The high farce of Ken Cowley’s interview by the Australian Financial Review, and the denials within 24-hours in The Australian, got me thinking again about News Corp*. I had worked with Rupert Murdoch and Ken Cowley for seven years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was General Manager of the Sydney operations and Ken Cowley was my production manager.
My interest had already been sparked by reading Rod Tiffen’s new book ‘Rupert Murdoch, a reassessment’ published by UNSW Press Ltd. Rod Tiffen is Emeritus Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. I launched this book which draws together a lot of the research and writing about Rupert Murdoch over many years. It is an excellent reassessment.
The central conclusion that Tiffen comes to, which is well substantiated, is that News Corp is a rogue organisation. Tiffen says ‘These outrages [the hacking scandals] were not the product of a few rogue individuals as much as of a rogue corporation. Of course, the great majority of News Corp’s 50,000-plus employees, and the overwhelming majority of its journalists, are as repelled as the rest of the population by the abuses that have been revealed. However, the scandals were the product of a corporation where power is, perhaps uniquely, concentrated and where a confirming hierarchical culture makes it difficult for instructions to be questioned or challenged. This is a corporation impatient with any ethical impediments to achieve the results it wants and which greets external criticism with blanket denial and often aggression. And as Murdoch has said “For better or worse [News Corp) is a reflection of my thinking, my character and my values.” ‘(p.326)
The lesson has been made clear time and time again to Cowley and others. Don’t cross a rogue organisation.
News Ltd.’s modus operandi
Tiffen describes the governance of News Corp as “a docile board, acquiescent management in thrall of the genius of their CEO,a vision of hereditary succession and a “whatever it takes “ethic””
When confronted with even mild criticism News Corp seldom debates the issue. Its retainers go into immediate attack mode and turn the issue into us against them. “Them” being a politically correct elite. Murdoch now limits himself to twenty word tweets. They are certainly not arguments or a contribution to a debate but ideal for orders of the day for admiring and loyal retainers around the world.
The treatment of Ken Cowley fitted the classic Murdoch pattern. Cowley told the AFR that Lachlan Murdoch was not particularly smart and that The Australian ‘is pathetic’. . People praising Lachlan were wheeled out and within 24 hours, Cowley was brought to heel. The Australian extracted the following from him ‘The Australian has always been good, the Editor in Chief is doing an excellent job … I have great respect for Lachlan Murdoch’ and so on … and so on. But this was too late to stop the smack. The Australian had a leak, presumably from someone close to Lachlan Murdoch, that when one of Cowley’s business ventures had gone bad, Lachlan refused Cowley’s request to help him out.
The News Corp modus operandi was on display – abuse your critics – with a clear warning for all, you take us on at your peril.
In 1992 PM John Major had just won an election. He asked the Editor of the London Sun how he proposed to cover Britain’s decision on the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. He was told “Well John let me put it this way, I’ve got a bucket of shit on my desk and tomorrow morning I am going to throw it all over your head”. The ALP got the same bucket treatment at the last federal election campaign.p304/5
Ed Milliband, the leader of the British Labour Party was foolish enough to say that Rebecca Brooks, who is now charged before UK courts, “should examine her conscience”. The Sun political editor responded ‘We take it personally and we are going to make it personal to you. We won’t forget.’ (p.309)
Tom Watson a British MP who relentlessly and courageously tracked News Corp tells of “threats, bullying, covert surveillance, hacking, aggressive reporting and personal abuse” at the hands of News Corp. p288
Appalled by News Corp’s methods of operations the UK Parliamentary Committee by majority vote (Labour and Liberal Democrat) found that ‘Rupert Murdoch was not a fit person to exercise stewardship of a major international company.’ p265 Perhaps the Conservatives were too frightened to say what they really thought.
What about democracy in all this?
On page 327, Tiffen says perhaps too politely that ‘Murdoch’s power has more often diminished rather than benefitted the quality of democratic life.’ It has been most obvious in the telephone hacking in the UK.
He is the largest employer of journalists in the English speaking democracies. News Ltd holds 70% of the circulations of metropolitan dailies in Australia. In Brisbane and Adelaide there is little alternative to News Corp publications. Not content with its stranglehold on metropolitan media, News Corp wants to get rid of the ABC.
Famous US journalist Carl Bernstein speaks of “Murdoch’s destructive march across the democratic landscape”p327
Then there is Fox News in the US. Matthew Freud, Murdoch’s son in law told the New York Times “I am by no means alone within the family or the company being ashamed by Roger Ailes’s (the CEO of Fox News) horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News, its founder and every other global media business aspires to”. p252. Yet Murdoch could say with a straight face “.people love Fox News.”p253
News Corp. was the shrillest of all the urgers supporting the invasion of Iraq. Many newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Economist have confessed that they got it badly wrong on Iraq. I have yet to hear of a News Corp outlet that has made a similar confession despite almost 700,000 Iraqi deaths and untold and growing death, destruction and chaos. News Corp. will change the subject or tell us to get on with life. It will now continue to tell us we are all wrong on global warming despite the overwhelming evidence.
An ethical framework
On page 314 of his book, Tiffen recounts that. ‘Bruce Guthrie, Associate Editor of the Melbourne Herald, asked Murdoch at a “Confab” at Aspen, Colorado, in June 1988 “Do you have an ethical framework at all at the London Sun”.’ Tiffen records that Murdoch turned ‘red with anger’, and said to Cowley, I see we have a Fairfax wanker in our midst. It was not a good career move for Guthrie.
Murdoch told Thomas Kiernan in “Citizen Murdoch” ‘You tell these bloody politicians whatever they want to hear and once the deal is done you don’t worry about it” (Tiffen p 185)
Murdoch told the Leveson Enquiry ‘I have never asked a PM for anything’. But I know he asked Prime Minister Whitlam to be appointed Australian High Commissioner in London. I was the intermediary.
Loyalty of staff
There is no doubt that Murdoch does inspire the loyalty of his staff. They are well paid and provided they remain loyal, they will prosper. However many people with ability or a point of view don’t stay for long – either by their own choice or through dismissal. Andrew Neil, the Editor of the Sunday Times commented that ‘During the eleven years I was editor Rupert fired or eased out every Chief Executive of real talent or independent mindset …. [Murdoch) has never expressed regret about those he has axed and has repeatedly said that every individual can be replaced’ Tiffen p.298.
Loyalty counts for more than competence.
The China set-back
Only in China has Murdoch failed to make commercial progress. One reason was that he was impatient, but the more important reason is quite simply that he could not brow-beat the political leadership in China in the way he has been able to brow-beat almost all political leaders in Australia, the UK and the US. In his recent visit to New York Tony Abbott followed the same path as his predecessors, tugging the forelock to Murdoch in New York.
Rod Tiffen explains very persuasively how and why News Corp is a rogue organisation that is doing untold damage to the fabric of public life. It will take us a long time to repair the awful damage.
I have used the name News Corp to refer to all Murdoch’s operations in Australia, UK and USA