Seismic tremors have shaken the media empire of Rupert Murdoch.
Empire is the right word. The collection of newspapers, TV stations and news outlets that constitute a large part of News Corp. have been run in very imperial style. And the emperor, 80 years old and going strong, is Rupert Murdoch.
The news part of the empire has not been marked by distinguished journalism. But the trigger incident for the recent stunning revelations was the hacking of a child’s private telephone by journalists working for Murdoch’s British properties. The child had been kidnapped and was later found murdered. Public outrage over invasion of privacy and exploitation of an innocent child proved more powerful and quicker to flare up than anger at the sloppy and often politically motivated journalism practiced over the decades by the news organizations on four continents under Murdoch’s direction.
I know almost no one in public life who takes the political reporting and views of the Murdoch news empire as serious journalism. It is widely accepted that Murdoch “news” is politically directed and has little interest in being fair or accurate. I remember when, as executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, I was interviewed by a reporter for the New York Post shortly after Murdoch bought it. “So what are you going to write?” I asked the reporter when the interview was over. “Oh, Mr. Murdoch told me what to write before I came to see you,” replied the reporter.
What has been exposed in Great Britain is a sleazy, hand-in-glove relationship between Murdoch’s operations and the British government, including the prime minister’s office and Scotland Yard, one of the most respected police departments in the world.
Some lessons that emerge from the past month’s events will raise questions about Murdoch operations in the United States and Australia.
One concern is the danger posed by revolving-door jobs for employees and consultants moving between parts of the News Corp. and the British government, including its police departments. Some Murdoch employees and consultants in the United Kingdom reportedly received payments from News Corp. that bound them not to speak about certain subjects on which he or she had been working.
If, for example, you have a job advising the government on dealings with the press, and you are the beneficiary of a “golden gag” contract from Murdoch that pays you not to talk about certain things, avoiding conflicts of interest is very difficult.
A second issue is the role of the “golden gags” themselves in the operations of a news organization. In what kind of situation, if any, is it proper for a news organization to pay present or former employees not to talk about certain subjects? It seems to me the proper scope of such pacts must be very narrow, if indeed they are legitimate at all.
Now that top news executives of Murdoch’s British operations are under close examination, it is likely that the most powerful news executive in the United States, Roger Ailes, will also come under scrutiny. Ailes, who at one time worked for President Ronald Reagan, was hired by Murdoch to launch the Fox News Channel in 1996. Fox News, which Ailes heads today, wields enormous influence in U.S. politics, much of it on behalf of conservative forces in the Republican Party. Fox News is an important part of Murdoch’s power and influence in the United States, and internally he has never let anyone at News Corp. lay a glove on Ailes.
The scandal in Great Britain came to light because of information disclosed by people inside Murdoch’s organization. It’s anyone’s guess whether some present or former employees of the Murdoch empire are struggling with whether to step forward with potentially explosive information about how news was gathered or edited in Murdoch’s American news properties. My hunch is that we are at the beginning of the revelations, not the end.
By Peter Goldmark, Newsday
Peter Goldmark, a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund. ― Ed.
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.)