Media Talk: Time for a new media paradigm?
The closure of News Corporation's News of the World British tabloid following public outcry over revelations that the paper hacked into the phone messages of murdered teenage girl Milly Downer gives us reason to consider media morality, Murdoch's mortality and human nature.
Journalist and author of The Zurich Axioms Max Gunther once said, "When you're [in] a tug-of-war with a tiger, give him the rope before he gets to your arm. You can always buy a new rope!" Murdoch is a tiger, and it's to the shame of the British parliament and British media regulatory bodies that his claws have given him so much rope. It appears modern man fears media more than God.
Murdoch's extensive News Corporation asset portfolio currently includes The Australian, The Courier Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The New York Post, The Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harper Collins books, Fox, Foxtel, NRL, News Digital Media, the recently acquired Elizabeth Murdoch founded Shine Group and the Kidspot portal, and likely will soon also include full ownership of the British pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB, which saw its share price plummet on Friday in light of the NoW news.
It's very unlikely that the fall of NoW will derail the whole $60 billion operation, though many would celebrate the end of the Murdoch Empire, whose boarders breach the US, UK and Australia, such as NewsCorpse.com, the website dedicated to chronicling the organisation's decay from within. In ‘Murdoch scandal a symptom of broader sickness’ for the Fairfax press, former News Limited editor and author of Man Bites Murdoch, Bruce Guthrie writes:
“Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch has cut off an arm of his British operation in order to save what remains. There are many, though, who suspect it won't be enough. For there is mounting evidence the problem isn't confined to a limb; it infects the entire body of his company.”
But the closure does give the company and its entities the opportunity to set a new path and even strengthen itself with a vision for future operations less reliant on tabloid terrorism, more on quality journalism, a sentiment which has been seized upon by News Limited’s Australian CEO John Hartigan, whose letter to staff was published in The Weekend Australian.
“The behaviour that has been uncovered at the News Of The World is an affront to all of us who value the integrity and credibility of good journalism, the reputation of the company and our own reputations as professionals,” he wrote, distancing the broadsheet from its tabloid adversary, the new black sheep of the News Corp family (previously, MySpace had that honour).
“Phone hacking is the antithesis of everything we stand for. It is a terrible slur on our craft… Regrettably, a line has been crossed and it’s important at times like this that if we care about the power, value and relevance of responsible journalism then we must express in the strongest terms our distress and dismay at such a breach of faith.”
In light of this, and its significant worldwide influence, News Corp has the potential to set a new media paradigm, which begs the question: is it possible for profit-seeking big business to have a moral agenda?
It seems ironic that News Corporation's 2009/10 financial year profits (a cool $US2.5 billion) were buffeted by Avatar, a movie with a message about human interference on the environment at its core that took off where Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth left us in 2006 and feeds into current Australian debate about carbon tax, a vexed issue itself within the Murdoch world (James Murdoch's wife Kathryn is on the Climate Change train, as is Murdoch's mother, Dame Elisabeth, according to Neil Chenoweth, reporting for The Australian Financial Review).
It’s an inconvenient truth that a nation’s morality might be based on the Murdoch press.
“The media is no doubt the most influential agent in forming the opinions of Australians on the morality of issues such as detaining asylum seekers or imposing a price on carbon,” writes Michael Mullins in ‘Rupert Murdoch as moral arbiter’ for Eureka Street. “We may not be conscious of the fact that we take our moral cues from the media, and that media proprietors are the most powerful moral arbiters in western society. But if Murdoch has the largest share of media ownership, he is the dominant influence on our choice of right and wrong.”
The Australian-born media mogul turned 80 this year, meaning his time left on earth is evermore finite, and a succession plan is in the works. While his oldest son Lachlan is currently overseeing cost-cutting at Network Ten, his younger brother James, who was promoted earlier this year to News Corp’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer and is overseeing the BSkyB acquisition, would seem the likely candidate to step into Murdoch senior’s role, though the NoW scandal may soil his suit (if he isn't stabbed in the proverbial back before that).
While Murdoch and his next of kin have fed finance into charitable organisations, with Elizabeth particularly active on the patronage front, investing dollars into hospitals, the arts and community projects, Portfolio magazine noted in 2008 that Murdoch himself ranked last in its ‘Generosity Index’ listing of 50 wealthy magnates. His empire has been largely built on the power of lowest common denominator journalism, more particularly on Fleet Street. News of the World specialised in scandal, smut and celebrity (notably, its inserted magazine, Fabulous, will live on in The Sun).
“They are produced on a vast scale and are ferociously competitive, as if every Australian newspaper were housed in the one city and forced to fight like cats in a sack for each story,” wrote former Guardian journalist Stephen Brook, current media editor for The Australian in 'Tabloid Hacked Itself to Death'.
“Chequebook journalism is rife among the tabloids and information is tainted as a result. In Australia, dubious looks are cast in the direction of women's magazines such as Woman's Day and New Idea, or at the commercial current affairs programs such as A Current Affair or Today Tonight. But the News of the World, The Sun or even the more upmarket Daily Mail would eat the Aussies for lunch.”
These journalism practises are not exclusive to News Corporation and clearly attract a sizeable readership, which is an affront to those practising quality journalism believing their work has the ability to affect the status quo for the better. In the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in a car crash in 1997, there was vigorous public debate about the ethics of the gossip media and tabloid press, which were named and shamed as a significant accessory in the premature demise of the People’s Princess.
While some British celebrities have used the muscle of the Law to protect themselves from being the fodder for the press’s daily exploits, 14 years after Diana’s death, it has mostly been business as usual. Left to fester, the worst of human traits can be exploited for profit, and without disciplined personal discernment, nor tough-toothed regulation or noble leadership, everyone’s in on the act. As Derryn Hinch, the "human headline" would say, "shame, shame, shame".
But are well all really to blame? I think not. With power comes privilege.
King David – a great military strategist – and his son Solomon provide a Biblical case study for the hypothetical future of News Corp. Two formidable men out for God’s heart, who conquered nations to bring the Kingdom of Israel to a world power comparable to Assyria and Egypt, they were known for their sense of justice, judgement and wisdom.
David was an imperfect man who had several marriages and was guilty of murder and adultery, though when his sin was brought to light, he humbled himself and repented with the view to saving his people, Jerusalem, from the consequences of his own sin. He was instructed by God to prepare materials for a temple to be built in His name, but was not fit for the task of construction. In 1 Chronicles 22, we see David commission his son with the work.
"My son, I had it in my heart to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me upon the earth. Behold, a son shall be born to you; he shall be a man of peace. I will give him peace from all his enemies round about; for his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. He shall build a house for my name. He shall be my son, and I will be his father, and I will establish his royal throne in Israel for ever.’
Now, my son, the LORD be with you, so that you may succeed in building the house of the LORD your God, as he has spoken concerning you. Only, may the LORD grant you discretion and understanding, that when he gives you charge over Israel you may keep the law of the LORD your God. Then you will prosper if you are careful to observe the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD commanded Moses for Israel. Be strong, and of good courage. Fear not; be not dismayed. With great pains I have provided for the house of the LORD a hundred thousand talents of gold, a million talents of silver, and bronze and iron beyond weighing, for there is so much of it; timber and stone too I have provided. To these you must add. You have an abundance of workmen: stone cutters, masons, carpenters, and all kinds of craftsmen without number, skilled in working gold, silver, bronze, and iron. Arise and be doing! The LORD be with you!"
God gave Solomon great favour but also showed him how his rebellion and sin would ultimately turn against him, which David alluded to before his death. "And thou, Solomon my son, know thou the God of thy father, and serve him with a perfect heart and with a willing mind: for the LORD searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts: if thou seek him, he will be found of thee; but if thou forsake him, he will cast thee off for ever." (1 Chronicles 28:9)
The question now is what legacy Rupert Murdoch wishes to pass over to his son.
Scandal threatens inheritance of son James @ The Age
Murdoch flies into hacking storm in the UK @ The Age
A company is made in its owner's image @ SMH
Wrong red-top goes @ SMH
Stint at News of the World was exciting but not good for resume @ The Australian
Feuds that shaped family Murdoch @ Business Spectator
More revelations to come for News of the World: Brooks @ The Australian
Long history of sex, crimes and celebrity sting ends @ The Australian
Advertising exodus was the end of the World @ The Australian
Girl With a Satchel