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.

Bailey Trinity bonanza makes Sorrell’s WPP package look like peanuts – comparatively

May 3, 2012

WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell may not have been best pleased with the publication timing of the latest Sunday Times Rich List.

Just as the awkward information trickled out that he had taken a 60% rise in pay and bonuses last year (£6.18m in 2011, as opposed to £4.2m in 2010), up popped the unhelpful information – tricked out in headline bold – that Sir Martin is the UK’s wealthiest advertising mogul, with a fortune of £174m (up from £148m the previous year) and a personal stake in WPP worth £156m.

A red rag to a bull, you might say. Some of WPP’s shareholders are becoming increasingly cantankerous about such generous settlements, as last year’s hullabaloo at the annual general meeting all too clearly demonstrated. This year’s AGM in June promises similar excitement.

However, Jeffrey Rosen, chairman of WPP’s remuneration committee, can rest easy in his bed. Shareholders, no matter how vociferous, haven’t a prayer of overturning the pay agreement. Sorrell may have an uncomfortable 15 minutes caught in some headline crossfire, but he can adduce powerful arguments he has deserved well of his shareholders. Look at the underlying performance of the company; the bonus element which is in any case increasingly linked to the share price; and – crushing final point – what would shareholders actually do without him?

Alas, Rosen’s oppo over at Trinity Mirror, Jane Lighting – who once headed Five – can expect no such easy ride. Shareholders are baying for her blood after she waved through Trinity chief executive Sly Bailey’s £1.7m pay package, apparently without a murmur of protest.

Why the fuss? After all, £1.7m is financial foothill stuff compared with Sorrell’s £6.18m. But then Sorrell – unlike Bailey – has built a £10.67bn world-leading marcoms business. And  – again unlike Bailey – he has not presided over the systematic destruction of shareholder value these past 9 years.

When in 2003 Bailey joined Trinity, publisher of The Mirror, The People and sundry local newspapers, it was valued at £1.1bn. Today, that valuation is near £84m and dwindling fast. Trinity has not paid a dividend since 2008, and its pension liabilities of £1.7bn now dwarf market capitalisation.

Personally blaming Bailey for the destruction of Trinity would be a bit like blaming Canute for the tide coming in. All said and done, it’s the internet wot done it; and no one else in the newspaper publishing sector has successfully outflanked its effects. But paying her a near-FTSE100 wedge for running a small cap company looks increasingly absurd. All the more so since Bailey has no identifiable long-term solution to Trinity’s plight.

It’s time to move on Sly, maybe to some non-exec roles. I’m sure you’ll be a lot tougher on pay deals than Lighting.

UPDATE 4/5/2012: SLY TAKES THE HINT AND RESIGNS SHOCK! Bailey handed in her notice shortly after share-trading closed last night, once it became clear she faced an unquellable revolt over her pay deal from at least 25% of Trinity’s shareholders. Interestingly, prime among the rebels was Aviva, which is experiencing internal sedition over its own chief executive’s handsome package. It seems Bailey will not exactly be missed by her staff, who have in recent times endured massive cuts to editorial budgets. A journalist at the Liverpool Echo, one of Trinity’s regional newspapers, is reported to have said: “Every time her bonuses were going up we were losing people from the newsroom. We called her the wicked witch of the south.” Apparently, unrestrained whoops and guffaws were to be heard in the Mirror’s offices after the news broke that she was leaving.

Is now the moment when The Sun brand begins to set?

January 29, 2012

Arrested: four senior Sun hacks, plus an allegedly bent copper.

Is this the moment that damage to The Sun brand becomes systemic and unstoppable?

Not if News Corp, which ultimately owns the title, has calculated correctly. After all, the information that led to the arrests – carried out as part of the Operation Elveden investigation into police corruption – was volunteered by the company itself. It’s a gesture clearly designed to demonstrate that the House of Murdoch is now whiter than white, thanks to the “fearless” probing of its so-called Management and Standards Committee (driving force, former Telegraph editor-in-chief Will Lewis).

Sacrificing the prospects of 4 more Sun employees superficially looks like a shrewd way of cauterizing existing brand damage. But on one condition only: that no more evidence of criminal behaviour comes to light. And who, in the circumstances, is going to guarantee that?

Because these four are not the first Sun staff to be arrested. Remember Sun district editor Jamie Pyatt, who was assisting police with their inquiries last November, and has now been bailed until next March? The suspicion must linger that more arrests – inextricably linking The Sun to the culture of criminal deception imbuing other parts of NI – are on the way. And how might that play with advertiser sentiment?

When perception will actually catch up with reality is, of course, anyone’s guess. One of the remarkable aspects of this marathon phone-hacking (computer-hacking and police bribery) scandal is how long everyone at News Corp rival Trinity Mirror – from CEO Sly Bailey down to Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace and, indeed, The Mirror’s most famous alumnus of all, Piers Morgan – has been able to cling to the increasingly threadbare “Three Wise Monkeys” defence strategy. Only the other week, Bailey was telling the Leveson Inquiry that she had never launched an inquiry into potential journalistic abuses “because she had never been given any evidence of it“. Of course she hasn’t. Which turkey ever votes for Christmas?

UPDATE 30/1/12: Nick Davies, the man who has done more than anyone else to break open this scandal, clearly sees the arrest of senior Sun editorial executives as a pivotal moment. In his Guardian piece today, he suggests that News Corp has now lost control of its own database, and therefore the ability to obstruct further disclosures. With potentially terrifying consequences for a lot of senior people in the Murdoch news organisation. See ‘Mysteries of Data Pool 3 give Rupert Murdoch a whole new headache‘.

Piers Morgan and Daily Mirror tainted by phone-hacking allegations

July 20, 2011

As predicted in my recent post on Trinity Mirror, the toxic effluent of NoWgate is beginning to lap around other hitherto untainted tabloid titles.

Curiously enough, the sluice gate has been raised by some – apparently careless – obiter dicta uttered by Louise Mensch MP in the closing moments of yesterday’s select committee grilling of the Murdochs.

Seeking to broaden the context of NoW journalists’ criminal activities, she suggested that Piers Morgan – currently CNN’s fabulously remunerated anchorman, but between 1995 and 2004 editor of the Daily Mirror – had “personally” profited from phone-hacking.

Morgan is, understandably, spitting tin tacks, but he’s been kebabbed by Mensch’s absolute parliamentary privilege – which prevents him from suing her. Almost needless to say, she has not been so foolish as to repeat her allegations outside parliament. Which has left Morgan impotently huffing and puffing about her “cowardice”. In a nutshell, he and his reputation have been hung out to dry.

The truth is, Mensch has skilfully elided an excerpt from Morgan’s autobiographical book The Insider (in which he makes coy reference to the joys of phone-hacking) with some of her own conjectures about his complicity in the Mirror’s murky Ulrika Jonsson/Sven Goran Eriksson “love rat” scoop – that broke during Morgan’s editorship. Many seem to believeJonsson prime among them – that the story could only have been broken as a result of phone-hacking.

Strictly speaking, Morgan is right to point out there was nothing “personal” in his involvement with phone-hacking and nowhere in his book does he state that there was (but then, there wouldn’t be, would there? He’s no fool).

Alas for him and his reputation, the slur will persist. There is, after all, reasonable suspicion that it might be true…

…until proven otherwise.

In the meantime, the lady’s not for turning – judging by this heated exchange between Morgan and Mensch on CNN.

Holier-than-thou Trinity may come a cropper over Sunday Mirror

July 8, 2011

I note, with some amusement, that shares in Sunday Mirror publisher Trinity Mirror have soared to their highest level in a year. A development not unconnected with Rupert Murdoch’s draconian decision yesterday to close down its principal rival, the News of the World.

Which gooseberry bush were these City folk puffing Trinity’s stock born under? The knee-jerk thinking seems to be that the NoW’s nemesis is the Sunday Mirror’s good fortune. All that £40m-worth of advertising formerly populating the News of the Screws will have to find a new home. And where better targeted than the Sunday Mirror, whose own annual revenue is languishing at something under £20m? According to City analyst Alex de Groot, that figure could increase by over 50% to £30m.

Er, not necessarily Alex. Beyond the perspective of the next few Sundays, this is no zero sum game. Murdoch’s misery is a reverse for the whole red-top sector, and the Sunday Mirror may well turn out to be one of the prime collateral casualties.

Why so? The phone-hacking scandal and associated police corruption is now to be the remit of a judicial inquiry. Not that I have much faith in the individual acumen of the judge, whoever that may be, presiding over it. Lord Hutton’s wilfully eccentric conclusions drawn from his own inquiry into the ‘sexed up’ WMD dossier cured me of any such illusions. What did impress me about the Hutton Inquiry was the wealth of uncontrollable detail that spilled into the public domain. I suspect a similar torrent of information will pour out of this, as yet unnamed, inquiry (relayed verbatim, no doubt, on The Guardian’s website, if nowhere else).

The key word here is “uncontrollable”. It is no longer possible, if it were ever desirable, to restrict the terms of reference of such an inquiry to the News of the World. It will, inevitably, have to investigate the whole culture of phone-tapping and police bungs rife within the tabloids these past 15 years.

Trinity has vigorously denied any complicity. That’s not strictly true, though, is it? In terms of sensationalism, the case of Paul Marsden MP may not be up there with NoW’s blatant and cynical tapping of war widows’ voicemail messages. But it tells an unsavoury tale all the same.

The Lib-Dem MP decided to step down in 2006 after a spate of revelations in the Sunday Mirror detailing various adulterous affairs. No doubt the Sunday Mirror had every right to expose the “love cheat” exploits of the errant MP. Less evidently justifiable are the means by which it seems to have acquired its information. According to Marsden these involved voicemail hacking and impersonating a policeman. It may be of more than passing interest that the Sunday Mirror reporter responsible for the Marsden story subsequently moved to NoW, at a time when Andy Coulson was editor. I’m sure Marsden himself would happily update us on the details.

If the Marsden case proves more than a bizarre lapse of judgement, I wonder how long advertisers will remain at the Sunday Mirror? And what will become of Trinity’s share price then?

UPDATE 23/7/11: I wonder who the ‘Master of the Dark Arts’ is? Sure enough, the Sunday Mirror is now up to its neck in phone-hacking scandal, after a Newsnight exposé. Here’s an excerpt, reported in The Guardian:

The source said: “One reporter, who was very good at it, was called ‘the Master of Dark Arts’. At one point in 2004, it seemed like it was the only way people were getting scoops. If they didn’t just randomly hack people in the news, they would use it to stand up stories that people had denied.”

According to the former employee, the “dark arts” were used to try to beat the News of the World at its own game.

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