Rupert Murdoch Experiences Karma

By Bill Ralston  NZ Listener Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011.

If you were of a New Age bent you’d call it “karma”. The biblically inspired would intone “You reap what you sow”. I’ll stick with the more mundane refrain of “What goes around comes around”. The King of “Popular Journalism”, the man who made a multibillion-dollar fortune and became one of the most powerful people on Earth through promoting sensationalist news, has himself fallen victim to the scourge of Red Top’s whip.

Is there a more fitting fate for the billionaire who wrecks reputations for a living Rupert Murdoch, who owned and inspired the style of the tabloids with red-topped banners such as News of the World and the Sun, is now portrayed by virtually all the world’s media in much the same way his late but unlamented NOTW depicted so many other celebrities who fell from grace. He is consistently compared to the deservedly tragic figure of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, and after his shambling appearance before a British parliamentary committee, he is painted as a decrepit, out-of-touch old man. His wife is sneeringly cheered for her right hook on a pie thrower, the iron fist in a velvet glove defending her aged spouse and provider.Lickspittle British politicians who had long cowered before the power of Murdoch’s News International have turned on him like a pack of rabid hyenas tearing at the guts of his business. Rival news organisations, with the laudable and notable exception of the Guardian and the New York Times, which had maintained a discreet silence over the excesses of his empire, now pick over the corporate carcass for juicy scraps of scandal.

You’d almost feel sorry for Murdoch if you didn’t recall the long, deep graveyard of reputations he had buried in his quest for profit. Anyone involved in journalism, from time to time, will do damage to others as they dig out the news. Sometimes the damage is deserved or inadvertent; on a very few occasions it derives from malice. Yet most decent journalists try to limit the emotional fallout that is an inevitable byproduct of their trade. The Murdoch media, however, revelled in it, realising the trauma of a newsmaker sold more papers and increased viewer numbers.

Despite the NOTW scandal, they still do. A former presenter of Murdoch-owned Fox News compared the Labour Youth gathering in Norway, with its awful toll of dead, to the Hitler Youth. Such stunning insensitivity comes not from ignorance but from a wilful desire to shock and horrify and so increase viewer numbers and profit. This kind of excess only reinforces the impression that the ethos of those who’ve worked within the Murdoch empire is despicable and amoral.

His papers sold well because they contained a lurid mix of the indiscretions of sports stars and celebrities, film and television stars, politicians and businessmen. The recipe requires a thick sauce of moral turpitude laden with sex, corruption and, on a lucky day, tragic sudden death.

A Murdoch-lite version of that recipe has crept into our own daily media because the lesson learnt over the past two decades is that it sells papers and draws viewers. If rectitude and high-minded news coverage and commentary produced profit, Murdoch would have done it. But it doesn’t and so he chose the opposite, more lucrative, option. Note that his nemesis, the lofty high-end Guardian, made stupendous losses while the late NOTW was minting money.

There is nothing wrong with a media organisation delivering a saucier mix of news and giving its readers what they want. The media are, of course, businesses that have to make a profit if they are to survive. However, the lesson from the Murdoch empire is that there is a line that should never be crossed – illegal phone hacking forming part of that line.

The Murdoch tabloids displayed an utter callousness in the way they worked, a complete unfeeling disregard for any damage they inflicted on individuals, for their moral compass was completely missing. The public might stomach the humbling of a movie star or model, their privacy trashed and reputation smeared. But once it became clear the papers were also trashing the rights of bereaved -ordinary folk, readers were revolted.

Still, the legacy of the Murdoch-lite approach has become a worldwide part of the media. Recently I tuned the MySky box (a happily embraced tool of Murdoch’s New Zealand empire) to RT, an English language Russian-owned news channel that seems to specialise in schadenfreude over Western failures, to see what it made of the Murdoch story. Instead it was screening breaking news of the Norwegian massacre and bombing. Turning to the other news channels several hours later, the Norwegian tragedy story was being supplanted by news that singer Amy Winehouse had died. Celebrity death trumps 60 or 70 dead in Scandinavia. The news cycle rolls on. Rupert would be proud.


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