As the whole News of the World hacking story becomes a current affairs millipede, sprouting news legs hour by hour, the editorial writer at News Limited’s Australian flagship masthead has decided to wade into the debate. It is a lesson in how not to deal
with a crisis in which your organisation is at the centre and it says a lot more about modern commercial media, and about News Corp itself, than the writer clearly intended.
The article ran on July 16 in the Weekend Australian, although I read it online. It is a 1462 word rant that is meant to get the local branch of News Corp on the front foot and de-blemished as its US-based parent writhes in deathly agony. It is such a pitiful failure on so many levels that you have to wonder is it something a harried Rupert himself ran off on the back of an envelope on his way to another meeting to resurrect his ailing empire and was quickly transcribed by the Oz’s news room janitor.
The title, “Robust vibrant media is vital for democracy”
, gives a hint of the line taken. The Oz is fashioning a means to bolster the role of media as a democratic force and argues that the media in general – note how we are already lumping all media
together here, but more of that later – needs to take stock of itself and consider its moral obligations. It is a clumsy, attempt to take the spotlight off the moral weaknesses of certain media professionals at News of the World (NOTW) and News Corp and to cast it wider so the whole media industry gets thrown together and scrutinised.
Still lost though
This is manifested by various ruses, such as holding up tabloid current affairs TV in Australia, as a shield to hide behind. “Look!” the editorial implies, “They’re even worse!!”
Within this there are also some spins to try and distance the local News Corp minions from those in London. Language like “folly of the London press” is a scramble to isolate the damage and to keep the stern gaze focussing only on News Corp journalists in London, not on those here in Australia.
This distancing sleight of hand is aided too by arguing that London’s press is all bad (that is, not just News Corp mastheads) because it is more competitive. This is a quite remarkable and breath-taking position and one worth closer scrutiny.
Free Media, but not for free
For one, the article’s sub-text is that competitive commercial media – in the writer’s terms, vibrant and free media – is held up as the model for all democracies to aim for. As such, blaming commercial war-games in London does tend to blow the editorial writer’s central pillar to pieces. As a hugely successful media player in the UK, with a slew of well-known newspaper mastheads, News Corp has certainly played the commercial game brilliantly and lucratively. But, as the article’s writer makes clear, such profiteering actually pressure-cooks the professionalism of the media industry, boiling it down to its scummiest remains and actually undermines its very raison d’etre.
Secondly, the editorial pompously suggests that it has to test itself in the waters of the market every day; “our readers hold the ultimate sanction, the power to cancel their subscription, which ensures we answer to them, not the powerful.” Yet, due to News Corp’s market aggressiveness (which they might define as success), Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide for instance, have only one mainstream daily newspaper. That’s also the case in many rural and regional communities where News Corp papers monopolise the market. The ability of consumers to cancel subs is diminished severely by virtue of lack of an alternative, a situation brought about at least in part by News Corp’s competition crushing intentions.
Both hands please
A further facet of the Oz’s editorial wrecking ball is an extraordinary, risibly imperious, spray on Fairfax press (its major competitor) and the ABC (the national government-funded broadcaster) over an apparent love affair between them and, for instance, national Greens leader Bob Brown is another ham-fisted lurch at another passing shadow, as the real debate goes on elsewhere. If there was ever a time to cop some criticism on the chin, to be contrite and to not throw punches, this is it. Politicising what is clearly a moral issue is a cheap shot generally inflicted by a punch drunk and desperate attacker. Ultimately it serves no-one.
The Oz fulminates about how it is dedicated to taking on politicians, speaking its mind and giving Australians the media it deserves. Yet, who was it said the media should only be concerned with politicians? Shouldn’t good media investigate and analyse the private sector too (as indeed the Guardian did when it broke the NOTW hacking story some time ago)? What about public servants? What about NGOs? What about the media itself?
But, the most egregious aspect of this tawdry shot at crisis management is the ignorance of the moral dimensions the hacking case covers. All this hacking stuff has all happened before, harrumphs the Oz; remember when then netional opposition politician Andrew Peacock’s phone was illegally tapped in 1987, or when an ABC reporter leaked conversations with then national treasurer Peter Costello?
On one level, such leaks may well be considered to be ethically grey. But they can be said to have a definable public interest, as each leak highlighted personal character issues of the public figures in question. Moreover, the Weekend Australian’s pasting of all
leaks as somehow morally questionable ignores the very valid and important leaks that led, for instance, the investigation into the Watergate tapes in the US or the coverage of the Timor papers in Australia.
More importantly, while tapping into or hacking private dealings of politicians or other public figures carries certain moral dangers, the real crux of the NOTW case is that journalists hacked into the phones of a private citizens, not politicians. These include athletes, celebrities and even the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Not only are these people not politicians or paid public servants, in some cases they should be given added respect and privacy because of the situation they are in.
The other issue of serious concern is the cosy relationship between the NOTW and the police establishment. While taking money for private information, as some police are said to have done, is bad enough. But, the wider damage is in the fact that the culture of such a relationship would allow News Corp papers, for instance to hold damaging information on high-ranking police, a black-mail file that News Corp hacks have apparently become quite proficient in building. This clearly undermines public trust in the police force.
Moreover, would it not be in News Corp’s interest to ensure crime coverage is kept at fever pitch, so as to keep those complicit police officials in jobs?
The whole point of the hackingsc andal is therefore lost on News Corp’s local hair-shirts. This is not about London. This is not about other media formats. This is not about whose media brand is better. This is not about politics. This is not about surreptitiously and probably illegally getting private communication as a means of revealing issues that may well be in the public interest. What this is is a watershed moment in how commercial reality and social sustainability and health can be reconciled. This is about private and organisational ethics. And, right now, the pointy end of this broader concern is the corporate ethics of News Corp and of the personal ethics of those who lead it. They should cop it.
The Weekend Australian’s editorial is an abject lesson in how not to face public criticism and outcry. This is how you make things worse. This is how you show you don’t actually even understand what the issue is and what the public is so concerned about. This is actually how you show just how out of touch you are.
If the Weekend Australian’s seamy editorial is crisis management, then the crisis has only just begun for News Corp.