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A history of ethics – or not

July 20th, 2011

Angela Long used to see Rupert Murdoch shuffling around Wapping in his home-knitted jumpers. That was before ethics went to hell in his newspapers (and his latest wife smartened up his attire). But this is serious…it’s about society and democracy

Bliss was it to be alive in that ….afternoon in July, sitting in front of the telly, pot of tea, watching something I never, ever, thought we’d see: Rupert Murdoch in the dock.
That was really the biggest shock of the day, an afternoon of changeable weather in London, with one miniature storm in the Wilson Committee Room when a small-time blogger attempted to smear a fake cream-pie on the aged Murdoch’s face.
But that Murdoch, the anti-Christ, for so long, according to a sizeable constituency, the Dark Lord of media misbehaviour, was being held to account – it was amazing.
The reality of the proceedings themselves hardly lived up to that fundamental fact. Some members of the British parliament’s select committee on media, sports and culture distinguished themselves, notably Labour MP Tom Watson.
But the overall surprise was how little Murdochs, father and son, seemed to know about what went on in their empire. A screwed-out-of-them revelation that jailed private detective Glenn Mulcaire continued to have some or all of his legal expenses paid was the most solid single fact. And that a payment of £700,000 to keep a hacking victim quiet didn’t even register on the boss’s radar – well, it just emphasized how different the rich are.
Debate continues today on whether the befuddled old guy/eager but innocent young guy act was genuine or delicately contrived. Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun was batting hard on BBC Radio Four, declaring loudly that those l-o-n-g pauses which preceded many of Rupert Murdoch’s answers were typical of the great man, and just showed how carefully he thought about questions.
Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, speaking on CNN immediately after Rebekah Brooks’ post-Murdoch appearance said, “Frankly, it is difficult to believe” that nobody of the “Wapping Three” knew anything about it – it being the phone-hacking that evidently was institutionalized, and the pay-offs that ensued when troublesome celebrities such as Sienna Miller kicked up a fuss.
The hearings featured an undoubtedly heart-felt apology by Murdoch senior to the ‘innocent’ victims of phone-hacking, principally the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. The old man also uttered a few sentences on the type of journalism he espouses, and his organisation’s commitment to ethics.
We’ll leave the hollow laughter aside. Although some commentators found it weird and irrelevant, Rupert Murdoch’s passionate reference to his father, Keith, late in the session did rest on solid ground. ‘’I was brought up by a father who was not rich, but was a great journalist….my father exposed the scandal of Gallipoli, which I remain very proud of.”
He was right – it was Keith Murdoch’s actions (some underhand) which uncovered the terrible bungling that sent so many soldiers to their deaths in the Dardanelles in 1915. Perhaps Murdoch has, all his life, being trying to re-create that height of achievement.
There’s been a lot of rhetoric, since the News of the World was closed a fortnight ago, about the many great stories it broke and the public service it carried out – as well as its salacious kiss-and-tell and probing dirty fingers style. As a veteran of the British newspaper scene, and even Wapping (the more respectable Sunday Times), I take all these protestations of greatness with a large grain of salt. The News of the World was popular, but no better than it should be, in the old phrase.
The tragedy for Rupert Murdoch, if it can be so dignified, was that his business nose took over from his journalistic heart. Here was a man coming to maturity in the burgeoning age of capitalism. He was born to privilege (regardless about what he says about his father not being rich – Keith was after all chairman of the Herald & Weekly Times group). Arrogant, intelligent, happy to take on risk and capable of playing a long game, he prospered, wildly. When he set up Sky in 1989, the market was minuscule and many business observers predicted disaster. But that was the start of the broadcast empire which now makes the vast majority of his, and News Corporation’s, money.
News Limited, News International and News Corporation are known as ruthless and competitive companies. In that environment, ethics can get lost, and when ethics is lost, can legal niceties be far behind?
Rupert declared: “There’s no excuse for breaking the law, at any time …newspapers can campaign for a change in the law, but never break it.” He also said, at another point, that privacy is not protected in a transparent society.
Privacy, of course, is the key. The Dowler family had their privacy invaded at the most agonising time in their lives (remember it was the deletion of voicemail messages to the murdered girl that really sickened the British, and people around the world).
The business of the press is disclosure. That’s what Keith Murdoch did when he smuggled a letter about the Gallipoli debacle into the halls of power. It’s hardly the same thing to ‘reveal’ where Sienna Miller is going for dinner. And it’s a very different thing to ‘reveal’ the anguish of the parents of a young soldier killed in Afghanistan.
Society has a lot of work to do to rein in the activities of the Murdoch press – and its rivals and cohort. Yesterday was just a start.

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