#36 SINISTER SIDE OF A SOAP OPERA

"Galapagos tortoise"

There was many a bleary eye in the Antipodes the morning after the night before of Rupert Murdoch’s extraordinary appearance before a House of Commons select committee investigating the phone hacking scandal that has gripped his global empire. It was certainly a strange experience for Grubsheet as we struggled through the driving rain in Sydney to an unrelated 9.00am meeting with senior executives at News Limited, Murdoch’s Australian arm.

Even before we got to the plush executive floor, you could see the effects of a late night’s viewing in the eyes of his employees gathered around the coffee station in the Holt Street foyer. Most people wisely turned in just before 3.00am after Rupert and James Murdoch had finished giving their evidence and before the flame-haired Rebekah Brooks had taken the stand. But it was still hard to sleep after we’d all been jolted upright by the infamous shaving cream pie incident and the celebrated left hook that has made the third Mrs Murdoch – Wendi Deng – a global sensation.

Standing up for your man

How could even the most imaginative of Murdoch’s tabloid hacks have scripted such an event? Incredible. But let’s face it. The whole Murdoch circus is wildly out of proportion to the real importance of what has happened in Britain. This was a phone hacking scandal at just one newspaper – The News of The World – involving no more than a score, perhaps, of Murdoch’s global workforce of 52,000. Yes, there are serious questions to answer and criminal charges to be laid. But the blanket media coverage is wildly out of proportion and a clear sign, if any were needed, that the media is far more obsessed with the media than anyone else.

Why are readers and viewers being subjected to such an onslaught? You can’t help feeling that it’s a clear case of schadenfreude, delight that the “Dirty Digger” of legend is finally getting his comeuppance. This extends to some of the very personal observations about Murdoch’s age. He came before the Commons committee “looking like a Galapagos tortoise”, according to this amusing piece in Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

Yes, of course he’s showing his age. He’s 80 years old, for God’s sake. Yet for all his hesitation as he thought before he spoke before the Committee, this was a man in full charge of his faculties, still at the helm of a global empire and determined to stay there. It seems extraordinary that Murdoch is being held personally responsible in some quarters for what happened at one newspaper among dozens of others around the globe, a string of television networks, a movie studio and sundry other interests. Yes, there are governance issues that need addressing and Murdoch has promised a determined effort to clean out the bad apples. But it simply beggars belief that a man of his patrician background who built an empire like News would have been mad enough to countenance the blatant illegality that has come to light in Britain.

Father and son in the spotlight

Few, if any, industries are under more public scrutiny and regulation than the news business. A free press in a democracy – by definition – needs a free environment in which to operate if it’s to fulfill its duty as the “fourth estate”  to highlight official misbehavior and malfeasance. Rather than vilify Murdoch as some kind of “Doctor Evil”, sensible media consumers ought to be defending him against the tide of self-interested politicians now using this incident as an excuse to impose tougher restrictions on the public’s right to know.

Principal among these is our own lamentable Julia Gillard, who says News Limited in Australia has some “hard questions to answer” in the wake of the British hacking scandal. What questions? Incredibly, the politically wounded lady won’t say. And in the absence of any elaboration, only one conclusion can be drawn. That Gillard agrees with her colleagues like the so-called Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, that the Murdoch press in Australia – and especially the Sydney Daily Telegraph and The Australian – are biased against Labor and are at the root of its electoral collapse. Stand by for more media restrictions in Australia to protect our preening and incompetent politicians. That is the real scandal, not some far off criminality on the part of tabloid hacks and editors at one British newspaper and perhaps some of its more lurid competitors.

So what’s the mood at News Limited, Murdoch’s Australian arm?  A mixture of relief and trepidation. Relief because Rupert and James survived the Commons grilling and News Corp shares rose sharply after their appearance. Trepidation because no-one knows where this all might end as the various British inquiries get underway,  pressure mounts on the empire in America, the old man is clearly showing his age and a big question mark looms over James Murdoch – the heir apparent.  And all this before the prime minister’s unfortunate comments, which have thrown a spotlight on the local operations where none is deserved.

Unwarranted scrutiny - Murdoch's Aussie titles

In nearly 40 years in the media, Grubsheet – which also helped author the latest version of the Journalists’ Code of Ethics – has seen no evidence whatsoever in Australia of the kind of illegal behaviour that has happened in Britain. Yes, our media is highly competitive and sometimes boundaries are crossed. Misrepresentation, forged signatures, theft of personal photographs, gross invasions of privacy -we’ve seen it all. But journalists using private detectives to hack the phones of bereaved ordinary people? Never. And we think it’s simply inconceivable given the culture of Australian journalism, with its relative emphasis on ethical standards and a “fair go”.

We think any suggestion to the contrary by our politicians is simply a mask for an agenda based on craven self interest – to try to avoid the kind of scrutiny that’s vital for the health of our democracy and institutions. Whatever his faults, Rupert Murdoch is at the forefront of keeping these bastards honest. If Julia Gillard has a problem with the Daily Telegraph or The Australian, too bad. Start governing with competence and integrity, Ms Prime Minister, and our watchdogs will stop barking. Trying to silence them by stealth is an erosion of media freedom and a distinct move towards group-speak and group-thought, if not a more authoritarian state.

More reading: The editor of The Times, James Harding, describes News International’s handling of the crisis as “catastrophic”.