Press regulation: it ain’t over until the press barons sign up to it

March 18, 2013

Rupert MurdochOh Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! they chortled in their joy! The political class seems intoxicated with having finally, excruciatingly, achieved cross-party consensus on regulating the press.

Everyone, it appears, is a winner. Dave has gambled – with losing a vote in the House of Commons, and implicit in it a momentous amount of face – and won a few, paltry concessions on statutory regulation that can only be appreciated in their full complexity by a nit-picking lawyer. Ed, jubilant, with parliamentary plaudits ringing in his ears, has got what he always claimed he wanted: a Royal Charter backed by statutory regulation. And Nick’s just happy to be on the winning side (whichever that is, exactly).

But, resonant of the Cypriot banking crisis rumbling in the background, parliamentary accord in principle may be only the first, relatively easy, step in what promises to be an agonisingly long process.

Amid universal self-congratulation within the first three estates, what has been forgotten is the most important issue of all: the assent of the fourth. An eerie silence has settled over the land as the press barons – the mighty Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – weigh up their options.

This is not the endgame they had in mind at all. The merest hint of statutory sacrament is abhorrent. And their objections to it are by no means groundless. Being men of the world, none expected to get away with a light slap on the wrist this time round (in other words, the moribund Press Complaints Commission being given a new set of falsies). What they have been served up, however, is enough to cause apoplexy.

Granted, the new press council will be self-regulatory in a manner of speaking: for instance, editors will still play a principal role in drawing up their own code of conduct. But the fact that this code is to be enshrined in law (however statute-lite) means – horror of horrors – the Street of Shame will for the very first time have to abide by it.

And there is worse. Newspapers are being expected to pay for this new regulatory body with their own hard-earned (and declining) advertising and circulation revenues. Yet they will be able to exercise no veto over those sitting in judgement upon them.

Now what is the point of self-regulation if you can’t game the system?

All sorts of humiliations beckon. For a start, there will be front-page retractions of a size and proportion equivalent to the original trumped-up story; in other words, no more “See page 94, bottom para, far right”. And then, if the press recuses? “Arbitrary” fines whose eye-watering size might actually get noticed by shareholders, and hit the owners where it really hurts – in the bank account.

Luckily, there are a few time-honoured principles that can be trundled out to muddy the waters, promote dissension and avert the awful day of reckoning. A very good one is our old friend Juvenal’s Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? – which might be loosely translated as: who will watch over the watchdog itself? A question that near two thousand years of repeated interrogation has failed to satisfactorily answer.

Juvenal’s oblique point, as far as I can make out, was that the powerful invariably stuff organs of governance with officials who are like-minded, obligated, compromised or compliant – leading to all manner of corruption and tyranny. A fine contemporary example would be the PCC, the illustrious members of whose committee quite recently included Tina Weaver – former editor of the Sunday People – who is now helping police with their inquiries into phone-hacking.

However much fog surrounds the future workings of the new press regulatory body, one thing is beacon-clear: the regulator will no longer be guided by the wisdom of serving newspaper editors with an axe to grind. But if not editors, then who? That is the question. Friends of politicians? The Good and the Wise from the upper house? Well-meaning but naive members of the judiciary, like Brian Hutton who was walked all over by the Blair government? Former senior civil servants who, like most lawyers, are instinctively inimicable to the whole concept of “unauthorised” leaks of information into the public domain? The publicly-wronged but narrowly-focused, like the McCanns, Dowlers, John Prescott and, er, Hugh Grant?

Who, in short, can – hand on heart – present themselves as an uncompromised and objective judge in the court of press ethics?

Without the compliance of the three aforementioned proprietors, whose newspapers account for the vast majority of national readership, these new Leveson-spawned regulations are going to go nowhere. Should they choose to prevaricate, Murdoch & Co will have ample opportunity to rail against disguised censorship. Real, or imagined.


BBC in uproar and not a Twitter from @rupertmurdoch

October 23, 2012

Considering the gloating opportunities, @rupertmurdoch has been abnormally restrained. Apart from a terse but prescient: “Saville (sic)- BBC story long way to run. BBC far the biggest, most powerful organization in UK,” nothing has been said on the subject since October 14th.

Maybe the old boy has got bored with his favourite hobby, the British media. But I somehow doubt it. And his silence certainly can’t be attributed to not wanting to stick the knife in – as Hugh Grant, the “Scumbag Celebrity”, knows to his cost. No, @rupertmurdoch is surely waiting until the dish is sufficiently cold to make a mouthful of it.

And what a mouthful. The BBC has rightly made much of the fact that Savilegate (all crises these days are “-gates”, aren’t they?) has a silver lining. No other news organisation, they say, would be capable of an equivalently rigorous self-examination in the wake of such an error. “Mea culpa” is not, after all, a term you hear very often at News International – or anywhere else, for that matter, unless the lawyers so decree. But the BBC being more transparent is no guarantee that its senior executives are any less mendacious, self-serving and slippery than those of other media owners.

Today’s performance before the culture media and sport select committee by a nervous George Entwistle, now director-general, then director of vision (i.e. telly), left us in little doubt that Newsnight’s editor Peter Rippon is the one being lined up for the sacrificial knife. And it’s his blog what done it.

True, Rippon’s version of the facts leaves much to be desired. There are a number of errors in the post which make it apparent that, even looked at in the most charitable light, Rippon’s grasp of the situation was woefully inadequate. The point about not withholding information from the police, for instance, is downright misleading (whether deliberately so or not). That’s certainly conduct unbecoming in the editor of a programme of Newsnight’s calibre.

But all this proves very little, except that Rippon was desperate for some ex-post facto sticking plaster to justify a decision that he himself may have found incompatible with his professional ethics. The question is: how did he arrive at that decision? Hard evidence has yet to surface, but circumstantially there seem a number of things that just don’t add up. At one moment, Rippon is reported by the Newsnight editorial team to be upbeat about the Savile programme’s prospects; the next, he has decided to shelve it. Apparently, this happened very soon after he had informed the BBC’s head of news, Helen Boaden, of the programme’s content and intention. Boaden then told her boss, Entwistle. But, according to him, only in the most airy, abstract manner. With the result that this normally competent media professional entirely failed to recognise the Newsnight investigation might in, some way, undermine a lavish tribute programme shortly to be aired in Sir Jimmy’s honour – and make complete fools of the Corporation’s senior executives at the same time. That at least is what he is asking us to believe, since he clearly took no action to review the tribute programme.

Rippon, of course, is denying that Boaden gave him any advice beyond telling him to act according to his own lights. Whether that advice included a knowing wink and a nod, alluding to his future on the BBC career ladder, we shall probably never know. Boaden’s words are unrecorded, and she shows no sign of wishing to enlighten us further.

That said, maybe we should keep this affair in perspective. BBC executives may be dealing in half-truths and obfuscation, but they can hardly be accused of breaking the law. Unlike Trinity Mirror, publisher of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People, which is now facing civil actions over phone-hacking from former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and a number of other minor celebrities. Trinity Mirror’s senior management is, as it has routinely done since questions started to be voiced about Piers Morgan’s tenure as editor of The Mirror, denying any wrongdoing. But shareholders obviously don’t believe them. At one point, TMG shares dipped 12.5% today. Civil actions were the slow-burning fuse that eventually lit the powder-keg at News International.

As I say, the old boy is going to have a right old feast, once he gets round to serving it.


Taint of scandal touches Google as ICO reopens Street View investigation

June 13, 2012

I wonder what we should call it? Googlegate? Datagate, perhaps? Google’s inept handling of rogue data captured in the course of its Street View surveys is giving the search giant an unsavoury corporate reputation. It’s hard not to detect parallels here, albeit on a minor scale, with the Murdoch scandal.

And these parallels are? Out-of-control employees apparently breaking the law in pursuit of a private agenda; the abuse of private data; a corporate cover-up involving middle to upper reaches of company management; weak and complaisant regulators who have been forced to reexamine the inadequacy of their earlier rulings.

The UK spotlight has been turned back on Google only because of some disturbing findings uncovered by a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into material gathered by Street View cars – which have specially adapted cameras – in the US. Earlier, the UK regulator – The Information Commissioner’s Office – had dropped a probe into the affair after receiving assurances that Google had collected the data – which includes emails, email headings, visits to pornographic sites and personal medical information – purely by accident.

Not so, it now transpires thanks to the US investigation. A Google software engineer – we’ll call him Engineer Doe, because that’s what the FCC calls him – deliberately built a program capable of capturing all this stuff and then put it into operation between 2008 and 2010. Engineer Doe, it seems, “intended to collect, store and review payload data [as it is known] for possible use in other Google projects.” I wonder what these could have been? iSpy or Gotcha perhaps.

Engineer Doe told two other engineers working on the project what he was up to, one of whom was a senior manager. But the senior echelons at Google deny all complicity.

Having reopened its inquiry, the ICO now wants to know what type of data was captured; when exactly Google managers became aware of the rogue capture; and why Google had previously failed to disclose to the ICO the exact nature of the gathered data.

Extraordinarily, Engineer Doe and his two colleagues still appear to be in the employ of the company. Although, presumably, they are deployed on alternative projects.


Seven-day-a-week newspaper publishing revolution shatters The Mirror

May 30, 2012

The Rabelesian guffawing in The Mirror’s newsroom when Trinity Mirror’s chief executive announced her unlamented departure is now reduced to a sullen whisper.

Who will be next, the hacks timorously wonder as they survey the seismic damage caused by this morning’s fresh round of top-level sackings? Out, in short order, have gone Richard Wallace, editor of The Daily Mirror, and Tina Weaver, veteran editor of The Sunday Mirror. In has come Lloyd Embley (who? – formerly editor of the People) as the new editorial supremo of a “merged” 7-day-a-week Mirror newspaper.

In a classic example of tabloid double-think, Embley told his shell-shocked team: “This is not a slash and burn exercise. Nor is it about managing decline.”

Isn’t it, Lloyd? Difficult to see what else it might be. Certainly not a strategic decision, made from strength. Nor, to use some ghastly marketing jargon, is it “proactive”. Indeed, as so often in the world of newspapers, Rupert Murdoch continues to take the credit, having got there first with the 7-day Sun – while Trinity hobbles behind, a lame second. If the two editors were stunned by the manner of their summary dismissal this morning, they can hardly be surprised by its ultimate cause. All the circulation gains accruing to The Sunday Mirror after Murdoch unexpectedly closed the News of the World were wiped out almost overnight by his introduction of The Sun on Sunday.

If this brutal step-change really is, in the words of the Trinity statement, “a further step towards creating one of the most technologically advanced and operationally efficient newsrooms in Europe,” why on earth didn’t senior management have the courage of their convictions and implement it before?

Because, let’s face it, it isn’t really a step-change at all. And because, where newsrooms and newspapers are concerned, there are more important things than being “technologically advanced” and “operationally efficient”. Like keeping your journalists on side. Which is difficult when you are savagely cutting their numbers to achieve shareholder “value”.

What seems to have occurred here is some highly expedient corporate chicanery. How can it be that Sly Bailey, the lame duck outgoing chief executive, has been allowed to make these changes, changes she would never have dared to make before she resigned? Simple. The new board, and particularly the new chairman David Grigson, needs someone to hide behind, someone who is now totally expendable.

This may not have been Grigson’s only calculus, however. The suspicion is Trinity used this occasion to cleanse its Augean Stables. We’re still waiting to hear the full unexpurgated version of former Mirror editor Piers Morgan’s flirtatious relationship with the truth about phone-hacking, but last week moved a little closer to full disclosure with Jeremy Paxman’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry. Wallace and Weaver were both later contemporaries of Morgan, who stepped down from the Mirror in 2004. Like two Wise Monkeys, they have joined Morgan in a deaf-and-dumb denial of complicity in phone-hacking culture. Which – who knows? – may be entirely justified. But just in case, why not get rid of them at this opportune moment? They are, in any case, very expensive; and they were, no doubt, utterly opposed to the concept of sacrificing one of their editorships on the altar of a 7-day newspaper.

And yet the real casualty here is the brand. Sunday newspapers, and not just red-top Sundays, are looking like an endangered species. Who will be next to join the 7-day bandwagon? The Independent/Independent on Sunday? The Guardian/Observer?

Sunday newspapers are being eroded not simply by shrink-fit publishing economics but by changing reading habits. After all, who these days seeks the wow-factor of a good old-fashioned scoop over their Sunday bacon and eggs?


Let’s Raisa stirrup-cup to David Cameron’s poor personal judgement

March 5, 2012

The time has come to fess up to my role in Horsegate. I have ridden a horse since 2010, and more than several times too. It would be a surprise if I hadn’t, you see, because I own one.

Well, two …er, three now I come to think of it, but that was an accident that last one. Yes, I know, inexcusable isn’t it? Also, I’ve ridden to hounds – but long, long ago. Just after the 2005 Hunting Act came in, actually. Not of course that any fox was involved, just a smelly old rag impregnated with urine. Oh, and no more than two dogs …

Did I mention my connection with the Metropolitan Police? Another lapse on my part. It’s all my farrier’s fault really. Until recently, he worked full time for the Met, and he used to shoe Raisa, the police horse that has caused poor Mr Cameron so much trouble with his increasingly defective memory. A bit of a beast, apparently. No end of trouble to shoe, ever since that unfortunate stint with the Riot Squad which made her virtually unrideable. You couldn’t even clench a shoe-iron without the mare rearing uncontrollably.

No, let’s get a grip. I made that last bit up. Just like Mr Cameron’s advisers – starting with the late, unlamented Andy Coulson –  who have constructed a tissue of half-truths and lies around Dave’s not-very-secret interest in horses, the company he kept with race-horse trainer Charlie Brooks and with Brooks’, er, dear wife, the ever lovely Rebekah.

Oh! What a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive!

And for what purpose? Ex-plod horse Raisa, now sadly deceased, is of course Cameron’s worst political nightmare incarnate. What could more emblematically sum up Flame-haired Medusa, News International, Andy Coulson, phone-hacking, Rupert Murdoch, police corruption, political favouritism and poor personal judgement in just one word?

Yet, in a way, that’s not the worst of it.

Never mind that Charlie Brooks took the near-useless nag on at personal cost and out of compassion, to save her from the knacker’s yard. To the uninitiated – that is, to most of Cameron’s voters, urban-dwellers who may never have encountered a real horse in their lives – it looks like yet more upper-class horse-trading.

Never mind that most horse-owners (in my experience at any rate) appear to live in an economic twilight zone where they can barely afford to keep themselves, let alone what’s in the yard – the horse in this country is an inescapable symbol of poshness and privilege.

And poshness and privilege being unforgivable electoral sins, Dave and his Lord Snooty chum George Osborne have, not without cause, a deep psephological neurosis about them.

Remember that undertaking Cameron made to hold a free vote on fox-hunting in this parliament? No, he can’t either. Another lamentable example of his fading memory.


Will the last unindicted Sun journalist please turn out the lights?

February 11, 2012

A News International spokesman tells us Sun editor Dominic Mohan is “not resigning” in the wake of 5 more high-profile arrests of his senior colleagues.

Well, thank goodness for that. Someone has to be there to switch off the lights, and there now seem precious few editorial staff of any standing who aren’t on bail, or facing the threat of arrest.

The climate of fear at The Sun is, it would seem, being deliberately intensified by the police, in the hope of breaking NI’s culture of omerta and persuading more witnesses to squeal on each other. What other interpretation can be placed on police commander Sue Akers’ decision to organise the two waves of arrests, a week apart, as high-drama “dawn raids”, timed to coincide with Sunday newspaper interest? Whatever these men may or may not have done, they are not gun-runners, drug-traffickers or international terrorists. So why the heavy-handed police choreography, if not to a) impress the public that the police are at last getting tough on corruption and to b) create maximum distress among the people at NI?

As the web of alleged corruption spreads to more police officers, the army and the ministry of defence, it has emerged that Rupert Murdoch will be making a special pilgrimage to The Sun offices to personally reassure its staff he will not be doing unto them what he earlier did to their colleagues at the News of the World.

Maybe not, for now. But one thing I suspect we won’t be hearing much of from here on is Son of NoW, the Sun on Sunday. The Sun is a broken brand.

The latest wave of arrests will also put pressure on other parts of The Sun’s ultimate owner, News Corp. It could turn the screw on a Federal investigation into alleged racketeering. And, nearer home, it will surely rekindle calls for an investigation into News Corp being a fit and proper holder of a TV licence. Should BSkyB’s share price be seriously depressed as a result, you can be sure that – for all their stalwart support of James Murdoch up to now – the board will have no compunction in firing him as chairman.

UPDATE 18/2/12: First, some humble pie. “One thing we won’t be hearing much of from here on is the Son of NoW, the Sun on Sunday”. Er, no. Rupert Murdoch has just given his personal assurance that the launch will go ahead “very soon”. Industry experts believe this means some time in April, possibly the 29th.

However, what may play well with demoralised Sun staffers is not guaranteed to be a publishing success. Particularly if more distracting scandal damages the Sun brand in the meantime. And who, given the unbridled brief of the MSC to cleanse the Augean Stables at News International, can say it will not?

Labour MP Chris Bryant, who has been leading the anti-hacking campaign in parliament, neatly expresses the commercial paradoxof an SoS launch: “He (Murdoch) is meant still to be ‘draining the swamp’ and yet the swamp is meant to produce another newspaper.”

As it happens, Murdoch seems to have lost his sureness of touch in the realm of newspaper launches. His foray into the London freesheet market, with thelondonpaper, certainly did financial damage to Associated Newspapers, owner of London Lite and (at that time) the paid-for Evening Standard. But News International lost heavily on the project and eventually had to close it down.

The SoS will be launching into a rapidly declining market. Ad revenue was down over 17% last year (end of January) and – even stripping out the now-folded News of the World – the underlying slide was 11%. Readers are deserting too. And their contribution, in the form of circulation revenue, is even more vital to mass-market tabloids than advertising. The only way in, it would seem, is a price-war. That may well damage the SoS’ prime adversary, the Sunday Mirror. But whether it will create a financially viable Sun on Sunday is a moot point.


“Silly” remark by Everything Everywhere chief lets slip truth about T-Mobile brand

October 26, 2011

Dear Mr Swantee

How do these female Telegraph journalists do it? Trap you into saying things you didn’t really mean to say, that is? Not many months ago, Mr Cable was silly enough to tell two such hackettes that Mr Murdoch’s empire was thoroughly evil and that he was going to put a stop to it, just when he was supposed to be impartially adjudicating the self-same Mr Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB.

Now you, too, have been very silly. Or, to be more precise, you have been caught rubbishing Everything Everywhere, the brand name of the company where you are chief executive.

Here are the very words you used, as reported by the delightful Katherine Rushton:

“Everything Everywhere is not a brand, it’s a silly name with a stopping effect”, he said, although he maintained it was useful for stores which house the two mobile brands.”

Now I know what you’re going to say; in fact what you have said: just like poor old Vince, you were quoted out of context. His context was entrapment; yours we’re going to work on a bit – just in case there’s any misunderstanding.

The first thing I’d like to make clear is that we are all right behind you. Not only do we admire the candour of someone in so senior and responsible a position voicing what we have all long since judged to be a self-evident truth (just, as it happens, we did with Mr Cable). We are also quite prepared to accept that journalists, with their obsession for compression, tend to miss the bigger picture.

I expect, when you were describing your corporate brand as “silly”, what you were really doing was employing a bit of time-honoured rhetorical licence: using the part as shorthand for the whole. It’s not Everything Everywhere the brand that is “silly” with “a stopping effect”, but the brand strategy behind it. That, surely, is the bigger picture that got left out of the context.

Right from the beginning, that brand strategy has been misconceived, hasn’t it?

I mean, the initial idea was all right as far as it went: putting together 2 failing UK mobile telecoms brands in one brand-new holding company and, overnight, transforming yourself into UK leader by customers, ahead of those snake-oil people at O2. What a clever sleight of hand, and one that avoided Orange and T-Mobile experiencing serious difficulty with the competition authorities into the bargain.

The trouble is, your predecessor Tom Alexander wasn’t empowered by his twin masters, France Télécom and Deutsche Telekom, to take the idea any further – and you were left to clear up the mess that resulted. 50:50 ventures never work, do they? Still, you’ve done what you can, within the agreed terms. You’ve swept away all those unnecessary backroom boys and girls, stripped out excess infrastructure, rationalised the shops, brushed up the margins, cleansed the boardroom of useless, nay-saying, former T-Mobile executives and ploughed on with a leaner, meaner Orange team. Yes, Sirree, having worked at HP before you joined France Télécom, you know just about everything there is to know about consolidating tired, low-growth companies.

But one thing they haven’t let you do is to slay the elephant in the room. Yes, I know what you said when you took over earlier this year:

“The T-Mobile customers want a flexible payment and usage system. The Orange customers want a predictable amount paid every month. There is a clear difference.”

But the justification for that difference is becoming less and less apparent, isn’t it? Look at your latest, Q3, figures: pre-paid, plummeting; contracts up. T-Mobile’s days as a UK brand are surely numbered.

Truth to tell, Orange is and always has been much the stronger brand; better serviced too. Maybe, if there hadn’t been all that fudging at the beginning by your corporate masters, then the figures would have been a lot more convincing than they are today. And your brand hierarchy a lot more coherent. Without T-Mobile to worry about, poor old Tom would never have had a nervous breakdown trying to justify the vacuous sticking-plaster of Everything Everywhere – as the best of all branding in the best of possible worlds, when it patently wasn’t.

No wonder you let slip your frustration with a “silly”, unguarded remark.


Will Rupert Murdoch really jettison James as NewsCorp’s heir?

October 19, 2011

It’s possible that Rupert Murdoch allowed himself the ghost of a smile on hearing that Michael Wolff – one of his most vociferous and tiresome tormentors – had been defenestrated from his fastness at AdWeek.

We might like to think of AdWeek as a trade magazine covering the US advertising, media and marketing scene. But for the past year it has been hijacked by Wolff’s anti-Murdoch agenda and shamelessly exploited by the former editorial director as a scandal-sheet covering every last detail of the so-called “Murdochcalypse”.

Murdoch will have been a good deal less pleased by what he read in the New York Times yesterday. Wolff is a gadfly, but the NYT is a seriously influential enemy which has taken it upon itself to drive a wedge between Murdoch and his presumed heir, younger son James.

It is not so much the content of the article as its timing that is so troubling. Murdoch and his brood are just days away from NewCorp’s annual general meeting that could theoretically see them unseated as directors. The last thing they need is another stinkbomb.

As it happens, the NYT article fails to come up with anything stunningly original. Provocatively titled ‘In Rift Between Murdochs, Heir Becomes Less Apparent‘ , it dwells on tensions – real and possibly imagined – between the two men in the hope of creating so much further bad blood that Murdoch père will eventually perform an Abrahamic sacrifice of his son’s career prospects in order to save his own skin.

Certainly Murdoch senior has been performing a skilful dance of the seven veils to protect his reputation. First he closed News of the World, and abandoned his cherished bid for BSkyB.  When that didn’t work, he sacrificed his faithful retainers Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks. The tide of effluent still failing to ebb, he contributed millions, individually and corporately, to the Milly Dowler Fund.

For a while, the NewsCorp share price appeared to bounce back. Then came the hammer blow: a major shareholders’ revolt, partly sustained by new evidence of malpractice in the NewsCorp empire, this time at The Wall Street Journal.

Something like 25% of investors are expected to vote against the re-election of the Murdoch board on Friday. In almost any other public company that would mean curtains. But not at NewsCorp, where – unluckily for the institutional rebels – nearly 40% of the voting shares are owned by the Murdoch family.

So not much is really going to happen in the short term. Except some searing humiliation, fanned by the NYT. The worse it is, the poorer James Murdoch’s chances of eventual survival.

And that’s before his return for further grilling by the House of Commons media select committee, over the porkie pies and half-truths uttered during his last appearance.


AdWeek’s Michael Wolff on the Murdochs, an everyday tale of Mafia folk

August 9, 2011

Reading AdWeek these days, I’m irresistibly reminded of Spike Milligan’s old bestseller: “Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.”

It’s not Spike’s obvious irony I’m talking about here, either. Michael Wolff, a talented enfant terrible now editing the venerable US trade magazine, is deadly earnest in trying to slay single-handedly the apotheosis of all evil. Only, for Hitler and the Third Reich read instead Rupert Murdoch and his Evil Empire.

Media don Rupert Murdoch

“Pugnacious”, “relentless” and “fearless” are words often found in close proximity to “Wolff” on the printed page. His anti-Murdoch crusade does not disappoint in any of these respects.

Wolff established his credentials as chief Murdoch-baiter with a biography which, when it came out over 2 years ago, had the satisfying effect of all but sending the usually unflappable old boy into a fit of apoplexy.

Since then, every twist and turn of what Wolff likes to call the Murdocalypse (that is, the phone-hacking scandal and its aftermath) has been chronicled with gleeful and sardonic attention to detail on the pages and website of AdWeek.

Here’s the man in action, just after the Murdochs, père et fils cadet, had made their woeful appearance before our parliamentary select committee a couple of weeks ago….

James in prison in just a few days time, and the old boy himself safely behind bars by the end of next year – doesn’t pull his punches, does he? Of course, it’s nothing personal, he just hates the bastard and all he stands for. In the land of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Tea Party partisanship, what could be fairer than that?

I mention all this in the light of Wolff’s pièce de résistance on the Murdochs, out this week, in which the family is convincingly portrayed as a mafia clan. No idle parody this – Wolff creates some compelling parallels. Here’s a short extract that gives the flavour:

Both the New York Post and Fox News maintain enemy lists. Almost anyone who has directly crossed these organizations, or who has made trouble for their parent company, will have felt the sting here. That sting involves regular taunting and, often, lies—Obama is a Muslim. (Or, if not outright lies, radical remakes of reality.) Threats pervade the company’s basic view of the world. “We have stuff on him,” Murdoch would mutter about various individuals who I mentioned during my interviews with him. “We have pictures.”

Vito Corleone to a T. And who’s the urbane young fellah with him? Michael? er, James?

What all this may be doing for AdWeek readership I’m not sure. Wolff, whose father was an adman, has a seigneurial disdain for the dull, grubby detail of everyday adland which, if not exactly ignored, is relegated to the nether reaches of the site map. He seems intent upon recasting AdWeek as Vanity Fair, with only a nod to the business readership which has, in some measure at least, loyally supported the title these past 33 years.

Adweek’s current publisher, Prometheus Global Media, appears to be 100% behind Wolff’s mission to expunge “robotic trade journalism” from the title in the cause of creating broader readership.

Which is just as well, because the danger is the title will lose all relevance outside those interested in Wolff and Wolff’s chosen hobby-horses.

Personally, I hope Prometheus has very deep pockets. Long may it subsidise Wolff’s zealous mission to excoriate, educate and entertain. But I rather imagine the commercial department is tearing its hair out as it watches the last vestiges of market share trickle over to humdrum old AdAge.

Coming shortly: The Borgias – A modern-day makeover, with Lis as Lucrezia.


Wizard of Oz loses his magical powers

July 19, 2011

True, there were some neat forensic jabs from Tom Watson and Louise Mensch MPs, and a beautifully executed left hook from Wendi Murdoch. In the end, though, we were little wiser about why James Murdoch signed a £700,000 cheque to silence Graham Taylor without quizzing his lawyers over the price being so unfeasibly high. Which is surely the unanswered question on which Murdoch Jr’s career hangs.

Yet that’s not to say we learned nothing of importance in today’s culture, media and sport select committee hearing. On the contrary, the theatre of the occasion spoke volumes. It was rich in symbolism; a microcosm of the scandal that threatens to pull down NewsCorp.

First, there was Plod, ineptly struggling to protect Rupert Murdoch from harm’s way. Although this time it was from the smear of a white substance hurled by a protester, rather than any allegations of corporate malpractice.

And then there was the Wizard of Oz himself, spooning the egg-white (or something very like it) off his face – a crumpled paper bag of a man diminished, like his fictional counterpart at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, by having the veil of mystique unceremoniously ripped from his self-created smoke-and-mirrors illusion.

As Watson pointed out, it was what Murdoch père didn’t know, rather than what he did, which should most concern us. Gone for ever was that image of the all-powerful micro-manager who used to roll up his sleeves and appear unannounced on the floor of the Sun, confounding the staff with his mastery of encyclopedic detail.

What we saw instead was a patriarch verging on senility, propped up by his family and wife (what an oriental tiger she is); and held prisoner in his ignorance by deceitful footmen. His answers were halting in delivery and lame in content. As he himself admitted, he’s got no one but himself to blame: “No one kept me in the dark. I have been lax in not asking the right questions.” Quite – especially of Les Hinton, Jon Chapman and Tom Crone.

Maybe this image was deliberately fashioned, or at least hammed up, to give his son James a better stage part. If so, it was a sorely misconceived idea. Institutional investors in NewsCorp watching the proceedings (as they surely will have been) can have drawn only one conclusion. They have a choice between an old man who is clearly out of touch, and a young one who can’t be trusted. Perhaps they’re better off without either. Perhaps that’s what they are already thinking…

My penny’s worth? Fast-track Lis Murdoch. She is the family’s last chance.


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