The Day the News Died

The disintegration of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire really is a sight to behold, with the drip drip drip of phone hacking stories in the Guardian over the past few years transformed into a destructive tsunami of revelations – from Gordon Taylor to Gordon Brown, and in between every citizen unfortunate enough to become a news story subjected to the same odious treatment.

And there is not an ounce of sympathy for the King of the News to be found in the wide world. As Felix Salmon put it: “It’s a story fit for the movies: even after huge triumphs like acquiring the WSJ and releasing Avatar, Murdoch could be doomed by his first love — the love of aggressive tabloid journalism.” And it was a form of aggressive tabloid journalism that served only to empower Murdoch and demean everybody else.

Back in January, when the Andy Gray and Richard Keys sexism scandal was attracting all the negative headlines for Big Rupert, I wrote this column. It will be interesting to see whether the key point, that he is renowned as a notorious micromanager of his vast news empire and knows every detail of their operations, will be refuted by Murdoch when he appears before a Parliamentary committee, undoubtedly eager to claim he had no knowledge of his journalists’ practices. The very future of his media empire will depend on him convincing everybody that that is the case.


From The Irish Times, January 29th, 2011

Rumours of Rupert Murdoch’s micromanagement are legendary. Last summer, a story spread like wildfire around the New York media world, relating the odd tale of how a New York Post gossip columnist, Neel Shah, had been reprimanded by Murdoch for wearing shorts to work on a particularly hot day. The oddest part of the story? It was when Shah entered the cafeteria in News Corporation’s Manhattan headquarters that Murdoch made his intervention, calling the canteen manager to alert Shah to his dress-code violation – it seemed Murdoch was watching his underlings on security cameras from his office. Shah sharpened up his act pronto, but Murdoch kept an eye out for him and other staff – Shah was told his facial hair was too scruffy, and he heard a marketing employee was fired for revealing too much chest under his unbuttoned shirt.

As evidence of Murdoch’s voracious appetite for micromanagement, it was perfect, but unfortunately it was also a prank – first the canteen manager and then other employees kept up the ruse for a few months before Shah realised he’d been punked. Prank or not, though, it was only funny, and successful, because everybody has heard about Murdoch’s notorious management style, which involves knowing every detail and making every decision, big and small.

It is probably just as well that Murdoch doesn’t actually monitor his army of staff for misbehaviour himself, because he would have had an exceedingly busy week if he did. Last weekend, of course, it was revealed that Sky Sports mainstays Andy Gray and Richard Keys were sexist boors, a leaked clip showing them dismissing a lineswoman’s ability to correctly judge offside and a female executive’s claims that the game was rife with sexism. Their offence was much more egregious than wearing short pants to work, of course, and by Wednesday they were both gone, as further leaked clips revealed that their behaviour wasn’t exactly an aberration. The flood of female colleagues anonymously testifying to the duo’s coarse, bullying attitude explained why so many off-air clips were being leaked – such behaviour doesn’t tend to inspire loyalty.

Now nobody was exactly shocked at the revelations about Gray and Keys – I’d hate to discover otherwise, but I very much doubt Bill O’Herlihy and George Hamilton, say, engage in similar “banter”. Rashly making snap judgments despite all evidence to the contrary was Gray’s stock in trade for nearly 20 years, so he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to question a lineswoman’s offside call, even though she got the decision right. And Keys’s somewhat unctuous on-air personality seems in keeping with the self-regarding statements that got him into so much trouble.

Coming in isolation, this would be a tawdry little affair, inspiring some tabloid hysteria and some broadsheet handwringing, and Gray and Keys might even have kept their jobs. But it hasn’t come in isolation – News Corporation is fighting a number of fires at the moment, and Murdoch is striving to prevent the conflagration getting out of control.

On Wednesday afternoon, news broke that Scotland Yard had reopened its investigation into the protracted News of the World phone hacking case. The list of celebrities suing the paper seems to grow by the day, though many are wondering if Andy Gray’s decision to take action contributed to his sacking. The scandal has already seen one reporter imprisoned, a senior editor sacked, and Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s director of communications and News of the World editor at the time of the phone hacking, resign.

On Sky News on Wednesday, anchor Kay Burley, herself no stranger to controversial statements, was delivering details of Scotland Yard’s investigation with her most po-faced expression, while beneath her, a ticker revealed the other breaking headline, that Richard Keys was considering his future at the broadcaster. That evening, he resigned, citing “dark forces” that prevented him from apologising sooner. That looks like a media empire in trouble.

Fuelling the conspiracy theories, who flies into London this week but Rupert Murdoch, in an apparent bid to get a handle on the phone hacking scandal himself. (He was seen enjoying lunch at News International’s Wapping canteen, no doubt keeping an eye out for inappropriate attire.) The potential cost is great – the Tories are currently weighing up News Corp’s attempt to buy up the portion of BSkyB it doesn’t already own, a move opposed by pretty much every other media organisation in the UK, inevitably a factor to consider in all the coverage afforded to misbehaviour at the company. The perception of a corporation that fails to meet high moral standards, a perception exacerbated by the cumulative effect of phone hacking scandals and neanderthal sports broadcasters, could very easily scupper the deal.

But it’s not just Murdoch’s UK media empire that is being judged – the role of Fox News in the US is under increasing scrutiny in the wake of the Arizona shooting, and the increased demand for “civility” in political discourse. Giving a platform to a bully such as Bill O’Reilly is one thing, but giving a platform to a demagogue such as Glenn Beck as well demonstrates a wanton disregard for “civility” at the very least. The pressure on Murdoch to raise standards is now coming from both sides of the Atlantic. Maybe the famous micromanager should consider monitoring his every staff member from his office after all.

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