x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Murdoch's exit could do more harm than good

I got my first contract as a reporter at the London Daily Telegraph in 1989. At this time, the newspaper industry was booming, largely as a result of Rupert Murdoch's victory over the print unions at the new Wapping headquarters of News Corporations's News International, parent company of the very newspapers which now find themselves at the centre of the phone-hacking scandal.

Freed from the shackles of union restrictive practices, the entire industry was able to set course for the sunlit uplands of the second millennium, launching new products (such as The Independent), expanding in scope and hiring fresh talent. Those of us who forged our careers at this time - and who never worked for News International - could nevertheless be described as children of the Murdoch era.

Many in the UK, including some elements of the political class, are gleefully predicting the demise of News International, News Corp and the dynamic and occasionally subversive family dynasty that underpins the whole.

I, too, am horrified at some of the journalistic practices revealed by the phone-hacking scandal. I am equally unconvinced, having edited newspapers myself, that the heads of the publications involved could have remained oblivious to what was going on amongst their staff. It is painful, but necessary, to have these excesses exposed.

But politicians and the assorted outriders for the schadenfreude brigade should understand what a Murdoch withdrawal from the UK might represent - not just for the industry, but for the informal network of rights and duties that make up the role of the media in prosecuting the public interest.

The News of the World, in its final edition before closure this month, laid out front pages from past issues representing examples of public interest journalism. Despite the examples of privacy invasion, this newspaper was on many occasions a force for public good whose extinction will, on balance, reduce the industry's capacity to, in the words of the American journalist and humourist Finley Peter Dunne, "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".

The Times, one of the most venerable titles in the world, has been kept alive for more than 20 years by Mr Murdoch at the cost of many millions. News International itself, which still prints some of the most popular and influential titles in the UK, operates through economies of scale that might cease to exist if the company was broken up.

Most venture capital business plans would be based on widespread savings and redundancies. I cannot think of a proprietor with the patience, sense of play and sheer love of newspapers of Rupert Murdoch who might be waiting in the wings to take on News International as is. Just as the industry's rise at the end of the last century was linked to the arrival of Rupert Murdoch, so might its demise be hastened by his departure.

We have witnessed in recent weeks televised parliamentary hearings in which News International executives and members of the Murdoch family have been attacked by politicians who for years had sought advancement by cosying up to those same characters.

The parliamentary proceedings and politicians' subsequent denunciations of media practices, though largely justified on this occasion, should be treated within the context of the recent scandal, revealed by newspapers themselves, involving the fiddling of expenses by members of parliament. For some politicians, now mindful of public outrage at media practices and who have been justifiably raked over the coals for poor ethical conduct, this is payback time.

Yet I am concerned that the political classes will now opt for increased regulation. The press in the UK operates according to a self regulatory system whose provisions, though ignored by some titles, are basically sensible and robust. It is almost certain that after this maelstrom, editors will cling to this system as a means of avoiding regulation from outside. They should be given time to get their house in order.

The phone hacking affair has shown us just how low some editors and reporters are willing to go in order to protect their patch in the face of dwindling readership and the challenges of the digital age. And yet none of this business would have been dragged into the public domain if a newspaper, The Guardian, had not campaigned so vigorously for so many months on the phone hacking issue. Indeed, the whole episode has revealed the very worst of newspaper practice, but also the very best. A solution should involve remedies to the former, but not at the expense of the latter.

The credibility of the Murdoch clan has taken a hit, but before aggrieved parties take up their torches and pitchforks and seek to harry them from the UK, consideration should be given to the impact on the industry this might have.

Mr Murdoch is a proprietor in the old mould, ready to invest adventurously, or take risks (as with the union wars of the late 20th century) that can nurture the industry. Asked by MPs during his evidence last week how much he knew about phone hacking at his titles, he said that his empire employs more than 50,000 people. This should be kept in mind by all, including Mr Murdoch, charged with recalibrating the relationship between media assets and the market they operate in.


Martin Newland, editorial director for Abu Dhabi Media, is the former editor of The Daily Telegraph