Pulling the plug on Murdoch
Readers of this newspaper may feel fortunate that Rupert Murdoch owned it only briefly before selling it to its current proprietor. But the ways of the Murdoch media are very relevant to any discussion of the role of the press in open, capitalist and democratic societies. So this journalist has been lucky to be in England as the horror story of mobile phone hacking and other devious and illegal deals unfolded before a shocked public and politicians who at least pretended to be shocked.
First, though, a couple of good words for Murdoch. He has a genuine interest in newspapers, perhaps to the extent of failing until too late to recognise the impact of the internet. And he prolonged the profitable life of the newspaper industry in Britain and Australia by waging a successful war against trade unions protecting unneeded jobs and out-of-date technology. In that sense he was an important force for progress in print.
However, it must be said that Murdoch was always known as being interested in newspapers not as purveyors of facts, as journals of record or venues for debates but as sources of profit. Hence his preference is for anything that sells regardless of its accuracy. That was a trait that he inherited from his father, who gained fame as a correspondent in the first world war, whose articles were subsequently shown to have been highly inaccurate and prejudiced, and who then waged an unsuccessful newspaper campaign to discredit Australia's greatest soldier, General Sir John Monash, who was the son of German Jewish immigrants.
Rupert's preference was for a different form of sensationalism, mostly in tabloid form and practised most successfully in Britain with The Sun and the News of the World. Truth became ever less relevant, methods of getting stories ever more devious, if not actually illegal, and in some cases using threats of expos?s of their private lives to influence politicians. The word blackmail might not be inappropriate. The Australian, a national newspaper, was his only positive contribution to serious journalism.
Much of the focus on the private lives of celebrities was done in the name of 'the people's right to know'. But in the case of the Sunday Times, he changed a paper once esteemed for its investigation of important public issues into one more focused on exposing private lives of the rich or famous. The power of the Murdoch machine, however, prevented his own family being subject to the similar treatment by rival media.
The rivals followed Murdoch some way down the path of sensationalism and prejudice to the general detriment of newspapers - and of television, too, in the US, with Fox News, a channel that has single-handedly dramatically lowered the tone of American political debate. Doubtless, rivals in Britain will now be found to have resorted to many of the improper News Corp practices now being exposed.
His organs were just that little bit more ruthless, just as he himself would let his commercial interests over-ride his own views and personal inclinations. Hence he traded his Australian nationality for US citizenship and backed the election of Tony Blair's Labour government in Britain.
Indeed, it was the combination of tabloid headlines and variable political position that made British ministers, notably Blair and David Cameron, seek his support and otherwise lionise him in ways that were totally inappropriate given the nature of his publications.
Now the British political elite is turning on Murdoch, all parties uniting against the expansion of his media empire. But the investigations now promised will doubtless uncover yet more evidence of the unhealthy relationship between the Murdoch media and politicians of all stripes as well as the complicity of an apparently easily bribed police force.
The fact is that fear of Murdoch was as much a consequence of their own lack of judgment as of the actual power of his media. In particular has been the concern, most evident under Blair but carried on by Cameron, of being obsessed about daily headlines and instant reactions to government policies and announcements.
This focus on the immediate is destructive of good policymaking - and probably largely irrelevant, given that elections are held only every four to five years and governments judged either by their overall performance or circumstances at the time of the election. All that is quite apart from the cosy personal relationships between leading politicians and the purveyors of Murdoch sleaze that led to Cameron appointing a former News of the World editor as his spokesman.
It is also clear that the power of News Corp, real or imagined, stemmed partly from the concentration of media ownership in very few hands. This is clearly not in the interests of debate and democracy and thus has very wide significance at a time when global news is concentrated in very few providers and intermediaries such as Google and Yahoo.
Hopefully the Murdoch saga in Britain will be a catharsis that will lead to a reversal in the decline of standards of journalism, not just there but elsewhere. That applies to once esteemed organs such as the BBC, whose descent, at least judged by World Service television, is all too evident. (Hopefully former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, recently installed as BBC chairman, can have a positive influence). Hopefully, too, it will lead to journalists distancing themselves more from the people about whom they write, be they politicians, businessmen, film stars or sportsmen, and focusing on their professional, not private, lives.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator