My battles with Rupert Murdoch
Murdoch will tolerate competition, but prefers market dominance. Monopoly? Even better
At my last meeting with Rupert Murdoch, in October 2008, he told me with great conviction what a first-rate job I was doing for him editing Australia's biggest-selling daily newspaper, Melbourne's Herald Sun.Just days later, without any further discussion and any real explanation, the ageing media mogul had one of his minions dismiss me. Not for the first time I found myself reflecting that what Murdoch says and what he does are often two very different things.
I'm not the first person to be lulled into a false sense of security by Murdoch and his assurances, and I won't be the last. Will the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, be the next? It seems likely Murdoch will offer up some sort of editorial guarantee or independent board in order to be allowed to complete his bid for 100% of BSkyB. Such assurances should be taken with a grain of salt. Actually, a whole shaker of the stuff.
News Corp is a company only interested in outcomes. It has no interest in process. And it will pretty much do or say whatever it takes to achieve its ends. I have often thought that if Nike hadn't already trademarked the slogan Just Do It, News would have. It suits its ethos perfectly. Its end-justifies-the-means approach can often be liberating for employees and executives, but it can also lead to bad decision-making.I first worked for Murdoch almost 25 years ago by virtue of his 1986 takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT) Ltd, then one of Australia's biggest media groups. The takeover was successful because of the meek acquiescence of the Labor government of the day. It allowed Murdoch to buy the firm even though it gave him control of more than 50% of Australia's papers and reduced the sector to a cosy duopoly, with John Fairfax, a publisher of serious broadsheets, his only real competition in his native land.
Unlike Murdoch's proposed takeover of BSkyB, it happened largely without debate. The print industry and, by extension, the entire media spectrum in Australia has never been quite the same since. Murdoch's dominance of the print sector in Australia has since grown to more than two-thirds, driven largely by his mass-market tabloids.
This concentration of ownership has had disastrous consequences for public discourse and gives Murdoch enormous power to shape public policy and intimidate politicians. Sound familiar?
My first stint with Murdoch in the late 80s came to grief after I asked a question about ethics at one of his famous confabs of editors, this one at Aspen, Colorado. It was chaired by then Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, and the guest speakers included disgraced former US president Richard Nixon.
"I see we have a Fairfax wanker in our midst," Murdoch remarked about me to one of the other conference attendees after I'd questioned editorial practices at the Sun and, by extension, the News of the World. Hmmm, perhaps he should have listened. At that stage I'd never worked for Fairfax, but I left to join them soon after.
My second stint at News started in 2003, after it coaxed me to the Australian, the achingly serious, conservative broadsheet that, despite its relatively small circulation, gives Rupert respectability and clout in the national capital. By now Murdoch was much less of a regular presence in Australia, preferring to spend most of his time in the US. But it didn't matter. The most senior people at News behave as if he is sitting on their shoulders, factoring in his world view, preferences and prejudices at every turn.
What hadn't changed at News was the company's propensity to use its newspapers to further corporate ends. Back in the 80s, the editor of the now defunct Melbourne Herald, Eric Beecher, was chided by Murdoch's then Australian CEO for publishing a report of an overseas plane crash in which several hundred people had died.
At the time, News owned a half-share of Ansett Airlines, Australia's second-biggest domestic carrier. As Beecher recently recalled, the News executive rang him after publication and was livid. Said Beecher: "He informed me that because they owned an airline they didn't put air crashes in the paper because they wanted people to fly."
Sometimes the company's attempts at corporate synergy were even more ridiculous. Two decades later, while I was running the Herald Sun, the editors of Murdoch's Australian tabloids were asked to consider adding Homer Simpson's half-eaten doughnut to their mastheads to assist promotion of The Simpsons Movie, a Fox release. Similarly, a significant chunk of the final editors' conference I attended before my demise was devoted to examining ways Murdoch's papers could cross-promote Australia, the sweeping Baz Luhrmann movie starring Nicole Kidman in which Fox had invested heavily. Sure enough, when the film came out, most Murdoch front pages that week looked more like movie posters than news pages. On a more sinister level, I once took a call from Murdoch's most senior man in Australia trying to assure me that the News executive accused of deliberate dishonesty by a federal court judge that day in one of Australia's biggest ever corporate judgments was in fact "a good bloke". I had no doubt it was an invitation to run dead on that aspect of the story, even though he would deny it.Even more troubling, my summary dismissal from the Herald Sun job came just weeks after we reported the local police commissioner had taken free overseas travel, prompting widespread condemnation of her. Our reporting upset the police commissioner's good friend, HWT chairperson Janet Calvert-Jones, who also happens to be Rupert Murdoch's sister. There was speculation that it was this that had cost me my job. At News, in my experience, public interest often runs second to corporate interests or relationships.
Murdoch's power over politicians comes from their fear of reprisal if they cross him. Sometimes it's just plain fear. I recall the Australian opposition leader John Howard waiting in an anteroom to meet Murdoch at the HWT offices in the late 1980s. Howard was so nervous, the water in his glass splashed everywhere. He went on to govern the nation for four terms, but I always wondered who really had the power.
Despite the aura that's been built up around him, you can bite back against Murdoch. News's disdain for process meant I was able to win a celebrated unfair dismissal case against it in the Victorian supreme court last year – the judge raised concerns about the evidence of two of News's witnesses, but the company omitted that from its extensive coverage of the case – and why the Australian rugby league club it owns was last year stripped of two premiership titles after it was caught cheating salary cap rules. News blamed it all on a rogue administrator who, it said, acted without its knowledge. Sound familiar?There was another exchange with Murdoch at our last fateful meeting that is worth recalling. He had asked how the Herald Sun's main competitor, the venerable Melbourne broadsheet the Age, was faring. Told that some doubted it would be around in another five years, Murdoch gritted his teeth and said: "That has to be our goal." It was another reminder that while Murdoch and News will tolerate competition, they much prefer market dominance. Monopolies? Even better.