Former News Corp chief plays coy on election coverage

Former News Corp Australia chief executive Kim Williams speaking with journalist Kerry O'Brien at a QUT business leaders’ forum. Kim Stephens/Brisbane Times

In his first major speech since his sudden resignation last month as News Corp Australia’s chief executive, Kim Williams had the packed Grand Ballroom at Brisbane’s Hilton hotel abuzz with speculation.

What might he reveal about Rupert Murdoch and News Corp’s internal politics? And what would he say about the News papers’ “Kick this mob out” election coverage?

As The Australian Financial Review’s Brisbane bureau chief Mark Ludlow tweeted, “Former News Corp boss Kim Williams about to speak at QUT Biz Leaders Forum, partly sponsored by Courier Mail. Awkward.”

Queensland University of Technology invited Williams to speak at its prestigious Business Leaders Forum some time ago, before his resignation. The lunchtime events are intended to celebrate exceptional leadership and achievement in business, and Williams was an obvious choice, given his experience up to and including News Corp.

Until the fateful day, that is, only days after the federal election had been called, when Williams walked away from the Murdoch empire.

As many media observers wrote at the time, that decision was not only connected to personality and power clashes within News Corp, but also possibly linked to the increasingly shrill anti-ALP tone of its newspapers in particular. This was widely believed to be the result of the return to Australia of Col Allan, Rupert’s bulldog in charge of whipping the troops into shape for a Coalition victory.

On the day of the resignation, both Murdoch and Williams restricted their public statements to protestations of mutual admiration and respect, and the story soon faded from view as the election campaign gathered steam. Those of us on the guest list for his Brisbane speech did wonder, though, if the lunch would go ahead.

Well, Williams did come to Brisbane yesterday, and he did talk about News Corp’s election coverage. (You can watch some of the highlights here, in which Williams also discusses “grin-f***ing”, Australia as “the land of the glass jaw”, and his opinion of Rupert Murdoch.)

Asked by an AAP reporter whether he thought News Corp had damaged its brand by running so hard against Labor, Williams replied “I saw nothing in the last election that was [brand damaging]”. He added:

“Campaigning journalism in elections has been a periodic and regular phenomenon in Australian media, particularly in print media, and I see nothing in the last election that was… I mean there may have been a greater degree of energy in that campaign, but whatever commercial rewards that will be harvested from that will be through the response of consumers and their products or not.”

In other words - and as he had argued earlier in his official speech - “consumers are now in charge”. If they don’t like News Corp’s coverage, they can vote with their eyes and wallets and go elsewhere.

Interestingly, however, when gently prodded by moderator and Four Corners host Kerry O’Brien on “how did you personally feel” while reading The Daily Telegraph and The Australian each day through the campaign, Williams became less forthcoming.

“As a personal matter, I’ll probably keep it in the personal inbox,” Williams replied, to laughter from the crowd.

“I think you’ve answered the question,” O'Brien said. “I think if you had felt comfortable entirely you probably would have said something.” Williams simply smiled.

Elsewhere in his Q&A session with O’Brien, Williams spoke highly of Rupert Murdoch, describing him as more complex than the caricature many people saw; “at his best he is tremendously insightful and a remarkable human being”.

Williams again attacked the Gillard government and then Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s unsuccessful attempt to regulate the news media. And he connected that failed move with a broader denunciation of Australia’s regulatory culture, which he argued “is verging on out of control” and out of synch with an increasingly engaged public, armed with a universe of information and communication tools through the internet.

In a well-received and wide-ranging address, Williams spoke of the discipline he learnt through music and his work in the arts; how Australians don’t give or take criticism well (“I think it is a real national limitation”); and his optimism that big data could be “a force for good”.

He also confessed to being a recent convert to Twitter. Having told 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales he thought Twitter was “rubbish”, he said she had put him straight and that he is now a keen reader of tweets. (But before you start following @KimWilliams, it’s being used as a spam account; Williams doesn’t have a public profile yet.)

And he observed how some Australian commercial radio hosts – no names were mentioned, none were required – had been called to account by their listeners using social media. To paraphrase him, people are no longer prepared to be condescended to or treated like passive subjects of top-down authority – a lesson not just for the media, he argued, but for all institutions, public and private.

These are important observations, coming as they do from the man responsible for the restructuring of News in recent years. One hopes that future News Corp managers will share Williams’ pragmatism.

As for dishing the dirt on News Corp and what lay behind his sudden resignation - well, we’ll have to wait for the memoir.