There is a clear connecting thread between the events I describe in Good Times, Bad Times and the dramas that led so many years later to Rupert Murdoch’s “most humble day of my life”. I was seated within a few feet of him in London on 19 July 2011, during his testimony to a select committee of MPs with his son James at his side. Not many more than a score of observers were allowed into the small room at parliament’s Portcullis House, across the road from the House of Commons and Big Ben. A portcullis is a defensive latticed iron grating hung over the entrance to a fortified castle, the perfect metaphor for News International, which perpetually sees itself as beset by enemies.
Murdoch, as chairman and only begetter of the giant multimedia enterprise News International (NI), was called on to defend his castle and himself as best he could for the outrages of hacking and police bribery inflicted on the British public by his News of the World and the coverup that he and his company conducted over nearly five years. The paper Murdoch most affects to despise, the Guardian, was the instrument of his undoing.
It persisted with the unravelling story almost alone in the face of repeated denials, defamation and threats and the sloppy exonerations of News International by Scotland Yard and the Press Complaints Commission. Among those waiting patiently – one might say humbly – for admission to the Portcullis House committee room was Nick Davies, the backpacking Guardian reporter, who led the paper’s investigation courageously sustained by his editor Alan Rusbridger. It was cheering to think of the impetus for good contained in Davies’s little notebook as he assiduously scribbled away during the hearing.
Murdoch had begun badly on jetting into London, all smiles in a jaunty panama hat and embracing his ex-editor and CEO Rebekah Brooks whom he called his “first priority”; she was arrested days later. He made his first humbling visit, this one to apologise to the family of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl. They were given brief hope she might be alive when messages on her cell phone were erased. Alas, the erasures were not by Milly, who had been murdered, but by an obscene hacker employed by Murdoch’s News of the World to make room for more messages the paper could milk for despicable “exclusives”. Murdoch hoped to expunge the memory of that obscenity by expunging the News of the World itself. In 1969 it had been his first acquisition in Britain but the immediate end of 168 years of publication was left to his son James, its chairman.
Observers in the Portcullis room were divided on the efficacy of Murdoch’s testimony. Some thought his answers revealed a doddery, amnesiac, jetlagged octogenarian. He cupped his ear occasionally to ask for a question to be repeated; at one moment he referred to the prime minister, David Cameron, when he meant Alastair Campbell, former prime minister Tony Blair’s press adviser. Others saw the testimony as a guileful imitation of “junior”, the ageing mentor to Tony, the capo in the Sopranos, who feigned slippered incompetence to escape retribution. I thought, on the contrary, that Murdoch was a good witness, more direct than his son James, who unnervingly sported a buzz cut reminiscent of Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. His father was as taciturn as James was loquacious. Murdoch père paused to run each answer through his shrewd mental calculations of the legal implications of his own words, occasionally smiting the tabletop in front in a kind of brutal authoritarian emphasis that began to make his wife Wendi Deng distinctly nervous. She leant forward to restrain the militancy.
But Murdoch senior’s bluntness had the effect of rendering James’s testimony inconsequential. His father’s testimony in the Portcullis room had flashes of mordant directness, one of his more engaging qualities. When a committee member referred to the “collective amnesia” of his executives, he riposted, “you mean lying” and he was right. James, the eager mollifier, was too ready to seek refuge in convoluted references to “distinguished outside learned counsel” mixed with patronising explanations for the plebs on how large corporations delegate small details like paying off villains.
• Meanwhile, in Australia … here comes the Paywall …
A LEAKED document detailing plans by News Limited to rebrand itself was “incomplete” and “speculative” the company said today.
Some parts of the proposals in the document had been ruled out, News Limited Chief Operating Officer Peter Macourt said.
The document, a PowerPoint presentation titled Project Darwin, outlined proposals on rebranding the company and also included details on how consumers might access its digital mastheads once paywalls were erected around The Australian newspaper’s website in November.
The document, written by marketing manager Michael Nearhos and dated September 15, was sent to at least three advertising agencies and includes a proposal to market a version of the News Limited brand to the public for the first time, according to the website Crikey.
News Limited is publisher of The Australian. Chief operating officer Peter Macourt told staff today describing the document as a “work in progress.”
“Our industry is going through a period of major change. We are naturally considering many things as we position News Limited for future growth,” he said.
“What we are doing, as many of you know, is implementing positive change in all parts of the business in editorial, sales, marketing, circulation, distribution, production, finance, IT and pre-press.
“This particular document might be recent dated 15 September but some parts of it have already been superseded or ruled out of any future consideration.”
Macourt said decisions had not been made about the proposals.
“The document is incomplete and contains commentary that is speculative,” he said.
“Research referred to in various parts of the document has not yet been completed.
“One thing that wont change is our commitment to journalism and to being the preferred media company in Australia for readers and advertisers.”
He said News Limited was not planning any redundancies.
… except in Hobart where word has it Mercury’s Advertising Department just took a hit, with redundancies …
Meanwhile, this is what the boss said:
Wednesday, 21 September 2011
As you all know an internal News Limited document was leaked today. The document is a work in progress and you should understand the context of it.
Our industry is going through a period of major change. We are naturally considering many things as we position News Limited for future growth.
What we are doing, as many of you know, is implementing positive change in all parts of the business – in editorial, sales, marketing, circulation, distribution, production, finance, IT and pre-press.
This particular document might be recent – dated 15 September – but some parts of it have already been superseded or ruled out of any future consideration.
For example, in response to advertiser needs we are considering how they can best utilise our network of publishing assets.
But, we haven’t made final decisions about many of the activities described in the leaked document. The document is incomplete and contains commentary that is speculative. Research referred to in various parts of the document has not yet been completed.
One thing that won’t change is our commitment to journalism and to being the preferred media company in Australia for readers and advertisers.
We continue to invest more in journalism than any other media company. This year we have launched new products and content, and we expect this to continue at an increasing rate in the months ahead.
Importantly, redundancies are not being contemplated as part of the project.
News Limited does not intend to comment further on any specific aspects of the document or on its growth strategies until it is ready to announce them.
Chief Operating Officer