From the top down, News Corporation is an organisation without a clear ethical framework, says managing editor David Donovan.
Any claims of the moral superiority of News Corporation publications in Australia in comparison to the firm's British publications have been further eroded by revelations made in Victoria’s Magistrate Court yesterday.
The setting was a case against Victorian Police officer Simon Justin Artz, who is accused of leaking information to The Australian journalist Cameron Stewart about a sensitive Australian Federal Police operation against a terrorist cell in Melbourne. Controversially, the newspaper published details of the raids on Melbourne homes last year hours before they were carried out, putting the entire operation – and officers' lives – in jeopardy.
The ethical vacuum at the heart of News Corporation was revealed when Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus revealed in court that he all but pleaded with then The Australian editor Paul Whittaker (now editor of Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper) to not publish details of the raids.
Mr Negus says he told Mr Whittaker that if The Australian published its planned story, the targets of its operation, believed to have links to Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, could ''go to the nearest shopping centre and decide to take action''.
According to a statement tendered to the Melbourne Magistrates Court yesterday, the conversation went as follows:
Mr Negus: ''Look, I am formally requesting you from the AFP, Victoria Police and ASIO not to go ahead with this story. People's lives are at risk if you publish this story tomorrow.''
Mr Whittaker: ''Well, how many lives are at risk?''
Mr Negus: ''Well, if these people are aware of police interest, they may well not go for their intended site … Publishing the article will put public safety at risk!''
Mr Whittaker: ''Well, what are we talking about? One person being killed, or … a number of people being killed?''
The Police Commissioner said he found Whittaker’s question “reprehensible”.
Of course, in Britain, News Corp's subsidiary News International, has been found to have been aware of its employees illegally hacking into a vast number of phones, notably including the cell phone of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler — even deleting messages while the police search for the girl continued, thereby callously providing Millie's family with false hope that the child still remained alive. This was merely one of a plethora of immoral and illegal activities the company has been found to have engaged in.
In Australia, there is an attitude that this sort of thing could not happen in Australia — that the competition in this country is not so fierce as in the UK, therefore the pressure to engage in unethical sorts of practices isn't present. In recent months, decrying the need for a media inquiry, we have seen a procession of paid News Limited hacks, even including its Australian CEO John Hartigan, obviously under instruction, unconvincingly making this basic argument in a range of different ways. The testimony of Tony Negus, however, reveals this to be a convenient untruth.
Moreover, the activities of the The Australian's Melbourne stablemate, the Herald Sun, in revealing facts leaked from the Victorian Police that made it blatantly obvious that gaoled gangland boss Carl Williams had become a paid police informant, and which then directly led to his murder by a disgruntled inmate, is another example of a Corporation quite willing to gamble with people’s lives in the pursuit of a story. And there is more information to come about the cosy relationship between News Corporation and certain elements within the constabulary in Victoria, something News Corporation was also damned for in Britain. The vicious and unprincipled way News Corporation went after Victorian Police Commisioner Christine Nixon, and her successor Simon Overland, should also leave any casual observer with strong concerns about the ethical standards of this organisation.
Former Herald Sun editor Bruce Guthrie won a famous unfair dismissal case in April last year against the News Corporation subsidiary the Herald and Weekly Times, eventually writing a book about the experience: Man bites Murdoch. Interestingly, in the weeks before the case was heard, his house was broken into and robbed.
“…my son and I returned home … to find the study in disarray. My laptop computer was gone and papers were strewn over the floor. In the family room at the rear of the home I found broken glass scattered across the floor. The thief, wearing gloves, had smashed a window to gain entry. As we checked the rooms we quickly did a count: he had taken five laptops in all, including one or two that were unlikely to be worth much in any pawn shop or public bar. And that, save for a couple of watches and a couple of iPods, was it. Curiously, the burglar had left behind money and jewellery.”
And though commentators seem eager to allege that no phone hacking could possibly occur in Australia, it is interesting to note that this former Australian News Limited insider expressed the following concerns about his own phone security in the lead up to the case:
“We changed the way we went about our daily lives, refusing to discuss any legal matters on our home or mobile phones. Instead we used a third dedicated line. Any significant discussions with our lawyer we had face to face.”
In his book, Guthrie reveals a corporate culture, spread across the entire global organisation, where the discussion and observation of ethics was even directly frowned upon from up high. Guthrie recalls an incident at a global News Corporation conference in the glitzy North American ski resort of Aspen in 1992, in which he earned the ire of none other than the proprietor himself after questioning the ethical framework of one of Murdoch’s favourite, yet infamous, British redtops, The Sun.
On the Sunday of the conference writes Guthrie, first to speak was Tom Petrie, the longstanding news editor of The Sun in London. Guthrie quotes Petrie as saying:
“We don’t report the news, we make it.”
Guthrie describes Petrie's speech as follows:
“His presentation was wildly entertaining with its stories of chequebook journalism, general skulduggery and, ultimately, ‘heavy lifting’ of rival paper’s stories if they were unable to match them. For anyone who took journalism seriously, it was appalling.”
After Petrie’s 30 minute presentation, Murdoch asked for questions from the floor and Guthrie says he
“…decided to wade into this morass of Sun exaggeration, invention and character assassination…I slowly raised my hand… ‘Tom,’ I said. ‘Do you have any ethical framework at all at the London Sun' … I might have well have asked about our hosts sexual proclivities. The place simply erupted.”
Excruciatingly for Guthrie, the noise was such that Petrie missed the question, necessitating Guthrie having to repeat it — three times. Guthrie says that Murdoch turned red when he first asked the question and then blue when he repeated it. Eventually, Petrie replied thoughtfully that The Sun had no ethical framework at all.
“To my horror, Murdoch himself weighed in at this point, in a voice clearly designed to warn off other attendees stupid enough to continue this line of questioning. ‘I would have thought it’s news if the captain of the English cricket team is taking barmaids up to his room the night before a Test match.’
Guthrie was to later learn that Murdoch soon after expressed his displeasure about the question to then News Corporation CEO Ken Cowley, saying
“I see we have a Fairfax wanker in our midst.”
Guthrie wrote about the incident later in the Fairfax press:
"I left that conference more than 20 years ago concerned that Murdoch saw ethics, or at least the discussion of them, as an inconvenience that got in the way of newspaper business. If that really is the case, should we be entirely surprised that the phone hacking scandal played out at one of his titles and that it ended in its forced closure?"
A commitment to ethics permeates from the top down throughout an organisation — there is clearly no such commitment at the top of News Corporation. Therefore, it follows that practices occurring in one part of this global organisation are more than likely present in other parts — they simply may not yet be apparent to the casual observer. Australia desperately needs a comprehensive media inquiry — with teeth, ready to delve deeply into the Australian media landscape searching for the unpleasant truths we have every reason to suspect it will find.