Eminently Despicable

The first time I had to consider what it might be like to work for Rupert Murdoch was when I was in high school. My parents made friends with somebody who worked in newspapers for years and he was so kind as to invite our family over for lunch and regaled some interesting stories about the time he was a strapping young journalist and a young Rupert Murdoch turned up as the owner of the paper. According to the old journalist, Rupert was certain there was only the three ‘esses’ that could sell newspapers and they were Sex, Scandal and Sensation. When you think about it, one leads to the other and it’s exactly the kind of bundle that Rupert Murdoch’s muck-raking rags have long made an institution thereof. It seemed like a very cut-and-dry proposition, even for a kid like me – if a little vulgar. But you could see that that could be a style that worked with a vulgar public of which we could all count upon.

The second time I seriously had to consider Rupert Murdoch’s style in the mid-90s when I popped over to Hong Kong for a short contract working for Star TV Japan. That too was an interesting business because once you’re inside the Murdoch machine, you really do feel the cut-throat corporate culture of Murdoch’s companies, right up against your nose. At the time it was a little contentious because I might have stayed on had they offered the contract with the terms I wanted, but at that point in history they were making a point of not handing out ex-pat deals, and so our negotiations hit the rocks pretty quickly. I was told they would play hardball, and I figured there was no point being polite about it, so in the end I flew back.

The third time I came across the Murdoch corporate culture was when I was working on a music project with an elaborate proposal and a business plan which ended up being presented to people in Lachlan Murdoch’s orbit. It went nowhere as more and people attempted to pee in the same pot. Again, we came up against some hard-ball style negotiations and this time I sat back and watched as my colleagues wilted under the withering pressure. And I recognised the style from when I dealt with Star TV Japan.

All this is to say that even if you’re just drifting along in the world, you can run into a lot of Murdoch enterprises and they’re invariably crass, vulgar and promote a kind of idiotic dualism which makes you wonder if they are twisted Manicheans. What’s really amazing is that nobody seems to tell Rupert how stupid this is and how he and his press organs are contributing the significant dumbing down of the public. But even if you could mention it, it would appear he would hardly listen, after all why should a man as powerful like Rupert Murdoch suffer such contrary opinions? What’s infuriating is that because his papers spread fear and ignorance like black rats bringing the Bubonic plague, it finds converts everywhere, writing in ill-informed  comments on newspaper sites, arguing arcane right-wing paranoia shit.

Anyway, here’s something in ‘The Economist’ which is interesting in the light of the recent developments.

One of the distinguishing features of News Corporation is aggression. The firm combines the heft of a big company with the scrappiness of a start-up. Even more than at other media firms, executives sometimes seem inspired by Machiavelli—or Richard III. Competitors are to be crushed. Executives in other companies that take an opposite view on strategic questions are idiots. In 2009 the usually cerebral James Murdoch launched a scathing attack on the BBC, whose size and zeal for expansion into new areas he described as “chilling”.

This take-no-prisoners approach makes the company extremely bold. It was News Corporation that broached the possibility of releasing films early on pay-television—a move that still enrages cinema owners. Together with the Financial Times (part-owner of this newspaper) it has led the charge to demand money for newspapers on the web. In America the firm drives a particularly hard bargain over payments from cable and satellite carriers for its broadcast network. BSkyB is a similarly brutal negotiator.

Unfortunately, this attitude earns the company enemies as well as revenues. Over the years News Corporation has offended governments and regulators. Its aggression and sheer size terrify rival media firms. In October 2010 the BBC and the owners of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and the Guardian newspapers signed a letter opposing its bid to take complete control of BSkyB, in which it now has a 39% stake. Part of the reason News Corporation has handled the phone-hacking crisis so badly is that it tends to view hostile reporting as motivated by rivalry.

As the company braces for further embarrassment and disruption, it will also have to work out a future without BSkyB. Public and political opinion have become so hostile that the government may refuse to sign off on any attempt to renew the bid, even at the risk of a judicial review. This makes the transition News Corporation wants to make to a new, eventually post-Rupert world a lot harder.

You’d hate to be a News Corporation shareholder right now. The other part of the business, the newspapers themselves might be in for some stick too.

Frankly, Murdoch’s political leverage has been spent. The era of media moguls bullying politicians is finished. It went down the plughole from the moment the Milly Dowler story broke and it has diminished further with each passing day. News Corp’s leverage will be completely shot in the US if it is discovered its employees or agents have hacked the phones of the families of September 11 victims. The Justice Department has been asked by members of Congress to investigate that issue.

If the capacity to hold politicians to ransom is critically injured, what is the point of continuing to own newspapers that do not return a profit? That is the question which in the days and weeks ahead will open up some deep divisions in the upper reaches of the News Corp estate.

There are other possible violations to be weighed. If a subsidiary in London made illegal payments to police officers, that is a breach of US law.

This story is unravelling so fast that it’s impossible to predict all the ramifications. Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who has done so much to crack open this scandal, says Murdoch has lost control of the outcome. It now has a life of its own and to a very large extent markets, not oligarchs, will determine what happens.

What has risen so quickly to the surface is the deep dislike and resentment of Murdoch on the part of the political establishment. For years they had to fawn all over him, now they’re pleased as Punch to be kicking him all the way down.

We can well imagine there would be much joy amongst the ranks of politicians. Somebody was describing somewhere – I can’t find it now – that the British Parliament resembled a populace freed from tyranny once they realised they all hated the tyrant.

Paul Keating Says…

This one came in from Pleiades. It’s a transcript of an interview with Paul Keating from Lateline on the 14th. It has several interesting portions on it covering Julia Gillard and the Carbon Pricing reforms, but while we’re on the topic of Murdoch, he had this to say:

PAUL KEATING: Well there’s one thing that’s clear for sure comes out of this and that is self-regulation by the media is a joke. A joke. You know, I notice tonight John Hartigan talking about the Press Council of Australia. I mean, people shouldn’t have a right to appeal about invasions of their privacy to some body funded by newspapers; they should have a right at law.

What we need, what we seriously need, which has been now recommended by the Commonwealth Law Reform Commission, the Victorian Law Reform Commission and the New South Wales Law Reform Commission is a separate right-of-action in privacy, a separate tort.

So in other words, you don’t have a right of appeal to some body, you have a right to action, you have a right to the law. In the end, the only regulator of this bad behaviour is the law. And, this episode in Britain …

TONY JONES: Well there’s certainly no right to privacy in the law in Australia at this time. And in actual fact, at a broader level, it’s sometimes said that privacy will be one of the great issues of our time, because of the internet, because of Facebook, Twitter, etc., etc. But it doesn’t seem that there’s any chance at the moment you’re going to get a consensus on this. Could the Murdoch issue reflect into this debate in Australia?

PAUL KEATING: Well, I mean, Minister Conroy’s now sitting on the Commonwealth Law Reform Commission report. Very reasonable recommendations. It basically says if you had a reasonable right to privacy and there are no public issues involved and they are infringed, you have a right of action at law.

For instance, those people in London who News International or the News of the World was asking the police to finger by their movements off their mobile telephone, those people had a reasonable right to believe that their free movement through London was their own affair, that they weren’t to be tracked by the police via the telephone system for the benefit of a newspaper.

TONY JONES: But do you believe this sort of thing only happens in Britain? I mean, could it also have happened in Australia?

PAUL KEATING: It could have happened in Australia. In fact, your chief executive officer made the very same point in a speech a year or so ago. He – I brought the quotation in, which is a point.

He said that – Mark Scott, “With digital surveillance, location tracking and genetic tracing becoming commonplace, there’s a very firm case for the law to allow people to protect their privacy.” Correct. Correct.

TONY JONES: Let’s talk about the politics of this with the time we’ve got left. Do you think Murdoch’s News Limited is effectively at war with the Gillard Government?

PAUL KEATING: I think it’s beyond doubt. I mean, when the Daily Telegraph yesterday is saying, “Let’s have a national election,” why do we need a national election? We have an operating – a clear operating majority in the House of Representatives, it’s a stable majority, the business of the Government is reasonable business, that is the controversial matter is putting a price on carbon.

There is a consensus, it seems, in both Houses of Parliament for it. Why should there be an early election, other than the editors of that newspaper believing that were there to be an early election, the existing government would be defeated.

So this is why ministers are saying News Corporation is after – or News Limited is after regime change. You know, I think, you know, how can you read it any other way?

So there you have it. In a nutshell, our privacy could be law, but Stephen Conroy is just sitting on the report not doing anything. I’m sure Stephen Conroy’s ears were stinging when he got a wind of that one. Anyway, it’s also quaint to note that Paul Keating knows exactly what’s going on over at News Corporation – they’re after a ‘regime change’. He always had a way with words.

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