Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Murdoch, parliamentary inquiries & freedom of the press

I stayed glued to the TV last night watching the two UK parliamentary hearings. Finally I got too tired and went to bed after the foam incident. This morning I started to look at some of the press coverage then stopped because it was starting to twist my own interpretation. I thought that I would record some points now while things were still fresh in my mind.

We saw two committees in operation. The first grilled the metropolitan police witnesses, the second the Murdochs and then Ms Brooks. The two were as different as chalk and cheese.

The questioning in the first committee was intense, almost forensic. There were some pretty obvious lines of questioning that weren't going to work, but generally I was struck by the rigour. I was also interested in the revealed relationship between the Met and the press, all the press, not just the Murdoch press. The police use the press, while the press tries to use the police. I would think that this is likely to become a key issue in the inquiries ahead.

By contrast, the second committee was far shallower, more political. I found some of the initial lines of questioning down-right embarrassing.

Two very different worlds had met. One, the global corporation in which the News of the World was just one per cent of the business, the second the intensely local political world in which the Murdoch papers were central players. Obviously the two overlapped, but it's still two very different world views.  

In both hearings, the question of delegation and reporting in the large organisation were central, as were linked questions of final responsibility. In both hearings, the committee members actually struggled to come to grips with this.

In the first hearing, Sir Paul Stephenson was grilled over what he knew or didn't know about the appointment of Neil Wallis as a consultant. Sir Paul essentially said that the issue was not relevant to his work or scope of responsibility. It was just a consulting assignment. Committee members couldn't really understand this; they actually lacked the knowledge of the workings of big organisations to focus their questions properly.

In the second hearing, both Murdochs were grilled over their knowledge of particular events. As in the first hearing, both Murdochs and especially Rupert pointed to the nature of delegation in big organisations. Committee members again struggled with this one. They simply couldn't understand how certain payments could be made without them being kicked up the line for approval. Again, they lacked the knowledge of the workings of big organisations to focus their questions properly.

There were some very interesting exchanges here, exchanges that revealed the gap between the top and the bottom in News Corporation, differences in perspective between Rupert and James, between the original press man and the modern media business man.

Several things stood out to me in regard to James's answers. To begin with, he clearly doesn't have his father's understanding of the detailed working of a newspaper. He is a modern media businessman, focused on electronic and new media. He is obviously good in this area, but struggled to answer simple questions about actual newspaper operations. He also displayed a lack of knowledge of delegations and reporting lines that I actually found unexpected.

The issue here was again the payment question. While it was clear that the size of payments was below the threshold required for high level authorisation, James struggled with the detail of decision processes. By contrast, his father was far more incisive and straight forward, intervening twice. Individual journalists had to account for all payments. Certain payments could not be authorised by managing editors, but had to go to the next level. Mr Murdoch Snr did not go into details, but that is clearly a matter that the various inquiries will address.

You are going to read a fair bit about Rupert Murdoch's performance, much of it couched in negative even gleeful terms. At the start of the hearing, I wondered in fact if he had his wits about him at all. It quickly became clear that he was deaf, something that I had not known. He was struggling to even hear some questions. There were very long pauses in his answers, sometimes painfully so. Yet it also became clear that he was deliberately taking his time. Whereas James tended to over-answer, Rupert was far more incisive. A simple yes or no, sometimes followed by a brief amplification.

Where Rupert became somewhat garrulous were on personal issues relating to his history or father. The whole affair has driven to the heart of the man's perception of himself and his legacy. 

One thing that made me acutely uncomfortable in the whole discussion was the question of whether or not the media can or should break the law in pursuit of a story. The discussion here was presented in black and white terms.

Clearly the parliamentarians thought that the media must comply with the law. For his part, James Murdoch took a similar position. I had a wry grin here, for James Murdoch's answer was very much part of that modern management style that I have talked about.

The Murdoch group operated in many countries and must comply with the laws of those countries. The company had a code of conduct on this expressed in a brochure supplied to all staff. Various legal counsel within the group provided training to staff on that code of conduct. All very modern, and a bit like the Met.

Why did this all this make me uncomfortable? Well, it was all so black and white. Here people need to be careful about getting the things that they ask for. The Murdoch group has previously been criticised, for example, for its willingness to comply with Chinese Government requirements. Does this mean that the press operating in Libya or Zimbabwe should comply with the laws as laid down in those countries? And what about the use in Australia and elsewhere of Government or other information provided by whistle blowers?

My point is that these things are not clear cut. Again, Rupert Murdoch as the old press man was the only one to point in any way to the ambiguities. Phone hacking was beyond the pale, but use of a private investigator in certain circumstances could be justified.

Mr Murdoch is clearly a bit of a troglodyte who actually understands something about the search for a story, the truth, in a competitive environment. By contrast, his son and indeed the committee operate in a far more black and white world.

And what will happen in all this?

The position of the Murdochs as controllers of the empire has clearly been damaged, perhaps irreparably. There may or may not be legal consequences for News. However, listening very carefully to what James Murdoch said, if his interpretation of events is correct on the facts, then the company's handling of subsequent events is likely to stand up to scrutiny.

My real concern remains that set out earlier, the possible damage done to real freedom of the press as a consequence of New of the World excesses.     


Anonymous said...

Fair summary Jim. I fell asleep at about 2 a.m. so missed Ms B. entirely. Hoping to catch her on replay this afternoon.

I thought James looked totally in command of all the non relevant facts, but succeeded in doing enough "show willing" to convince the investors of his continuing worth. Mr Rupert I've always had respect for - succeeding it always seems despite the strongest efforts of his competitors. He started badly, but I thought was much more believable than his son, with his short answers, to what mostly were a series of dorothy dixers or as you called them naive.

That MP - Watson? - was the only one which pressed the only relevant point of the Murdochs' appearance - that of ultimate responsibility for corporate good governance. It is ironic that this point is probably the only "activity" which cannot be regulated into existence; more it is either in-house nurtured, or ignored as an inconvenience.

As to responsibility, I would have expected Ms B to have to wear that, so I'm looking forward to actually seeing her performance.

ps thought it strange they appeared as a tag team; almost guarenteed the ultimate non event it turned into.

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Anonymous said...

Just a follow up for information purposes, Jim.

- does just what it says, and you can barely see where the now defunct NotW sits/sat in the scheme of things.

Then there's this

- which shows where News Corporation itself sits within the even grander scheme of things.


Jim Belshaw said...

Those were very interesting lists, KVD. At the micro level, I did not know that the Tweed Sun was owned by News.

If you look at the list you can see why problems at NOW might have been down the visibility list. Its going to be very interesting to see how all this unfolds.

Anonymous said...

And I'm equally certain that Mr Murdoch does not know "he" owns the Tweed Sun. Let us hope their mobile phones are locked up in the editor's safe every night.

Otherwise Mr Rupert might have to be humbled again.


Jim Belshaw said...

You know, KVD, that's not quite as silly as it sounds! White shoes, a huge real estate scandal and police corruption comes to mind. After all, News owns Queensland papers as well.

The somewhat sleepy editor (he/she is probably not) of The Tweed Sun suddenly realises that there is something strange about company emails. From there the plot unfolds!