As the Australian Murdoch empire begin a comical defence of its glorious and ethical journalistic traditions – “What? Us? With an agenda? We’re just here to hold governments to account!” – a far more honest account of life inside the empire by Michael Williams, Senior Lecturer Print and Online Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire:
It was an astonishing admission from one of Rupert Murdoch’s most faithful executives. We’d gone to lunch to reminisce about our years together working at Wapping on Murdoch’s broadsheet papers. This was a man who was once so “on the Murdoch message” that he dismissed an investigation that I had produced into child labour sweatshops as “Well, what’s wrong? It’s the market isn’t it?”
“I now think,” he told me with a deep sigh, “I was in denial.” I had never thought of it in quite that way. The queasy feeling in my stomach was nothing to do with the quality of the steak and kidney pudding at one of London’s most august gentlemen’s clubs.
Now that the truth about some of Rupert Murdoch’s news operations – hacking, blagging, payment to police and worse – is exposed in all its awfulness, I, too, have wondered how much we News Corp journalists all really suspected, but never quite admitted to ourselves.
My time as head of news at the Murdoch Sunday Times through the late 1980s and early 1990s was a relative age of innocence compared with the horrors of recent times. Yet this was the period in which the seeds of the disaster that is now engulfing News Corporation were planted.
News journalism is a complex and often chaotic cocktail of adrenaline, risk-taking, egotism and competitiveness. Most of the time it is underpinned by a genuine quest for the truth and a sense of decency, however confused it might seem. But the Murdoch news machine is fuelled by more toxic and combustible ingredients – a culture of fear, unquestioning subservience to the media tycoon’s political and business interests and a willingness to push the envelope till it falls off the table.
As one former News of the World editor used to advise his staff: “Take the story to breaking point and then ratchet it back a notch.” Unfortunately, many journalists at Wapping conveniently forgot about the last bit as they got carried away in the wild west atmosphere
Unscrupulous though his methods were, I know exactly what the phone-hacking private detective Glenn Mulcaire meant when he told the Guardian that his employers exerted “relentless pressure” and “constant demand for results”. (No wonder News Corp were paying his legal expenses until this week, hoping he might not say anything more incriminating.)
It was precisely this that impelled many people inside News Corps’s London HQ at Wapping to do dangerous things – especially in atmosphere of mass hysteria that followed the 1986 dispute, when Rupert Murdoch sensationally sacked his printers. Many of the Sturmtruppen who cut their teeth in the years following Fortress Wapping were the very same people who went on to high executive positions as phone hacking went on unfettered, including Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton, Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man, who have both been forced to resign in the past week.
To my knowledge, there was no phone-hacking on my watch – for the simple reason there was a rule that all reporters were interrogated on their sources for all stories that went into the paper. But as the former People editor Bill Hagerty pointed out last week, editors cannot know everything. At the very least there was some reckless risk-taking – not exactly discouraged by the News International corporate ethos.