Rupert Murdoch: His Editors, His Reporters, His Readers

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In the immediate wake of the recent hacking trial, British foreign secretary William Hague expressed the view that the trial has improved the health of democracy, affirming that the scandal has led “to a greater distance now between politicians and the press”.

Four of the defendants charged in the trial pleaded guilty and a fifth, Andy Coulson, was convicted and sentenced to 18 months jail on Friday. But the lion's share of press reporting has concentrated on the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks and her three co-defendants.

A consequence of that verdict is that we must now accept that Brooks did not know what was going on in the newspapers she was overseeing.

That is true, despite the guilty pleas of other editors and the conviction of News of the World editor and Brooks' long-time on-and-off lover, Coulson.

The lovers never spoke about certain matters or, if and when they did, the penny didn't drop for Brooks.

It seems the jury members had not satisfied themselves, beyond reasonable doubt, that Brooks knew what was going on and so she has been given the benefit of their doubt.

But with greater direct evidence implicating Coulson, the jury had fewer doubts about him, and brought in a conviction.

Had Brooks been convicted, we would now know that she was in control of the culture and practices that prevailed during her watch. The acquittal confirms the proposition put by her defence that she was out of the loop. She did not know what she was paid to know.

That failure has resulted in the demise of one of the largest circulation Sunday newspapers on the planet, serious criminal charges levelled against many of her colleagues and underlings, and around $1 billon of payouts and settlements to victims who have suffered loss and damage at the hands of newspapers in her charge.

On the face of it, Brooks is now unemployable. But her future career trajectory is already the subject of widespread speculation, including a Sydney Morning Herald story that she might be appointed to a senior publishing role in Australia with her old boss.

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN GRAHAM

The hacking trial coincided with the release of a new Murdoch book by Rodney Tiffen. Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment takes a long view of the newspaper publisher over the best part of four decades and is a useful perspective from which to see present events.

Tiffen looks closely at the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The backwash of that episode was roughly concurrent with the events that unfolded into the hacking affair.

The Murdoch newspaper coverage of the Iraq invasion occurred at a time when Rebekah Brooks was still Rebekah Wade and editor of The Sun, Rupert's mass circulation London daily.

Despite News Corporation papers being wrong on almost every count in 2003, the editors and reporters pressed ponderously on with a black-and-white pro-invasion campaign.

The presence of weapons of mass destruction In Iraq was an utter certainty. No doubts about it.

An immediate strike by the Coalition of the Willing would put a swift end to the evil represented by the Saddam Hussain regime. No doubts about that either.

Murdoch’s editors in the UK, the US and Australia marshalled their forces to ensure these were the lines coming out of his papers, and that alternative narratives were ruthlessly discredited.

Tiffen notes reporting like this account of the “fall of Baghdad” from Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian at the time of the invasion:

The eagle is soaring. The bald eagle of American power is aloft, high above the humble earth, and everything it sees is splendid. For as it soars and swoops it sees victory, power, opportunity.

Despite purple prose of that magnitude, which revealed a fleeting insensitivity to the havoc inflicted on the ground in Baghdad, no WMD were ever found in Saddam’s Iraq and the snap invasion in March 2003 did not mark the end of hostilities, but the beginning of an ugly and prolonged insurgency that persists more than a decade later.

The death toll is now in the hundreds of thousands, and is still on the rise.

That eventuality was foreseen at the outset by those with more reliable intelligence and cooler heads.

Tiffen juxtaposes the Murdoch newspaper accounts of Iraq against comparable reporting from The Economist, which had also supported the invasion.

When The Economist saw what was unfolding, it conceded the war had taken a course the magazine had not predicted.

By contrast, no retrospective admissions were made in the Murdoch papers.

Murdoch watchers have wondered over the years what drives the man, and most end up with answers that involve an enigma.

In 1997, John Lancaster wrote in the London Review of Books about the number of representations of Murdoch that seem to be Rupert, but he also accepted that regardless of who the real Rupert is, we get the Murdoch we deserve.

We let him do what he does, and we keep letting him get away with having done it.

Rupert often says he is motivated by his attachment to his readers. He understands them, and they need him.

Tiffen alludes to an American interview in which he spoke of his readers in Britain “becoming extremely decadent … (without) the underlying puritanical history this country (America) has got”.

Yet of his New York Post readers, he said in a 1982 interview that they were “basically a poorly educated, narrowly experienced group”, which “craved guidance” and “flourished on simple black and white answers”.

Occasionally he hears familiar accounts of his readers from third parties.

Tiffen recalls a deal Rupert was trying to do with a major retail outlet, and cited his readership numbers as testimony to what he could bring to the transaction.

The retort and deal killer was along the lines of: “But Rupert, your readers are our shoplifters.”

If there is a common thread in all this, it may be the H.L. Menchen observation that “it is the natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true”, or Menchen’s other proposition that no-one ever lost money by under-estimating the intelligence of the mass of the people.

One of the exasperating realisations that emerge from Tiffen’s book is that the way in which Murdoch runs his newspapers causes him no shame.

Any attempt to say vengeful things that paint him as mendacious, scheming or evil are taken by him as compliments. But that doesn’t stop people trying.

Conrad Black described Murdoch as a "great bad man", warning that it would be as wrong to doubt his greatness as his badness.

Theodore Keel, a New York lawyer who Tiffen points out acted for and against Murdoch, said: “Rupert Murdoch is very good at what he does. The question is: is what he does any good?”

Those who watched the 2012 British Parliamentary Inquiry into the phone hacking scandal will recall Rupert placing his hand on his son James’ arm to quieten him, so that he could offer a seemingly abject admission: “This is the most humble day of my life.”

Tiffen alludes to countless occurrences in which Murdoch says whatever suits him on the occasion, and the parliamentary inquiry was just such an occasion for a fittingly demonstrable expression of self-effacement.

Soon after that episode, he was covertly recorded meeting with former News of the World staff and assuring them that the police had behaved outrageously in bringing charges against them and their colleagues.

When looking over time at the Murdoch newspaper output of editors who have survived and thrived, such as the New York Post’s Col Allan, the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s Paul Whittaker or The Australian’s Chris Mitchell, you realise that they must constantly be asking themselves: “What would Rupert do?” or “What would Rupert want me to do?”

If ever an editor were to think there might be merit in being his own man, he would be reminded of former despised colleagues such as the Herald Sun’s Bruce Guthrie, or The Times’ Harold Evans, who paid for their professionalism with their jobs.

As an example of Murdoch's modus operandi, Tiffen looks at the 1977 mayoral election that saw the New York Post take up the Ed Koch cause against the more favoured liberal Democrat, Mario Cuomo.

Tiffen quotes a battered Cuomo making this observation after losing the election:

The New York Times is perhaps the single most credible newspaper in the world. But when they endorse you, you get one column on the editorial page. With Rupert he turns the whole paper over to you.

That way of operating a newspaper led to 50 of the 60 journalists on the Post walking off the job, angered over the professional corruption of the paper during the election.

Rupert was not troubled because his singular concern was getting Koch up against the odds.

He was equally unfazed two years earlier when 76 journalists at The Australian went on strike in protest at that paper’s coverage of the election that saw off Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

In what Donald Horne called 'vendetta journalism', it appears that The Australian reporters in 1975 were, by and large, filing stories in accordance with professional standards, but the stories were being rewritten in Sydney to fit with the prevailing propaganda line, which was to damn anyone associated with Whitlam.

By-lines were generalised to read 'Our political staff' because so many journalists were resigning.

A report could be skewed by omission of a material fact or by pictorial placement.

Tiffen mentions a photograph of the federal treasurer Dr Jim Cairns having breakfast with his private secretary, Junie Morosi. The picture appeared in The Daily Mirror, confirming the Murdoch narrative that Cairns had his mind on other things than the state of the economy.

Missing from the photograph was the third party at the breakfast table – Jim Cairns' wife.

It’s not only political stories that get caught up in the Murdoch newspaper culture.

Noting the reality that the supply of stories does not always match demand in news gathering, Tiffen recalls the treatment of the ‘Son of Sam’ stories by the New York Post in 1976-77.

The serial killer David Berkowitz committed a number of murders of young men and women late at night, as they sat in the backs of cars.

The Post, said Tiffen, had initially neglected the story so Murdoch insisted they come up with a new angle every day to catch up.

In the absence of real information on a difficult crime story, the paper produced a series of hysterical but baseless reports.

One was about the police letting Sam escape, another about a witness who saw him change into a wig, and another about Mafia families that were out hunting down the killer.

All were fanciful.

Without a hint of regret, Murdoch later told his biographer Kiernan, with a laugh, that perhaps invention was better than intrusion.

Not that intrusion was neglected. Tiffen remarks that Murdoch’s star reporter, Steve Dunleavy, wore a doctor’s gown and entered the room of one of Sam’s shooting victims, posing as a bereavement counsellor, and in so doing got an exclusive interview with the victim’s parents.

Commenting later in justification of the Post’s behaviour, Murdoch said that his paper was motivated by a desire to get the police off their backsides to catch the killer, sweeping aside the fact that intrusive and fictitious newspaper stories made the police job more difficult.

In the face of a systematic debasement of accepted standards of journalistic practice, it’s easy to forget what the foundations of a free democratic press rely on.

Tiffen reminds the reader of this citation from John Delane, the editor of The Times in pre-Murdoch days, who in 1852 declared:

(The press)… can enter into no binding alliances with the statesmen of the day… the first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation… the press lives by disclosures.

William Hague might well endorse those words in the interest of a healthy democracy.

Tiffen quotes the Delane declaration against a backdrop of practices such as those of The Sun in Britain, whose editor Rebekah Brooks gave unconditional support to Tony Blair in his decision to join with George W. Bush in the calamitous invasion of Iraq.

Anyone who questioned that decision became an implacable enemy of Brooks, and The Sun would make that person pay dearly.

A case in point was Tom Watson, a Labour MP with a Ministry of Defence portfolio who questioned Blair’s Iraq decision and called for him to resign.

The Sun unleashed a massively destructive series of stories about Watson’s personal life that was put in perspective for him years later at a Labour Party conference.

Tiffen notes the account of a correspondent from The Sun who confided to Watson: “My editor (Rebekah Brooks) will pursue you for the rest of your life. She will never forgive you for what you did to her Tony.”

While there is irony in the turn of events that has seen Brooks at the Old Bailey on an array of criminal charges, Tiffen resists the temptation to dwell on it.

Instead, he comes back to the malaise that keeps revealing itself within the Murdoch culture, and the newspapers that come out of it:

"They had failed Delane’s first test for journalism. Murdoch’s close alliance with the ‘statesmen of the day’ had interfered with his papers’ commitment to accurate disclosure.

"They were part of the noise rather than part of the signal. They had served their proprietor better than their readers."

* Paul Begley is an Australian writer who works in public affairs. The views expressed here are his own. Principal source: Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment, Rodney Tiffen, University of New South Wales Press, 2014

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