Ethics no, self-preservation yes

When the definitive analysis of Mr Rupert Murdoch’s torpedoing of his 1969 acquisition News of the World is written it will undoubtedly conclude that the ever ruthless media baron wasn’t really concerned with the ethical transgressions of the tabloid but rather with self-preservation.

On the day of the dramatic announcement of the closure of the British tabloid following the phone hacking scandal, Mr Murdoch was pressed by a bevy of reporters at a conference in Idaho in the US for a comment. Despite repeated attempts to get him to speak about the closure of the newspaper and the scandal, Mr Murdoch would only say “I’m not making comments any more.” For a man whose tabloids and reporters mercilessly harried their subjects and could transform a “no comment” into a damaging story, the media baron’s silence was immensely ironic. While he has since spoken more about the closure, it is this image of the hunter having become the unforthcoming hunted that will remain seared in the memories of those who follow him and his business.

Observers and analysts who have tracked Mr Murdoch’s career are largely of the view that he shrewdly calculated that the hacking scandal could scupper his ambitious move to gain 100% of the shares of British broadcaster BSkyB. Such an acquisition could significantly boost his US$33B News Corp media empire far beyond the smaller profits from his print stable. The scandal having come at the most inopportune moment, Mr Murdoch coldly computed that he could kill two birds with one stone: making it appear that he and his empire were deeply repentant about the practices of News of the World by immolating it and giving regulators looking at the BSkyB deal less concerns about whether Murdoch and his son James were fit and proper holders of all of the broadcaster and would eschew predatory and anti-competitive practices in the market. In the meanwhile, 200 of his News of the World employees have been axed with hardly a concern about their future.

Thus far, Mr Murdoch has not managed to convince many. His appearance in London on Saturday in a bid to save the BSkyB deal will determine whether his gambit will pay off. But as many have pointed out Mr Murdoch has not addressed the core issues of the iniquitous practices by the newspaper and whether it had been sanctioned right at the top. His son, James is the Chairman and Chief Executive of News Corporation, the parent company of News of the World and he is also Chairman of BSkyB. It is contended that the hacking of phones and other unsavoury practices could not have occurred without the knowledge and connivance of very senior officials of the paper and News Corp – more particularly Ms Rebekah Wade-Brooks who became Editor of News of the World in 2000, the point at which it is believed that a series of unscrupulous practices deepened. Ms Wade-Brooks would later become CEO of News International –the UK arm of New Corp – in 2009 and has been a close confidante of the Murdochs throughout her career.

Far from holding her accountable, both Messrs Rupert and James Murdoch have stolidly defended Ms Wade-Brooks, robustly protecting her from any suggestions that she might have been aware of and responsible for phone hacking and other practices. Critics have however said that the ringing defence of Ms Wade-Brooks is the ultimate act of self-preservation as if she was held accountable so, too, would Mr James Murdoch and that could signal the end of the BSkyB deal and further damage to the News Corp brand and market. So the stakes are high. The Murdochs have in this instance also been moved to swift action by hordes of defecting advertisers and bitter anger by readers over revelations that hacking of phones was widespread and unconscionably cruel as in the case of the Milly Dowler murder investigation where phone messages were deleted by those working for News of the World so that new messages could be received. This had given Dowler family members false hope that the teenager was alive.

The irreducible lesson of the woes of the Murdochs is that in the intense competition to deliver news, unscrupulous media go to extreme and unacceptable lengths to secure information in clear violation of the ethics that govern the profession. One of the particular practices that the Murdochs and Ms Wade-Brooks have been accused of is the purchasing of information from the police. Ms Wade-Brooks had previously acknowledged that this had been done by News Corp’s  salacious The Sun which she became editor of it in 2003 though New International would later say that this was not company practice. Yet it appeared to be heavily entrenched at News of the World and this has now placed the police under enormous pressure and led this week to the arrest of former royal correspondent for the newspaper, Mr Clive Goodman as it is believed that he had been the conduit for some of the police transactions. Mr Goodman had been previously jailed for four months in the hacking scandal.

The practice of the purchase of information from the police has been known to happen in Guyana routinely. As would be expected in a force that has been severely compromised, none would admit to it and none would profess to be aware of it. Yet it is evident in the publishing of statements taken by investigators and other information. This ends up compromising investigations and making witnesses unwilling to come forward. The practice of selling privileged information by members of the police force is destructive and tears down the professionalism of the force.

The ultimate blame lies with those in the media who would seek to corrupt the police with the sole intent to plump the bottom line and to extend market share. While the plight of the Murdochs will not reverberate here it should at least give pause to the entire media industry to examine their practices and to ensure that they comport with decency and responsibility.

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