suit.

Blunkett resigned after it was revealed he had assisted his lover’s nanny with a visa.

In Australia, Blunkett settled back into obscurity. Australian readers weren’t told when he settled his phone hacking claim with News International in 2011, nor that his case had featured prominently in the phone hacking case that led to Coulson’s conviction yesterday.

If you are part of a global operation, you can’t isolate yourself from the core operations of the company. The then CEO Hartigan’s plea that Newscorp in Australia was insulated from the scandal should not have been so easily accepted.

Just look at how the media covered Newscorp Chairman Rupert Murdoch's 2013 keynote address for the Lowy Institute, an international affairs thinktank funded by Frank Lowy, the founder of Westfield, an Australian shopping centre company with 103 centres in Australia, United States, and Brazil.

Although Murdoch’s news businesses may be declining in Australia, the speech provided him with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate his extraordinary personal pulling power in Australia.

To quote Matthew Knott, then reporting for Crikey:

The night was a name dropper’s wet dream: Treasurer Joe Hockey, Premier Barry O’Farrell, Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens, Crown Casino chairman James Packer, Australian Olympic Committee boss John Coates, Rio Tinto managing director David Peever, News Corp Australia CEO Julian Clarke and Foxtel CEO Richard Freudenstein all attended.

So did Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Coalition colleagues Mathias Cormann, Bronwyn Bishop, Arthur Sinodinos and Warren Truss.

It says something about the night — perhaps our country — that the deputy prime minister was one of the more obscure people there.

The Left was represented too, in smaller numbers: Labor comrades Sam Dastyari and Mark Dreyfus both made the pilgrimage.

Tickets for the event cost $300 each, and quickly sold out; nabbing a spare seat was trickier than finding a pro-Labor yarn in The Daily Telegraph during the election campaign.

Few visitors to Australia could draw such a powerful crowd. Media coverage was assured. ABC 24 even broadcast the speech on national television.

Predictably the following day, Newscorp readers around Australia were treated to news stories as well as unusually long articles in the form of full-page extracts of the speech.

Rebekah Brooks, pictured on her way to court to face charges over phone hacking.

Only The Conversation, The Guardian, Crikey and Fairfax Media were crass enough to mention the uncomfortable matter of the ‘media trial of the century’ – the phone hacking trial that had been well underway for the past few months in London.

Newscorp often argues that it merely gives its readers their preferred journalism diet, but there is little doubt that readers would have been far more interested in some decent coverage of the phone hacking trial than Murdoch’s formal speech.

The point is that when the boss gives a speech, normal Newscorp news values do not apply.

When the boss’ editors are in big trouble, editors must tip-toe around the problem delicately.

Promo speeches must be run, regardless of their news value.

This is not surprising, and would not matter so much if Newscorp did not control the only metropolitan news publication in four capital cities in Australia.

Most Australians never got a fair coverage of the phone hacking scandal. But the coverage of phone hacking was just one more litmus test for the editorial independence of Australia’s Newcorp publications in Australia.

Back in July 2011, academic Jenna Price and I did a small study for the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism and The Conversation.

We analysed coverage back to January 2009 when the scandal began to break open.

Unsurprisingly, the results showed Fairfax Media reported on the phone hacking scandal far more comprehensively than Newscorp papers.

For instance, Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph mentioned News of the World in 71 stories, nearly always as the source of a scoop.

We could find only one 95-word report about the phone hacking scandal.

Rebekah Brooks has now been acquitted while her ex-lover Andy Coulson is likely to face a jail sentence.

While the ‘not guilty’ verdict must be a huge relief, it leaves her with a massive question mark over her competency.

What sort of editor would be so out-of-touch that her big stories were being generated by a major criminal operation, and she knew nothing about it?

It is now even rumoured that she could be sent to the company’s Australian outpost.

The Murdoch family will be thrilled at the outcome, although four other editors have now been found guilty and hundreds of victims still need to be paid.

Brooks is a particular favourite of Murdoch, who once described her as a daughter.

At the height of the phone hacking scandal in London as he prepared for a grilling before the Parliamentary committee on what he called the most ‘humble day’ of his life, he was asked to name his top priority. “This one," he answered as he gestured at Brooks.

Rupert Murdoch, appearing before a parliamentary inquiry into phone hacking. He described it as "the most humble day" of his life.

When she resigned from News International, Brooks received a payment of more than 10 million pounds in lieu of her job.

The Murdoch family remained in close contact with Brooks. She was last seen in Australia aboard Lachlan Murdoch’s yacht in April 2013.

Just like all those phone hacked stories, Brooks’ visit to Australia had all the makings of a juicy tabloid story, just the sort that Newscorp tabloids love to publish.

This was not lost on SMH's PS gossip column, when it enthusiastically anticipated the visit.

They noticed her at the Sydney Opera with Sarah Murdoch, with whom she was staying.

According to my searches, none of this was noticed by Newscorp hounds (and if you come up with a mention let me know).

The power of editors is to make information visible and invisible. If they get it wrong, the company removes that power.

The corporate culture that allowed phone hacking to flourish is the same global culture that let its editors off the leash to campaign to destabilise and destroy governments it does not like; the same corporate culture that spread disinformation about climate change; the same corporate culture that allows its bloggers to vilify Aboriginal people and feminists.

Newscorp Australia got away with washing its hands of any uncomfortable questions about the way it profited from phone hacking, and then buried the scandal.

But don’t be fooled into thinking it has nothing to do with its Australian operations. 

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