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Rupert Murdoch: paragon or pariah?

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A recent SBS documentary on Rupert Murdoch has again raised serious concerns about him and his businesses’ morals, ethics and integrity. Paul Begley comments.

Rupert Murdoch (image courtesy Rex Interstock)
Rupert Murdoch (image courtesy Rex Interstock)

WHEN THE British actor Paul Eddington met Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, he was taken by her charm and grace, observing:

“…it was hard to believe that such an obviously wonderful woman could have bred the monster so many believed him (Rupert) to be.”

Dame Elisabeth was apparently proud of her son’s success, but didn’t entirely approve of how he made his money. According to one of his biographers, Thomas Kiernan, she told Rupert that he was besmirching the family name with

“…all these horrid papers you’re putting out”.

Under maternal influence of that magnitude, he purchased The Times and The Sunday Times, launched The Australian, and later purchased the Wall Street Journal — all proud titles at the opposite end of the market from low-end scandal sheets, such as News of the World and The Sun in Britain, the New York Post in the US, and the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun in Australia.

There is no doubt, though, that the money is in the tabloid rags, not the proud titles, bearing out the astuteness of H.L. Mencken’s reflection:

“No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

True or false, it’s often mused that The Australian has not turned a profit since its inception in 1964, despite employing during that time many of the finest journalists in the nation. Compared to the tabloids, not many people read The Australian, which boasts a readership at the higher end of the market consisting largely of those with a conservative leaning who are served a daily diet of government bashing when Labor is in power and adulation of government when the conservatives hold power. The exemplary coverage of the Haneef affair and the AWB scandal in The Australian by Hedley Thomas and Caroline Overington, respectively, are exceptions to the latter rule, though neither story landed a knockout punch to the Howard Government or any of its ministers.

A daily diet of the Melbourne tabloid formed my now departed mother’s world view during the last 50 years of her life. It was a world view dominated by problems that were simple to solve but didn’t get solved, not the least of which was the scourge of unmarried single mothers who chose to live the good life of luxury and indolence on a welfare pension. The solution was simple: stop having sex.

Lindy and Azaria Chamberlain.

Another problem was Lindy Chamberlain. The Herald Sun did a comprehensive job of planting the idea of that unfortunate woman’s guilt in my mother’s mind to the extent that she could never accept her acquittal and release from prison. Like the jury that put Lindy Chamberlain behind bars, my mother was not interested in the evidence heard in the court. It was enough that when her baby went missing Lindy wore nice clothes and didn't cry for the cameras. Those are the telling details that establish guilt, and the Herald Sun was there for its readers reporting between the lines the truth they would never get from official sources.

A similar case emerged in the UK in more recent times. A young girl called Madeleine McCann went missing in Portugal. It wasn't long before media outlets were insinuating that her parents had sold or done away with their daughter, and no amount of evidence to the contrary could put a stop to the innuendo. But the McCanns had an apparent friend in the News of the World which ran a campaign directed at finding Madeleine and put up a £200,000 reward for her safe return. Despite that seeming largesse, in 2008 the News of the World editor published extracts from a diary of Madeleine’s mother Kate that had been seized by Portuguese police and passed to a journalist, who sold it to the British paper for £20,000. It recorded Kate McCann’s most intimate thoughts as her “only way of communicating with Madeleine” at the time the diary was written. Needless to say, she felt violated at the publication of an intimately personal document that passed no public interest test.

While the effect of media behaviour such as this was not overtly political, it served a political purpose. If for no good reason the Murdoch papers could actively intrude upon the privacy of Kate and Gerry McCann, Jude Law, Max Mosley and hundreds of other citizens, what could it do to politicians, senior policeman, regulators and the judiciary? The fate that befell those high-profile victims of a seemingly invincible press served as a sobering lesson of the practical merits of subservience and acquiescence. If you were a police commissioner or the head of a regulatory body, it was less complicated to have a cosy lunch with the editor of The Sun or News of the World than do your job and generate an investigation into illegal news-gathering practices at the paper, of which by 2002 there was an abundance of emerging evidence.

The former Blair Minister, Tom Watson, provided living proof in case anyone was in doubt. As a British defence minister, Watson committed the unpardonable offence of standing up to Tony Blair on Iraq, a policy the Murdoch papers regarded as sacrosanct. The Murdoch editors made Watson pay by publishing malicious and damaging stories about his personal life that wrecked his career and his marriage. They also created a lasting and implacable enemy that finally proved costly. Watson was a leading figure on the House of Commons culture committee that called Rupert and James Murdoch before the parliament, and he set out in forensic detail the history of News Corporation and the corruption of British institutions in his 2012 book Dial M for Murdoch.



In the end, it will be enemies of that order that might bring the Murdoch hubris to heel. Once the ‘single rogue journalist' defence had crumbled, in order to maintain their distance from wrongdoing Rupert and James have been forced to lay the blame for criminal behaviour at the feet of increasingly senior editors and executives. There will be a price for that. A case in point was Colin Myler, the compliant editor who published the McCann diary. According to evidence Rupert gave to the Leveson Inquiry, Myler “would not have been my choice as editor of News of the World”. That type of remark hardly inspires the loyalty of former employees, of which there are now a great many.

By July 2011 the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, declared that the police investigations into illegal practices by newspaper reporters and private investigators five years earlier were “plainly inadequate” and that the Press Complaints Commission had failed to live up to its charter, and must be replaced by a credible regulator.

Cameron:

“The truth is … we have all been in this together: the press, the politicians of all parties — yes, including me. We have not gripped this issue … party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue, to get on top of bad practices, to change the way our newspapers are regulated. It is on my watch that the music has stopped.”

The music had been playing for many years. By 2006 Scotland Yard had amassed evidence that the royal family phones had been hacked along with a number of other well-known public figures, most of whom kept their heads down. Sienna Miller, Jude Law, Steve Coogan, Hugh Grant, Tom Watson and Max Mosley were among them, but unlike the police and regulators, they did not roll over and did not suffer quietly.

Despite police knowledge available to Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police Service of many cases of illegal hacking by journalists, private investigators and blaggers, a police note to the Crown Prosecution Service in 2006 requested that the case of News of the World’s royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire be ‘deliberately limited” to “less sensitive witnesses”.



That did not prevent the immediate arrest and conviction of Goodman and Mulcaire, who were labelled as singularly rogue elements in an otherwise unsullied British press, a defence that many journalists and police knew to be untrue. As one of those journalists, Goodman also knew that. Following his mandatory sacking, he demanded and received a six figure sum from News International to keep what he knew to himself. But that was not before he wrote a letter of complaint to News International containing damaging information which five years later found its way into the hands of the lawyers assisting Lord Justice Leveson.

The history of police inertia during the intervening years was a cause of acute embarrassment to the force when the lid blew following the Milly Dowler revelations, and led to the high-level resignations of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and his celebrity second-in-command John Yates, both of whom presided over investigations that were breathtaking in their lethargy and reluctance to look attentively at the evidence in the files they held. They were, as events unfolded, revealed to be under considerable pressure not to look.

At the same time, News International executives and editors maintained for five years the line of a single rogue reporter and continued destroying evidence that proved the contrary, until that defence was no longer sustainable.

In March this year, around 800 more cases of hacking victims came to light in the UK and more arrests of executives were made. In the US the parent company, News Corporation, split itself into two parts, an entertainment division consisting of the television and broadcasting arm and the troubled newspaper division. Although the action was taken for supposed business reasons, it seems clear it was taken to prevent perceived contamination of the lucrative Fox network from the emerging revelations of criminality in the newspaper division.

Although the share price has remained strong, there is apprehension within News Corp about criminal charges brought in Britain against a Ministry of Defence official, Bettina Jordan Barber, for allegedly receiving 100,000 pounds from Murdoch papers for information illegally supplied.



If that knowledge comes to the official attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission, as it surely will, the possibility of action under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act becomes more likely, and would be a threat to News Corp’s licences within the Fox network. Already the US Federal Communication Commission had before it a petition to refuse three licences up for renewal in August. The grounds stated are that the company does not possess the required character to operate a public service, echoing the British parliamentary committee finding that Mr Murdoch is not a ‘fit person’ to run an international corporation. This was rejected, but the decision leaves the door open for future action against Murdoch.

Increasingly, Rupert Murdoch is being viewed on both sides of the Atlantic as a pariah. Yet in Australia, he was recently the guest of honour at a dinner held by the Institute of Public Affairs at the National Gallery of Victoria, and lauded in the press as a courageous and virtuous spokesman in the cause of free speech.

At the same time, his newspapers continue to do a Lindy Chamberlain job on Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson, two parliamentarians whose lives have been destroyed by relentless front page splashes in the Murdoch newspapers, all done in the cause of bringing about regime change in Canberra, despite unproven allegations made against the two men.

One of the two, Peter Slipper, was exonerated in December last year of the most serious allegations by a Federal Court judge, a fact regarded as hardly newsworthy in the Australian media. The judge also made a damning judgement against the parties that were involved in the public relations campaign connected to the bringing of charges against Slipper. Despite that, the Australian Federal Police has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for inertia with respect to corruption implications arising from the judgement. A detailed request by a backbench Queensland parliamentarian setting out the basis for an AFP investigation has come to nothing.



Of the other man, Craig Thomson MP, early this year five members of the NSW Fraud Squad, accompanied by members of the Victorian police, raided his home and arrested him on a number of charges. The only parties that had been given notice of that eventuality were members of the press who were observed turning up at the appointed place from around 7am.

Without necessarily drawing untoward conclusions about motivation or unstated agendas, one might ponder why the police from two states would conduct a showcase public arrest with orchestrated media fanfare and attended by numbers of officers for the arrest of a man who was demonstrably not a fugitive from justice, nor likely to be. Among the questions prompted by that public relations performance are who knew what in advance and who was leading whom.

If senior members of the Australian police forces are not familiar with the mounting evidence of criminality within News International and the corruption of the British police, regulatory authorities and other government agencies, as presented to the House of Commons parliamentary committee and Lord Justice Leveson in 2012, it could be in their interests to set themselves some required reading.



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