Elisabeth Murdoch rejects brother James' belief of profit at all costs

Elisabeth Murdoch takes aim at brother James' belief in profit at any cost, to distance herself from the scandal that tarnished News Corp

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 2:52am


Elisabeth Murdoch urged the media industry to embrace morality and reject her brother James' mantra of profit at all costs, in a speech seen as an attempt to distance herself from the scandal that has tarnished her father Rupert's empire.

Addressing television executives, she said profit without purpose was a recipe for disaster and the phone hacking scandal at British tabloid the News of the World tabloid showed the need for a rigorous set of values.

The comments are being closely examined for signs of whether she could one day run News Corp instead of her brothers, whose chances have faded.

"News [Corp] is a company that is currently asking itself some very significant and difficult questions about how some behaviour fell so far short of its values," she said in the annual television industry MacTaggart lecture.

"Personally I believe one of the biggest lessons of the past year has been the need for any organisation to discuss, affirm and institutionalise a rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose," she said in remarks which drew applause.

Elisabeth Murdoch - a successful television producer who was overlooked for senior jobs at News Corp that went first to her brother Lachlan and then James - said a lack of morality could become a dangerous own goal for capitalism.

Rupert Murdoch last year closed the News of the World, which was owned by a News Corp unit, amid public anger that its journalists had hacked into the voicemails of people from celebrities to victims of crime. Several former executives appeared in court over the case.

"There's only one way to look at this," Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff said. "This is part of a strategic repositioning of Liz Murdoch within the media world, with the business world and within the family."

The often humorous lecture delivered at the annual Edinburgh Television Festival came three years after James Murdoch used the same platform to confront a largely hostile audience with his vision for the industry.

Elisabeth, 44, and 39-year-old James had been very close, say sources close to the family, but their relationship became strained by the hacking affair.

"Writing a MacTaggart [lecture] has been quite a welcome distraction from some of the other nightmares much closer to home. Yes, you have met some of my family before," she said to laughter, in a rare speech for the founder of the successful television production company Shine.

Her highly personal speech appeared designed to win over any doubters, with references to childhood conversations at the breakfast table with dad to her continuing affection for the much-loved British playwright Alan Bennett. She even lavished praise on the state-owned BBC, previously the target of fierce criticism by her brother.

Referring to James' 2009 speech, Elisabeth said his assertion that the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of media independence was profit had fallen short of the mark.

"The reason his statement sat so uncomfortably is that profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster," she said.

"Profit must be our servant, not our master. It's increasingly apparent that the absence of purpose - or of a moral language - within government, media or business, could become one of the most dangerous own goals for capitalism and for freedom."

The emphasis on personal responsibility underlined how much had changed since James Murdoch used his own MacTaggart lecture to accuse the BBC of having "chilling" ambitions.

That speech, delivered in his role as chairman of the pay-TV group BSkyB and head of News Corp in Europe and Asia, consolidated James' position as heir apparent to his father's role.

Now James Murdoch's fall from grace has turned the spotlight onto Elisabeth in the long-running debate over who will one day replace their 81-year-old father at the head of the firm.

"I think she was trying to put her mark on where she had come from and where she fits in," Enders research group analyst Toby Syfret said after emerging from the speech. "She made it clear where she didn't agree with James, and she made clear the things about her father that she admired."