As everybody knows by now, Rupert Murdoch’s News organisation is finally starting to get its long-deserved comeuppance for its systematic trashing of the ethics of journalism, thanks to a UK parliamentary inquiry into its alleged phone-hacking activities. But a proposed media inquiry soon to be staged by the Gillard government in Australia, where no phone-hacking activities have been alleged, is reportedly set to ignore such arguably equally troubling issues as the unhealthy News domination of the Australian press and its evident self-interested editorial bias. As you will see in this and the three following pieces, I used to try and criticise News, but long ago gave it up as a waste of effort.
Entrapment of the loquacious, PR-impaired Sophie Rhys-Jones by News of the World pretend-journalist Mazher Mahmood and the subsequent blackmailing of her into providing a “world exclusive interview” the paper headlined as “SOPHIE: My Edward NOT gay” is just another example of the way the news continues to suffer at the dead hand of News Corp. But, as some time ago we observed in the outing of pedophiles by the same Noose of the World, there may be some shaming in naming.
Many of we media junkies have been musing for years on the possibility that Murdoch company names contained subconscious flashes of honesty as to the intentions of their founder. Take the Australian arm of Rupert’s media/entertainment octopus (ockertopus?) for example, News Limited. A company for which there could be few more appropriate names, given that the news in most of its publications is apparently limited by a very wide range of factors indeed. Like the pressure to promote the proprietor’s personal beliefs including republicanism and the free-market economy and punish his pet hates like pinkoes, liberals, royalty, public broadcasting, and “chatterers”. Like the demands of commercial self-interest decreeing either stridence or silence on issues that might for better or worse impact circulation growth or advertising revenue. And above all the political imperative to support regimes sympathetic to its media-ownership and other commercial aspirations, and smear and slander those that promise or prove to be unfriendly or uncooperative.
Despite all this, though, a measure of editorial independence has often been tolerated if not actively encouraged in the Group’s “quality” newspapers. But that even these are not entirely immune to News’ limited view of what’s news was graphically illustrated by the cover story on the March 10-11, 1991 issue of The Australian Magazine. Carried by The Weekend Australian whose “Careers” section in the same issue by odd coincidence featured a “Skies the limit for attendants” story, the Magazine’s cover proclaimed “The Plane Truth. What the airlines haven’t been telling us about DVT”, then took off inside with “The Clot Thickens. With 2500 sufferers set to take legal action in Australia alone, the complaint is as old as long-haul travel itself. So why did the airlines keep it so quiet?”
Which immediately raised another, much more disturbing question. If the airlines kept it so quiet – and most of them didn’t, as their exhortations to passengers to drink lots of water, move around the cabin and so on have for decades clearly demonstrated – why did the media keep it so quiet all these years? One possible answer, though of course not advanced in “The Clot Thickens”, is that, at least in the case of media owned by News, the urge to discuss DVT may previously have been limited by the fact that until quite recently the Group itself owned an airline, Ansett. And so only now that the said airline had been safely disposed-of could the story be told. Or, more accurately, sold. And sold and sold.
Not to say over-sold, as the “Clot Thickens” article in The Australian Magazine was essentially a rehash of a campaign launched several weeks earlier in the News tabloid in Sydney, The Daily Telegraph. The first salvo in News’ “exposure” of DVT in Australia was a Telegraph front page screaming “FLIGHT CLOTS: 10 DIE” followed by a story that affected to reveal the truth, but cynically neglected to mention three crucial facts. Namely that Deep-Vein Thrombosis is very old news indeed, most airlines have for years advocated ways of preventing it, and that the labeling of the problem as “Economy Class Syndrome”, as The Daily Telegraph did at first, is extremely misleading.
Deep-Vein Thrombosis is in fact one of the hazards of spending long periods of time sitting down anywhere. So it afflicts a proportion of long-distance sitters in not just economy class, but also business class, first class and even those on the flight deck. Plus, of course, passengers in more down-to-earth modes of transport including coaches, trains, cars and rolling office chairs.
The Daily Telegraph then proceeded to follow-up its “breaking” of the “story” with a daily series headed “Panic in the air”, and eventually splashed-out with another big spread in which it unaccountably reversed – but of course failed to actually acknowlege – its own previous inaccuracies as to the airlines’ efforts to overcome the syndrome, and boasted that its “revelations” had forced the airline authorities to display passenger-warning signs at Sydney Airport. And now, just as the Telegraph has barely finished congratulating itself on having effectively aired the issue, The Australian has taken-up the hue-and-cry.
Why? What possible motivation could there be for this kind of overkill? Aside from the obvious economies arising from making the “product”, however thin and shoddy, stretch across as many “platforms” as possible, what could be the angle here? Surely not the public interest. The DailyTelegraph and all its News Corp ilk around the world have long been evidently far more focused on the health of their own circulations than those of their readers. Who must be nothing but millions of lumpen, brain-dead clots in any case, I suppose Murdoch and his minions must figure, as long as they’re prepared to pay for treatment as trashy as they get from News tabloids.
So what’s the purpose of this clot of a campaign, and why has the Australian been dragged into the act? Has News acquired an interest in a law firm specialising in class-action damages litigation? Are the airlines being punished for falling below expectations in the proportion of their advertising budgets they’re prepared to spend in News media? Or is this rather more personal? Has the Proprietor, as surely one of the most frequent fliers in the history of aviation, himself fallen prey to the dreaded DVT? Or has it befallen one of his high-flying cronies? Who knows? Just another example of the way the News brand of “journalism” has of proving more concealing than revealing, I guess.
Another instance of which occured in the “The Plane Truth” issue of The Australian Magazine, this one a classic of the salacious/santimonious, prurience/prudery school so characteristic of News-owned U.K. gutter tabloids like the Sun and the News Of The World. “The Oilman And The Gold Digger” consisted of five full pages of sneering and sniggering at the affairs of Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall 11, highlighted by the pull-out “As he lay dying and fondling her breasts she taped conversations, trying to get him to put her in his will”.
This piece of tawdry trash also vividly demonstrated the limits that News has a way of placing on the news. Highlighting by contrast the quiet reverence, not to say thunder of silence, with which the Group’s media dignify the doings, financial, marital and otherwise, of Anna, Wendy, Rupert and other Murdoch family, favourites and friends.
And the News propensity for limiting or killing the truth is by no means limited to its papers. At a business conference in Los Angeles recently, James Murdoch, who runs News Corp’s Asian operations, lambasted media criticisms of that well-known bastion of truth and justice, and major opportunity for the dissemination of News-style news and entertainment, the People’s Republic of China. In a story in The Sydney Morning Herald he was quoted as informing his conference audience, which included his father, that pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong should learn to “put up with” life under communist rule, and that the Falun Gong was an “apocalyptic cult” that didn’t “have the success of China at heart”
But let’s not bother with any more isolated examples. For a consistent, insider’s view of the way News limits the news by a blend of self-censorship and self-promotion, there’s nothing to touch the Media supplement in every Thursday’s The Australian. Its cover story for March 15, 2001, “Who’s watching? The fight for free-to-air TV’s shrinking audience”, while striving mightily to give the appearance of balance, was largely a massive plug for the News-majority-owned cable television network, Foxtel. But the real highlight of the issue for we News afficionados was the first paragraph of the Amanda Meade column – now the former Amanda Meade column, but we’ll get to that in a moment – The Diary. The item castigated the News-owned Melbourne Herald-Sun for running a recent front-page lead entitled “Australia sells out” and failing to include itself in its list of formerly Australian assets as now “owned by that well-known foreigner Rupert Murdoch.”
The upshot of this flagrant betrayal of the News limited-news code, as reported in the same day’s The Sydney Morning Herald, was that the editor-in-chief of The Australian, David Armstrong, informed Ms. Meade that she would no longer be writing The Diary column. The editor of The Australian, Campbell Reid, denied that Ms. Meade lost her position because of the Murdoch mention.
Asked by The Sydney Morning Herald whether he had raised concerns about the item, Reid reportedly hedged that “I had a discussion about the whole column and several items in it, as I do every week”. A reply that hardly tests the limits of candour, to say the very least. But let’s not be too hard on the guy. The position of editor, by no means easy in the best of circumstances, would seem to be particularly tricky in the News organisation.
And again we have a recent “Media” supplement from The Australian to thank for revealing just how dodgy the job of a News editor must be. The February 15, 2001 issue of Media featured an adulatory cover story on sometime editor of The Daily Telegraph, former editorial director and recently-appointed chief executive of News Limited, John Hartigan. This shameless puff-piece was so candid as to speculate on why Hartigan was given his new job, commenting that it was probably due to his “experience and intuitive skills”, adding that “Lachlan Murdoch also liked Hartigan’s philosophy of encouraging his editors to think creatively and laterally and to conjure up non-traditional ways to increase circulation and revenue.”
Lauding him as a visionary who “sees future editors as being more than people possessing journalistic skills”, the article quoted Hartigan himself as proclaiming that “we should let future editors spend six months in advertising or sales to build up a broader knowledge of consumer trends to be really prepared for the marketing role which will be the editor’s task in this environment.” In other words, if I read him right, he’s saying that if we think News news is limited now, we should see how much worse is in store for us in future if he has anything to do with it.
It’s often been said that truth is the first casualty of war. News, both Limited and Corp, seem dedicated to demonstrating to the world, as if further demonstration was required after the examples set in the past by the Hearsts, Pulitzers, Northcliffes and others, and the totalitarian and many other media today, that truth is also the first casualty of whore.
Proprietors, editors and “journalists” prepared to subvert the the truth for their own and their investors’ self-interest, to pervert their opinions for the benefit of their politcal patrons and to manufacture a false and venal “reality” to peddle to the unsuspecting readers aren’t worthy to use a respectable word like “news”. As one of the institutions on which we rely for our freedoms, it’s vital that our news be nothing less than the genuine article. The news media are supposed to be the watchdogs of our society; our last line of defence against lying, corruption, cronyism, incompetence and injustice in our institutions of business, public service and government, not some pack of mongrels set loose to scavenge whatever they can get out of us. We don’t need our news bastardised by public relations, hype, evasion, consumer trends, marketing, corporate cross-promotions and “entertainment”. Whatever the powers that be at News may fancy, we don’t need our news limited by them in their own or anyone else’s interests, and we certainly don’t need it limited to death.