The unfolding impact of the Murdoch media crisis

Sign of the times for Rupert Murdoch’s UK print media operations. AAP

Born and bred in the UK, I have spent my entire adult life in the company of News International newspapers.

And as a media scholar by profession, I have been critical of the Murdoch titles for decades – from the Sun’s Gotcha headline in 1982, which celebrated the sinking of the Belgrano and the deaths of hundreds of Argentine conscripts in the cold seas of the South Atlantic, to the same paper’s obscene defamation of the Hillsborough dead and Liverpool football fans, to News International’s relentless cheerleading for the Thatcher-era Tories as they dismantled the UK’s coal mining industry and engineered mass unemployment for an entire generation of the country’s young.

Like many of my compatriots, I perceived News International as the worst that journalism could be – politically biased beyond reason, and driven wholly by the desire to boost the proprietor’s private wealth; ethically flawed in its intrusive newsgathering; and morally hypocritical.

Murdoch’s papers gleefully served up topless teenagers on page 3, while the same papers ran witch hunts against alleged paedophiles who then turned out to be innocent victims of rumour and moral panic.

Seeing the other side

I softened in my attitude towards him and his empire in the post-Thatcher era, as he embraced New Labour and supported the Blair government (and yes, he did it for selfish reasons, and because his readers were heading that way, but he did it nonetheless, which was good for Britain).

The brutality of the Wapping move in 1986 did the British press a favour by liberating it from restrictive union practices and enabling a flowering of new titles such as The Independent. His company’s development of satellite TV in the UK revolutionised the sector, vastly increasing the range of services available, such as live football on tap.

Sky News in the UK was a pioneer in real time news delivery, and inspired BBC News 24. Fox News in the US was a different story, of course – and it will be no great loss to this observer if it goes down in the current scandal - but in the UK Sky News played by British public service rules, and added to the diversity and pluralism of the sector in ways which were genuinely beneficial. More recently, as the rise of the internet has challenged traditional news business models, Rupert Murdoch’s repeated declarations of the importance of investment in editorial and journalistic resource have been welcome.

Taking the good with the bad

I never stopped being aware of News International’s ethical flaws, of course. But then, if ten million copies of the Sun and the News Of The World were being bought as recently as the late 1990s, and double that number reading them voraciously for the latest sleazy scoop, who was I to take the moral high ground? In medieval times people clapped and cheered as their neighbours were burnt at the stake and gruesomely tortured as witches. Public hanging was a lively spectator sport until quite recently.

Tabloid journalism, I’ve always believed, can be viewed from a sociological perspective as its modern day equivalent, and an arguably less vicious alternative.

Many celebrities and public figures cultivated their media profiles, precisely to maximize their coverage (Diana being the best and most tragic example). Gordon Brown, while attacking News International for “criminal behavior on an industrial scale”, was himself no slouch in using the more ruthless and bullying tools of spin against his enemies.

So what if they had to take the bad with the good? That was the nature of a very lucrative celebrity culture. And if politicians left, right and centre, in government and in opposition, were tolerant of the company’s newsgathering practices while practicing the dark arts of spin for their own ends, what was the point of media academics beating their heads against a brick wall to make an issue of them?

Regime change?

So what changed at the beginning of July to bring the empire crashing down in such giddy, eye-popping fashion? We’ve seen nothing like it since the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union.

And nothing like it, ever, in the history of media barons. News Corp is like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – solid and impregnable for decades, apparently secure in its grip on power, until something gives and the empire is revealed to be built on nothing more than fear.

The prospect of a wholly News Corp-owned BSkyB was the key factor in shifting the balance of power in the UK. The takeover was opposed not just by the usual suspects on the British left – who on their own could have been safely ignored by the Murdochs - but by right wing media companies such as those that own titles like the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, and by a broad coalition of politicians and public figures.

Murdoch’s media competitors were worried about their long term profits if one company owned so much of print, online and TV, while the rest of us were concerned about the prospects of a “Foxification” of Sky News. Regular reports of the atrocities passing for broadcast journalism coming out of the mouths of such as Glenn Beck stoked up simmering anxieties about Murdoch’s capacity to abuse his power in the UK.

And so, when a four-year old phone-hacking story which had been widely ignored by the public, the political class, and the majority of the British media suddenly focused on violations of the privacy of murder victims and fallen servicemen – in themselves no more outrageous than the coverage of the Hillsborough dead in 1989, it seems to me - the conditions were in place for a long-delayed explosion of outrage and hand-wringing, even from those such as the current prime minister who had cheerily been drinking champagne with News Corp executives a week before.

The ongoing consequences for News Corp in the UK and the US are hugely damaging, possibly terminal. As this article was being finalised, News International CEO Rebekah Brooks was under arrest in London [Brooks has subsequently been bailed].

UK Labour leader Ed Miliband is now calling for News Corp to be stripped of its remaining 39% share of BSkyB in the UK, while the US dimension of the crisis – currently focused on the alleged hacking of the victims of 9/11 – looks set to run and run, with catastrophic legal and financial outcomes for the Murdochs.

Australia is not Britain

But what about Australia, where Rupert Murdoch started his career and launched his journey to global power? News Corp is Australia’s largest commercial media company, even more dominant here than overseas, with 70% of the print market.

In many Australian cities there is no competition to the News Ltd title. Will its Australian business be infected by the phone-hacking scandal? Senator Bob Brown and others have called for an inquiry into News Ltd’s newsgathering practices and a Labour prime minister has accepted that something of the kind could be appropriate.

News Ltd CEO, John Hartigan, rejected the need for an inquiry in an ABC interview with Leigh Sales last week, while agreeing to an internal review of all editorial expenditure during the past three years to “confirm that payments to contributors and other third parties were for legitimate services”.

He would say that, wouldn’t he, but those who argue that Australia isn’t Britain, and News Ltd isn’t News International, have a point. British press culture – tabloid and broadsheet - has always been and remains uniquely aggressive, uniquely intrusive.

Australia has a vigorous celebrity culture which is obsessively covered in its popular media, and there are certainly many issues to be addressed around the quality of Australian journalism, such as the state of current affairs on commercial TV.

Lindsay Tanner’s recent book makes some important points about the way in which the country’s media have made a game or “sideshow” of the democratic process. But phone-hacking the accounts of murder victims? Revealing the private medical details of senior politicians’ sick children? Surely not, although independent scrutiny of the company’s activities will be necessary to prove Hartigan’s protestations of innocence, given the propensity to cover up demonstrated by News Corp officers in London.

If there have been breaches of the law by any in the Australian media then let them answer in court, but I can see no evidence of the systematic, routinised violation of taste, decency and privacy law indulged in by the News Of The World and other UK titles for decades.

An opportunity for reform?

More important, though a separate issue from the phone-hacking scandal and its relevance to Australia, is the fact of News Ltd’s dominance of the media. News Ltd, controlling more than two thirds of press circulation, in addition to Sky News (and remember – it was precisely a concern about the combination of print and broadcast ownership which so alarmed the Brits and has brought News International to its knees) has for some time now functioned as a cheerleader for the Coalition, and a relentless campaigner against the government on issues such as the National Broadband Network and environmental policy.

Murdoch doesn’t like the idea of the NBN because it might limit his ability to make money in the future, and so his newspapers must swing into line, as they did on the global level with his views on intervention in Iraq (more than 140 titles supported the war. None opposed it).

What he has against carbon pricing isn’t clear, since whatever else he is Murdoch isn’t stupid, and in the west every capitalist worth his or her salt accepts the scientific evidence that man-made global warming is real and requires a response. Maybe having another stick to bash Labor with is deemed good enough reason to take a flat earth approach to the issue, and environmental concerns be damned.

But political bias, and having one’s editorial head stuck in the sand, are not the same thing as unethical or illegal behaviour. A free media is entirely consistent with political bias, as long as there is also diversity and pluralism of opinion. In Australia News Ltd has Fairfax as a major competitor, and a strong public service broadcaster in the ABC. We saw the value of that in Leigh Sales’ penetrating interview with John Hartigan last week, an example of watchdog journalism at its best.

Fairfax has been less effective in countering the News Ltd line, which makes the argument about bias and concentration of ownership more complex. It may be that The Australian is a better newspaper than The Age or SMH, and that the Murdochs are better at running newspapers than their rivals. Which is of course no reason to seek to limit News Ltd’s activities.

In Australia, no more than in Britain, the phone-hacking scandal and what it tells us about News Corp should not become an excuse to impose constraints on media freedom which might prevent legitimate scrutiny of power. Here, as in the UK, effective self-regulation in the context of strict adherence to the law is the key to healthy media, and a healthy political culture.

The Australian Press Council isn’t perfect, and may benefit from some scrutiny and even reform in the wake of the News International revelations, but there is no justification on the evidence so far for its replacement by some form of state regulation based on what some politicians think the media should or should not be doing.

If News Ltd or any other media company in Australia are found to have broken the law at any time in the recent past, by all means throw the book at them. But don’t use News Corp’s misfortunes overseas to seek to restrict media freedom in this country.

The ownership issue is another matter again. Australians may feel that if the Brits have lost patience with News International’s control of 40% of their press, and 39% of the satellite network BSkyB; and given that the US has even tighter restrictions on media ownership in place, that it’s time to look again at the rules governing the structure of the Australian media industry.