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Sunday 29 April 2012

Read all about it: we can actually learn something from Murdoch

The UK inquiry into press standards is not only about Murdoch but all of us

WE need some perspective on this. Most people in the UK, as in the rest of the world, are worried about keeping or finding a job, about increases in the cost of living, declining standards in public services and vague apocalyptic threats of economic meltdown.

Few care if Jeremy Hunt, the British culture secretary, loses his job because he was too helpful to Rupert Murdoch when his News Corporation was trying to pull off an £8bn (€9.8bn) bid for complete control of BSkyB, or if Murdoch himself is booted out by his shareholders because of scandal surrounding News International, his British outpost.

It's otherwise, of course, in the Westminster bubble, where vulnerable British politicians fret, predatory journalists prowl and conspiracy theorists flourish. At present, it's in a state of frenzy over the Leveson inquiry.

A brief reminder of the story so far. After the News of the World phone-hacking scandal reached new depths with the revelation that the mobile phone of murder victim Millie Dowler had been hacked, in July 2011 British Prime Minster David Cameron set up an inquiry (with the power to summon witnesses to give evidence under oath) under the chairmanship of Lord Leveson, a senior judge.

Leveson is at present examining the culture, practices and ethics of the media (including the BBC and social media) -- in particular their relationship with the public, police and politicians.

He is charged with then making recommendations "on the future of press regulation and governance consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards". Or, as he put it when the inquiry opened in November: "The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?"

Since then, we've heard plenty about media excesses and when it involved harrowing stories from celebrities like Charlotte Church, the public were interested and appalled. But now that attention is focused on the Dirty Digger (as Private Eye magazine memorably nicknamed Murdoch) and his son James and their relationship with the powerful, public interest has declined. You wouldn't know that from the traditional media, which are choc-a-bloc with speculation, accusations and recrimination, but if you ignore Westminster types on Facebook or Twitter you'll see that 18-year-old heartthrob Justin Bieber is of far more consequence than Rupert Murdoch.

When I last checked, Bieber had 20,958,409 followers for tweets like: "goodnight world. love you out there", while Murdoch could manage only 225,725 for offerings such as "Enemies many different agendas, but worst old toffs and right wingers who still want last century's status quo with their monopolies." (He still fancies himself as a radical class-warrior.) And I bet a huge proportion of his followers are, like me, hacks and/or political anoraks.

I watched some of Murdoch's evidence last week and read all of it. He had discarded the doddery persona he had affected at the earlier Leveson hearing, which was enlivened by his wife Wendi's flying tackle of a pie-thrower, and was crisp and confident, if disingenuous.

He had complained in a tweet at the end of March: "Seems every competitor and enemy piling on with lies and libels. So bad, easy to hit back hard, which preparing."

And prepared he certainly was, but his task was onerous. His primary purpose, of course, was to convince his shareholders that even at 81 he is still fit to run an organisation with assets of $60bn (€45bn) and annual revenue of $34bn (€25bn). He admitted the occasional mistake, but blamed all bad behaviour on underlings who, unlike him, did not care deeply about journalistic ethics.

Despite insistent questioning, he did not resile from his insistence that he never asked politicians for favours and made no deals with them: "I want to put it to bed once and for all, that . . . I used the influence of the Sun or the supposed political power to get favourable treatment."

It's rather pathetic to see politicians pointing fingers at each other within the British government, when everyone knows they've been running scared of Murdoch for decades and trying to placate him. "Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!" shout Labour. "What about his lunch at Chequers with Margaret Thatcher? What about Cameron visiting him on his yacht?" "Rubbish," yell the Tories. "Before the 1997 election, Blair flew for 25 hours to the Hayman Islands in Australia to win Murdoch's endorsement."

Cameron said during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday: "We all did too much cosying up to Mr Murdoch, I think we'll all agree." With the exception of the Liberal Democrats and Northern Irish political parties -- who were of no interest to Murdoch -- that is the stark truth. If Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond had any shame, he'd be mortified by evidence that emerged last week about the lengths he went to in wooing Murdoch.

Murdoch had too much power and he often misused it. From 1969, when he acquired the Sun, he drove journalistic standards in the UK steadily down. Hugh Cudlipp, who had unwarily sold him the paper, lamented later that this "was the dawn of the Dark Ages of tabloid journalism . . . when investigative journalism in the public interest shed its integrity and became intrusive journalism for the prurient, when nothing, however personal, was any longer secret or sacred and the basic human right to privacy was banished in the interest of publishing profit -- when the daily nipple-count and the sleazy stories about bonking bimbos achieved a dominant influence in the circulation charts."

Yet Murdoch is a true newspaperman: he agreed with Leveson that print ink runs through his veins. His successes are extraordinary.

From an Australian base, he created a global empire; he saved the UK press by destroying nihilistic print unions; he was a pioneer of satellite television, and he has always been a visionary who was technologically ahead of the pack.

What he said at the inquiry about the future of the media should be taken seriously. He warned against putting regulations in place that meant there would be no press to regulate. He thinks print versions of newspapers will have disappeared within 20 years, but while he regrets that, he focuses on the opportunities presented by technological innovation: the future for the press rests with smartphones and tablets.

Murdoch made some very sensible comments on the dangers posed by "disruptive technologies" that enabled bloggers simply to steal newspaper content. He warned about the privacy and industrial espionage implications of smartphones and called for regulations to control the internet access to pornography and confidential intellectual property.

I recently read Joel Wiener's history of British and American newspapers between the 1830s and 1914. It was a period of great technological advances that transformed the press and was seen by contemporaries to have driven standards down by caving into populism, sensationalism, the obsessive pursuit of scoops, intrusive coverage of celebrities and an obsession with 24-hour news.

It was also a period when mass circulation made proprietors rich and powerful. In 1916, Lord Northcliffe brought down Prime Minister Asquith: in 1968 his nephew Cecil tried but failed to oust Harold Wilson. It is a healthy development that eventually so powerful a figure as Murdoch has had to answer for his conduct. And it is good to see proper scrutiny being given to how to develop sane methods of regulating our new media world, lest Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga (23,574,928 followers) misuse it to become rulers of the world.

Irish politicians have dodged for years making crucial decisions on press regulation and libel reform. To do nothing is no longer an option. We have to hope they're thinking hard about what's emerging from the inquiry, because, truly, it concerns us all.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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