Murdoch’s end shows why the 4th Estate needs competition, power-sharing, and watchdogs as astute as Lord Justice Leveson — on permanent duty
Questions that came to mind, watching segments of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony last week at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press:
Why did it take over three decades — the lifespan of some loyal readers here — for the outing of Rupert Murdoch as the most pernicious influence on British journalism for at least a century?
Max Hastings, who was for some years the editor of The Daily Telegraph – but has voted for both Labour and the Tories, in different elections — is almost the last man standing at the profession’s summit who deserves deepest respect. His account of competing with Murdoch and his newspapers in a memoir published ten years ago, Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers, reveals why the man went unchallenged for so long, and offered a deft portrait of him:
… Murdoch, as always when I encountered him, cut a curiously joyless figure. He appeared to have no life beyond his business, no cultural or aesthetic interests. [… He] will leave this planet having added precious little to the store of decency, culture, humanity …
One of the most sensitive issues for many British newspapers is that of how they treat their rivals in print. There is a shameless, self-serving compact between companies, that the personal embarrassments of newspaper owners are not reported by competitors. Anyone who attempts to write about Rupert Murdoch’s or his family’s domestic arrangements for another publication is likely to receive a call (or, more likely, his editor or managing director will do so) from one of the great tycoon’s senior stooges at News International, drawing attention to the proprietors’ pact, and warning without much subtlety about the inevitability of retaliation if the convention is breached. The preposterous Barclay brothers ruthlessly assert their right to be spared personal publicity of any kind, even about the fortress they have constructed in the Channel Islands, and even though they have chosen to become newspaper owners.
It always seems pretty rich, that titles which derive most of their income from laying bare the private lives of others should show no embarrassment about protecting their own proprietors from scrutiny, through what amounts to a system of social nuclear deterrence.
All that being known on Fleet Street, why are none of the newspaper chieftains conceding, as they analyse the implications of Murdoch’s toppling, that he and they were all in the same club? … Why are none of them explaining the wider consequences of that to their readers? … For instance, that staffers on their papers were as entangled with politicians as Murdoch and his lieutenants were – so much so, that the two most important scoops of the last decade about power in Britain came not from staffers but freelance journalists?
As far as I can tell, there has been just one noble exception to this selective blindness. An Observer columnist, Henry Porter, wrote at the weekend:
The point of regulations and institutions is to defend the relatively fragile democratic process from people like Murdoch. The fact that none of the safeguards worked and we came within a whisker of allowing his near total dominance of the marketplace further erodes our faith in the political class to act in the interests of the public. Let’s not forget that it was largely accident, and the dedication of a very few journalists, that exposed the cover-up, of which Murdoch now claims, with eye-watering hypocrisy, that he was a victim.
Actually, it was one dogged and intuitive reporter – Nick Davies, working as an outside contributor to a broadsheet newspaper, who was able to capitalise on the ‘accident’ that exposed the extent of phone hacking by Murdoch’s minions.
Why did staff journalists anywhere fail to publish that ugliness hidden in plain sight, or break the political horror story of 2009, the MPs’ expenses scandal – the revelations about members of parliament misusing allowances and expense accounts to pay for pornography and cleaning their castle moats, among other fraudulent acts?
This scoop was also the triumph of a freelance journalist, Heather Brooke – operating outside the cosy club in which the country’s leading parliamentary correspondents wined and cuddled politicians.
The inescapable conclusion?
The club walls need tearing down. It is time for the long reign of 4th Estate journalism to give way to the 5th Estate, in which new rules and conventions will allow for the full participation of outsiders, including citizen-journalists.
Like everyone else who cares about making democracy work, David Puttnam, a genuinely idealistic politician and activist who is also a hugely successful film producer – of Chariots of Fire, for one – perceives a clear need for media reform:
In the House of Lords and elsewhere, I have repeatedly called for a comprehensive cross-media impact study – so far to no avail. At the end of his session with Lord Justice Leveson, Rupert Murdoch described the digital landscape, which we have now entered, as one in which tablets and GPS-enabled smartphones are displacing newsprint. The potential of this technology to engender even greater competitive diversity in an intelligently regulated democracy ought to be very welcome. It should result in a broadening of the lens through which we see the world, not a narrowing of it.
But that requires a clear regulatory framework that encourages, in fact enables, media plurality to flourish. We cannot, for example, legislate for good journalism, but we can legislate for the conditions under which the very best journalism is nurtured and sustained.
There were some hostile early reactions to the Leveson Inquiry from the 4th Estate — when it was not ignoring it altogether — like this bit of ludicrous exaggeration by the Guardian columnist and former editor of two newspapers, Simon Jenkins: ‘As with a military occupation, the longer Leveson’s tanks stay on Fleet Street’s lawn, the less benign they seem.’ But lately, some leaders there have apparently begun to hope that the judiciary’s interest in their doings might be used to protect them from being overrun by the 5th Estate.
A Guardian editorial last week adopted a surprising new tone:
The other revealing moment in Murdoch’s testimony last week was when he launched into an incoherent rant about – and against – the internet. […] As Murdoch rambled, waving his arms despairingly and pounding the table, it was difficult to determine what point he was trying to make, other than the unfairness of governments regulating newspapers while the wild west web remains untamed. Was it just that he senses his powers ebbing away, flowing towards the new masters of the digital universe – the Sergey Brins, Larry Pages and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world?
Will they turn out to be any better than the media moguls who preceded them? And who will play Lord Justice Leveson’s role if they don’t?
As this blog pointed out, when newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were doing their best to ignore the judicial probe, the two-man team of Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay has been giving us an astonishing demonstration of judicial skill and insight. This is British justice at its dazzling best.
David Cameron would do well to put these same men at the head of the organisation that replaces the disgraced Press Complaints Commission – at least, for the first few years of its existence.
Above all, let us hope that in his recommendations at the Inquiry’s end, this Lord Justice spotlights the need for the media to adapt for the future, in a reinvention guided by maximising inclusiveness and transparency – through, for instance, co-ownership. See:
(for an explanation of why the old order has to give way to the new: )
Good Guardian, bad Guardian, and two more censored comments
Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media
Co-owning media is on the horizon — and press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry shows why we need this
Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?