What has driven Murdoch for his entire career is what drove this scandal

The phone hacking scandal at The News of the World (by the way, isn’t there a better word than “hacking”?) is too complicated for me to get into in detail. But Joe Nocera in a New York Times op-ed today recounts the career and the ambitions of Rupert Murdoch in a way that makes sense. His view of Murdoch is essentially the one I’ve had for a long time, but he fleshes it out. He is highly critical of Murdoch, without, like most of the mainstream media, reactively demonizing him.

However, having criticized demonizers, I must disclose that several years ago when I saw Murdoch being interviewed at length on TV along with his second wife, I said to a friend, “He’s evil.” What I meant by that was that there was something deeply cold and manipulative about him. He seemed to be a man totally devoted to the pursuit of power.

Murdoch’s Fatal Flaw

It’s often been noted—especially of late—that Rupert Murdoch’s entree into British newspapering took place in 1969, when, as a brash young Australian publisher, he bought The News of the World, a spicy Sunday paper that he turned into an even spicier tabloid, a cross between The New York Post and The National Enquirer.

But that’s never been quite right. Murdoch’s real introduction to British journalism came in the early 1950s, when he was fresh out of college. His father, an editor and publisher in Australia, had died the year before. Murdoch headed to Fleet Street—“the mecca of competitive journalism,” as he would describe it many years later—to learn the ropes so he could take over his father’s paper in Adelaide.

“I sat in on The Daily Express,” he told Esquire magazine in 2008, “and I enjoyed it so much, I thought, I gotta have a job here, just to learn.” He remained there for the next five or six months, staying at a friend’s apartment. “It was one of the happiest experiences of my life,” he said.

Though World War II was long over, a lingering paper shortage meant that all the London newspapers were limited to eight pages a day. “Everything was boiled down to two paragraphs or so,” he recalled in the Esquire interview. “Brevity was important. Facts had to be right. And it was exciting.”

What particularly enthralled him was the brutal competition for stories—“like it was life or death.” An editor would issue a daily critique: “We had 156 stories today, and The Daily Mail had 164. Never let that happen again.”

Nearly 60 years later, Murdoch is the head of a $33 billion media empire, the News Corporation, dominated by its holdings in television and film. Yet even though newspapers account for less than 17 percent of the company’s revenues, Murdoch still thinks of himself as a newspaperman. And there is still nothing more thrilling to him than a scoop by one of his papers—the more salacious, the better. How those stories are obtained has never been of much concern to him. In Murdoch’s mind, at least, it’s still life or death.

The kill-or-be-killed culture he created at his newspapers helps explain, for instance, why his New York Post was willing to publish an article last week, based on the thinnest of sourcing, claiming that the hotel housekeeper Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting was actually a prostitute. (The woman has since sued The Post.) It helps explain why Robert Thomson, the editor of his Wall Street Journal, sent out a memo a few years ago saying that Journal reporters would henceforth be judged not on their ability to report deep, thoughtful stories—long The Journal’s strength—but on whether they regularly broke news, even by a matter of “a few seconds,” for the Dow Jones Newswires.

And, of course, it helps explain why his News of the World will cease to exist after this Sunday’s edition.

The News of the World phone hacking scandal, which has heaped such disgrace not just on the paper but on Murdoch himself, making him the object of an entire nation’s disgust and anger, is at once inexplicable and predictable. On the one hand, reporters who work at pressure-packed scandal sheets quickly become inured to crossing lines and destroying lives; it’s what they do. On the other hand, it’s still hard to believe that not a single reporter or editor at The News of the World had the sense to realize that tapping into the cellphone of a murdered teenager was deeply wrong—no matter how many great scoops resulted. That, however, appears to be the case. The Murdoch culture had stripped them of their conscience.

Even now, Murdoch hasn’t exactly seemed remorseful. Yes, he is shutting down The News of the World, but that is largely for tactical reasons: he is desperately trying to salvage a deal—contingent on government approval—to buy the 61 percent of BSkyB, the satellite TV service, that he doesn’t own. He refused to fire Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World editor and one of his top lieutenants. One hears that privately, he places the blame for the scandal not on the actions of his reporters, or the culture he created, but on a vendetta by his enemies.

Most people outgrow their twentysomething selves. As they age, they realize that the impulses and excitements of youth need to be tempered with the judgment, empathy and caution that come with maturity. They get a better feel for the lines that ought not to be crossed. Journalists, in particular, learn that there are stories that ought not to be pursued. Not every scoop is worth it.

Murdoch’s essential problem is that he never grew up. His instincts as a journalist are the same as when he was 22. “I love competition,” he said at the end of that Esquire interview. “And I want to win.”

A little too much, it turns out.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 09, 2011 04:08 PM | Send

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