Murdoch’s ethical bypass (and lieutenants who back it)

Bruce Guthrie is a former News Limited editor and author of Man Bites Murdoch. He writes today in Fairfax papers that the challenging of the Murdoch empire reveals a hollow moral core:

In 1988, while attending a conference of News Corporation editors in Aspen, Colorado, I made the mistake of raising the thorny issue of journalistic ethics. The proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, was not amused. Murdoch, who was hosting the session, turned red, then purple, as I repeatedly asked a senior executive from his London Sun whether the publication had any ethical framework. It didn’t, the paper’s news editor finally admitted.

In most media companies that admission might have earned the executive a rebuke. But instead, I copped it, with Murdoch later dismissing me as a ”Fairfax wanker”. (For the record, I wasn’t at that point; I became one 12 months later.)

I have reflected on the episode many times since, particularly this week as the News of the World phone hacking scandal went from bad to worse and then putrid.

I left that conference more than 20 years ago concerned that Murdoch saw ethics, or at least the discussion of them, as an inconvenience that got in the way of newspaper business. If that really is the case, should we be entirely surprised that the phone hacking scandal played out at one of his titles and that it ended in its forced closure?

It seems inconceivable that no one at a very senior level has yet paid with their job. Rebekah Brooks, a former News of the World editor now in charge of Murdoch’s British operation, seems to have the boss’s backing and he’s not for changing. This is what happens when companies are run like personal fiefdoms. In the absence of any real shareholder pressure, people like Brooks get to hang on. At a company with a more open and broad-based share register she’d almost certainly be gone by now. News seems very comfortable with accommodating people who’d be shown the door elsewhere.

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