Rupert Murdoch: Power without Responsibility

The big bad wolf of news media is in trouble again

Once again Rupert Murdoch, the villain of the global media world, makes the headlines for the wrong reasons with the emergence of a secret recording of comments he made during an internal meeting with Sun journalists.  In the recording Murdoch indicates the practice of paying police officers for stories was one ‘inherited rather than instigated’ , which appears to be a shoulder shrugging way of brushing off all responsibility by saying – well I didn’t start it did I? How can the man who owns 70% of the Australian press, 40% of the shares in his company News International, and 40% of the British media so easily absolve himself of responsibility for the current state of the UK press?

Murdoch argues he has made a ‘democracy of the marketplace’ by  breaking the power of the print unions, encouraging Thatcher’s 1980s privatisation laws and unchaining British journalism from autonomous state control. Continuing in this vein Murdoch claims to have cured the ‘British disease’ of the establishment and passed journalism into the hands of the people by providing the consuming public with the salacious stories they want to read rather than those other people believe they should read.  He has a point as even post phone-hacking the British public continues to choose the Sun as its most popular national newspaper and Murdoch ‘stands for election everyday’ in his own words as the decision to purchase any one of his newspapers is a personal choice and not an obligation.

However, journalism is a service with an end goal of an informed public, working to protect ‘the ideals of a transparent government and an informed society as necessary conditions of democracy’. With this is mind, the failures of the Murdoch empire and the British politicians of late are clear. Carl Bernstein talks of how ‘in place of this journalistic ideal, the enduing Murdoch elite substitutes gossip, sensationalism and manufactured controversy’, which has resulted in an uninformed and dumbed down public. Charlie Beckett, Director of LSE think-tank Polis, states that ‘media is not like any other business, it has a social and constitutional role’ and must therefore be driven by more than purely commercial imperatives, such as ethics and a degree of morality. Journalism is a profession that grants rights in exchange for responsibilities and holds up ideals with a sense they will be worked towards rather than against.

Yet Rupert Murdoch has always known what he has been against, in viewing the British establishment with contempt since his first newspaper acquisition in the UK, the News of the World, in 1969. Murdoch’s contempt for British institutions has pervaded all his papers and is evident in the editors he has appointed. He memorably sacked editor of the Sun Larry Lamb for accepting a knighthood from Margaret Thatcher and has campaigned against the honours list ever since. Here we see a ruthless and aggressive business mind employing an institutional culture that takes no prisoners as public figures have been threatened with character assassinations in the media in return for non-cooperation with the Murdoch agenda. The Observer newspaper editorial dated 28 April 2012 notes that ‘in such a culture, trying to implement an ethical code would be like preaching celibacy to a brothel’ as Murdoch appears to have earned his name as the ‘dirty digger’.

This name was attributed to Murdoch back in 1968 after his purchase of the News of the World as the first big story was run on the memoirs of Christine Keeler to the fury of the liberal establishment. Murdoch established the paper as anti-establishment with a sensationalist twist, although his personal roots are a different story altogether. Rupert Murdoch is the son of the late Sir Keith Murdoch and from a wealthy Australian aristocratic family, enjoying a somewhat privileged upbringing himself and inheriting the Adelaide Evening News Australian newspaper from his father. Surely in taking on the family newspaper Murdoch realised long ago that power goes hand in hand with responsibility?

The lack of responsibility amongst senior management that the phone hacking saga revealed at News International may cost Rupert Murdoch a fair slice of that global commercial, social and political power. Splitting News Corporation in two was a task forced upon him by impatient investors and ambitious executives who seized on his moment of weakness. Murdoch has also been forced the drop his bid to regain the full ownership of BskyB and will almost certainly be unable to appoint James Murdoch as his favoured successor, following his involvement in the phone hacking scandal. British politicians previously rolling out the red carpet for the media mogul have instead cast him a cold shoulder as have the public in the wake of the news that his newspaper had hacked into the mobile phone of a murdered 13 year old British school girl.

Only time will tell whether the current corporate detox campaign News International are undertaking will enable Rupert Murdoch and his media empire to sever the links with a toxic past. In the meantime Murdoch might be wise to reconsider the banner greeting visitors at his Wapping tower offices with the words ‘ walk tall, you are now entering Sun country’ as with the upcoming trials later this year of Rebecca Brooks, Andy Coulson and numerous others he employed, the newspapers and his empire will be doing anything but walking tall.

Emma Rees is studying a Masters in Politics & Communications at the LSE

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