Future news

From London to Lowy - the Murdoch empire in the dock

AAP/Dan Himbrechts

As Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – former editors of the UK Sun and News of the World respectively – were taking their places in the dock of an English courtroom last week, Rupert Murdoch stood up to give the annual Lowy lecture.

While Murdoch’s former employees – and in Rebekah’s case, the employee became almost a daughter figure, whose welfare he declared to be his main priority at the height of the phone-hacking scandal - were defending themselves against charges of conspiracy and corruption on behalf of News Corp in the UK, he spoke about “egalitarian meritocracy” and the good old Aussie values of classlessness and the “fair shake” (of the sauce bottle, for the benefit of readers outside of Oz).

Interesting timing, which the more cynically-minded might well think intended to distract the attention of the Australian media from events 12,000 miles away in which as CEO of News Corp he is inevitably embroiled. As the Machiavellian protagonist of House of Cards would put it, I couldn’t possibly comment, though the coincidence is striking.

Motivation aside, Murdoch’s Lowy lecture was, like many public speeches he has given over the years, a fascinating insight into the duality of the man.

Reviled by many as a media baron of the worst kind, who for half a century has used his media properties to intimidate politicians and governments in all the markets where he is the dominant player, the lecture reflected with some enthusiasm on the “creative chaos” of the times in which we live, and the “disruption” caused to the Australian economy, and the media industries in particular, by the onset of the internet and digital technology. As he has done before, he welcomed as a “shot of adrenalin” the impact on his industry of technologies which have eroded the power of media proprietors and enhanced consumer sovereignty to an unprecedented degree.

Perhaps the most revolutionary disruption in the last decade has been the stunning growth of mobile communications. We take it for granted, but we now have access to knowledge almost anywhere in the world—instantly and at an affordable price. Now, each and every one of us can have our news and information when and where we want it.

The man whose UK tabloid newspapers are now forever associated with the very worst that journalism can be declared, as he has done before, his belief in and commitment to “quality”.

I have always been a firm believer in providing the public with choice and access to quality content—it was the driving force behind the launch of Sky, Fox News, and, particularly, The Australian.

I believe him, and in many of his outlets the quality of the journalism is beyond dispute. Rupert Murdoch believes in the power of journalism, not just to advance his own corporate and family interests, but to enhance the quality of the lives of his audiences. He invests in it – US$5 billion for the Wall Street Journal is a lot of belief - and has allowed loss making titles such as The Australian and the Sunday Times in the UK to continue operating despite share holder pressures on the bottom line.

He took great pride, as a journalist, in the red-top News Of The World, even as he closed it to limit the damage of the phone-hacking scandal when it broke in July 2011. Here is a man who has made his fortune from, and loves journalism, but appears to have cultivated - or at the very least allowed to grow and become established - a moral vacuum around the editorial practices of his most famous UK mastheads.

Which brings us to Brooks and Coulson, alleged to have had a six-year affair even as their newspapers attacked others for having affairs. They are not the only ones on trial at the Old Bailey for involvement in the illegal hacking of the phones of celebrities, members of the royal family, and ordinary citizens such as the murdered Milly Dowler. Three accused have already pleaded guilty to a conspiracy which is fiercely denied by those now in the dock.

But they are the stars of a show which is predicted to last for six months, in which the repercussions for News Corp, the British Conservative prime minister, and the Murdoch family themselves are potentially devastating. Conrad Black served time in a Florida prison for defrauding his shareholders. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that one Murdoch or another could find himself in court defending his role in the culture of conspiracy and corruption alleged to have been routine within News Corp’s UK tabloid newsrooms.

As for David Cameron, the British prime minister who, on the advice of close friend Rebekah Brooks, appointed Andy Coulson to be his media adviser, the allegations of an affair between the two former editors is only the start of what will be a gruelling test of his judgement and propriety. The internet rumour mill hints at a lot more of that salacious type to come.

That is all of less concern to Rupert Murdoch than the implications of the London trial for his US interests. Corruption of a public official is a serious corporate crime in the United States, and if this is proven beyond reasonable doubt to be what occurred at News International under Brooks’ and Coulson’s time as editors, whether or not the News Corp CEO (or James Murdoch, who ran News International for much of the period in question) are shown to have been complicit, legal action will follow in that country.

In his Lowy lecture Murdoch appealed to Australians not to allow the development of a culture of:

…lawyers running amok as they do in the American system. We cannot allow the rule of law to become the rule of lawyers!

Again, we see the curious duality of a man who since July 2011 has depended on the most expensive lawyers money can buy to keep his employees out of jail, his global business intact, and preserve what is left of his reputation amidst allegations that the rule of law was systematically violated in his beloved UK tabloids.

Well, the lawyers are certainly in charge now, prosecuting or defending those who were once his senior lieutenants. Upon their skills of argumentation and advocacy depends the future of News Corp itself, and of the Murdoch legacy.