Media Opinion

News Corp has no shame in having no standards

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Rupert Murdoch has learnt nothing since the Leveson Inquiry that shut down one of his publications (Caricature by DonkeyHotey | Flickr)

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp relies on underhand news-gathering practices that present a lack of journalistic integrity, writes Paul Begley.

IT IS widely acknowledged that if you have to choose between a stuff-up or a conspiracy, a stuff-up is more likely.

For the sake of argument, indulge for a moment in this conspiratorial speculation: an anonymous rogue juror who was paid to blow up the 2022 criminal rape trial of Bruce Lehrmann when it wasn’t looking too flash for Bruce, is now on the same payroll to blow up Bruce’s civil case by “secretly” playing the role of an anonymous private citizen who happens to see three people talking at a noisy bar. He decides to record their conversation and gives the recording to a partisan Sky News Australia reporter.

And goodness gracious! The three people just happen to be the fiancé, the lawyer and a close friend of the woman who accused our Bruce.

While you’re wondering just how fanciful that speculation is, you might flash back to 2012 in Britain where Lord Justice Brian Leveson had been conducting an inquiry into certain people of notoriety whose phones had all been illegally hacked, with the contents finding their way onto the front pages of News of the World and The Sun, both massive circulation papers published by Murdoch’s News International.

Rupert and James Murdoch appeared red-faced before Lord Leveson, having initially argued that a solitary rogue royal reporter, Clive Goodman, had paid hackers to get material for his stories and was the problem. It then emerged that the illegal practices were widespread, systemic and endorsed at the highest levels. Resignations of editors, senior executives and their enablers in the police force followed, with convictions in the courts that resulted in career-ending custodial sentences.

Although a House of Commons Committee found Rupert Murdoch unfit to run an international company in Britain, similar underhand news-gathering practices persisted. Murdoch’s Fox News in the U.S. has since become the most prominent supporter of the lies and criminality of Donald Trump that assisted in getting him elected, defending two serious impeachments, and backed his false assertions that he actually won the 2020 Election.

In Australia, Murdoch’s capital city tabloid newspapers, his national broadsheet and Sky News have persisted in news-gathering practices for many years that amount to his media outlets being accuser, judge and executioner.

Perhaps the most startling case was the invention of a 2012 smear about Australia’s Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, Peter Slipper. Despite Slipper being the most knowledgeable and punctilious observer of House rules, the smear involved him in an alleged misuse of a travel voucher to purchase wine, together with a scurrilous sexual allegation involving his media adviser, one James Ashby.

Complicated by Slipper being a former Liberal Party member in a minority Labor Government and the Australian Federal Police leaking unrelated text messages that diminished his credit, the Murdoch inventions directly contributed to the fall of the Gillard Government. In the wash-up, Ashby withdrew his sexual allegations and the courts cleared Slipper of all matters to do with his travel and wine purchases.

Many Australians do not know that because there was no equivalent reporting in the Murdoch papers or anywhere else about Slipper having no case to answer.

Fast forward to 12 December 2023, with Channel Ten producer Angus Llewellyn in the Federal Court witness box being grilled by cross-examining counsel acting for Lehrmann. The producer was attempting to explain the exhaustive checks that he and his team had undertaken to verify the reliability of his key source for the story that ran on The Project in February 2021 about Brittany Higgins’ allegation of being raped in Parliament.

Despite Llewellyn checking a great deal of material and cross-checking with other sources, in addition to taking a statutory declaration from Ms Higgins, counsel made a meal of the fact that he did not demand to see the metadata that could have provided extra verification of a photograph that was used in the story.

Counsel was entirely within his rights to ask questions of Llewellyn that pursued the probity of his investigative practices before airing a story with significant national consequences. In newsrooms, in-house media gatekeepers had a similar role in making sure that stories going to air were built on sound foundations.

By contrast, on the same day, 12 December 2023, a story ran on Murdoch’s Sky News that touched on significant issues relating to potentially serious matters of integrity in the administration of justice. The source of the story was supposedly a private citizen who had by chance illegally recorded a conversation “secretly” of three people conversing at a noisy bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel, who by chance happened to have been David Sharaz (the fiancé), the lawyer, and a friend of Brittany Higgins.

There appeared to have been no checks done on the unnamed source of the story, nor was it clear what motivated the private citizen to turn the story over to Sharri Markson, having discovered who she was and how to contact her. That is unless the source did not need to take any of those steps because the source was known to Markson and possibly even motivated by payment for having provided the service.

Without suggesting that Markson was actually involved in such an exercise, questions remain open as to how and why the story managed to get by the Sky News gatekeepers, assuming that such a function exists within that news outlet.

Regardless of the slapdash standards applied at Sky, once the story had been published by the dominant News Corp publications across Australia, the gatekeepers in the other mainstream media outlets had little choice on whether to publish the story themselves or be seen to be out of the news loop.

The hook of the story turned on the chance that the recorded conversation could have resulted in Mr Sharaz going home to Ms Higgins and inappropriately coaching her on advice passed on from her lawyer. The story does not take the extra step of saying that is what happened because there is no way of knowing whether it did or not.

During the course of the trial, the presiding Justice Michael Lee has gone out of his way to tell witnesses under cross-examination that they are to speak to no one about their evidence during breaks, including overnight breaks for some witnesses. An honour system clearly prevails, though witnesses know they could be asked under oath whether they had discussed their evidence during a break. It does not mean they are barred from talking to people but that they are barred from talking to people about their evidence. They can ask for more milk in their coffee, but not ask how they are coming across on the witness stand.

Unsurprisingly, Murdoch’s Sky News Australia appears to have revived the news-gathering and publication standards that prevailed during the Leveson Inquiry 12 years ago, leading to the closure of News of the World and Rupert Murdoch admitting to MPs in the House of Commons on 19 July 2011 that “this is the most humble day of my life”.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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