Murdoch's Long Goodbye

Asked what his priority was upon arrival in London earlier this month to take charge of the seemingly inevitable unraveling of News Corp, his media empire, Rupert Murdoch pointed to Rebekah Brooks, his red-haired erstwhile CEO, saying “Her.”

Brooks is now under arrest and gone. But Murdoch’s appointment of the woman to clean out the stables at the News of the World when she had presided over the soiling of the stables gave the game away. Before she became Mrs Rebekah Brooks, she was Rebekah Wade, editor of the News of the World when much of the celebrity phone-hacking and checkbook journalism scandal was rampant. She was promoted to CEO by Rupert. She was in charge of the internal investigation that declared it to be the work of one rogue reporter. Some charitable commentators speculate that Brooks was covering up the scandals from the chairman who knew nothing. Others are not nearly so charitable.

In any event, we are now watching the crumbling of an empire. It could be more than that. Whether it is a cause or a symptom, it would be encouraging to think it is at one with the end of the continuing consolidation of the conventional press into fewer and fewer and more and more powerful hands. It is intriguing to speculate that this is the final act for a business that is fracturing, passing out of the hands of media barons and into the hands of tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of Internet-based bloggers, citizen journalists and opinionators, for lack of a better word.

The attrition at the House of Murdoch must be devastating. People are going to jail. Brooks has now resigned, as have Les Hinton, the chief executive and publisher of the Wall Street Journal and Tom Crone, News International’s chief legal officer. James Murdoch himself has acknowledged making million-dollar out of court settlements while somehow seeking to say he “didn’t have a clear picture” of what the payments were for. The scandal is climbing ever closer to Rupert himself.

Anyone familiar with how the Murdoch organization works will know that nothing of significance is allowed to happen in any part of the global empire without direct approval of The Boss. None of his minions dare risk any initiative without express permission. After securing that, they gloat over lesser minions in turn, ordering them to charge up whichever hill needs to be charged.

Rebekah Wade knew too much of how high up the phone-hacking, pay-offs to police and hush money to victims was sanctioned. At the Parliamentary hearing, will she confess? She has stood steadfast so far, denying any knowledge of these shenanigans. But if she were subsequently to be charged for complicity in criminal activity, will she spill the beans on her boss?

Murdoch is a master of realpolitik and the mesmerizing power of money. He knows only too clearly where his priority lies in this case. Will Rebekah Wade endure a term in prison with her trap shut, like Andy Coulson before her? Let us watch this morality play unfold.

Loyalty more than competence is prized highly in family businesses. It plays to the insecurity of the owners. At News Corp, that is worth gold.

Ingrained in the British polity is a free press pride of mythic proportions. Murdoch converted that into a license to print money by feeding the prurient and voyeuristic instincts of society. British institutional reluctance to interfere with the mechanics of a rigorous press worked to his advantage. Using this fig-leaf of press freedom, his gutter press outreached.

“Give the people what they want” was his amoral justification for a diet of boobs on Page 3 of The Sun and lurid sexual peccadillos of politicians and celebrities across News of the World pages. Murdoch’s low opinion of his readers is amply summed-up by a former managing director: “Most people are like sheep. Let’s shear them.”

Often innuendo was enough to ruin careers and reputations. It sold his newspapers vigorously ahead of his more inhibited rivals. Neither Mr Murdoch nor his editors cared about the lives they broke. They never let facts get in the way of a good story. An editorial fund to pay off victims who initiate libel suits was just a cost of doing business.

To keep up a daily menu of startling disclosures year after year for this cynical publishing formula, required stretching beyond court hearings and crime beats (available to all newspapers. It required hacking into private telephone conversations, voicemails, sms plus paying sleuths to steal confidential banking and hospital records.

This yielded rich dividends for the Murdoch papers. They were never short of saucy leads, embarrassing photographs or helpless victims. They scooped the competition routinely.

The other tabloid rivals have shown remarkable restraint in not putting the boot into the Murdoch press. There is widespread suspicion that they are also guilty of phone-tapping and payments to police. Parliamentarians are calling for a comprehensive investigation into the links between the police, tabloids and the shadowy world of private detectives.

The toothless Press Complaints Commission has again been unmasked as an utterly ineffective entity created not to self-regulate but to block independent investigation of errant members. Following the current News of the World controversy, Parliament has pledged to scrap the PCC and replace it with a body independent of both the newspaper industry and government.

Digital disruption of news monopolies

The dominance of the News of the World and The Sun in the UK is all the more remarkable when elsewhere the Internet, blogs, Facebook and Twitter have evolved a dynamic ecosystem of crowd-sourced, real-time, instantaneous horizontal distribution of news, views, opinion and debate.

For nearly 200 years newspapers perfected a super-efficient cycle of news production and mass distribution in a controlled, linear process with the editor at the centre. The editor decided what would be printed and how the story would be told. More importantly, he decided what would not be printed and which stories would not be told. The true power of the press was its ability to hide critical matters from public knowledge. Authoritarian governments and Big Business leveraged compliant editors to mislead the public.

The so-called digi-logue environment has broken that stranglehold on news and opinion which mainstream press and TV enjoyed. It is thus questionable how long Murdoch – especially in the light of the current revulsion against the reporting methods of his empire – is going to hold out.

Certainly, across Southeast Asia, the Internet has broken the monopoly of the press barons. In Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and even in parts of China, where the oligarchs are doing their best to keep news under wraps, the electronic media have changed the game.

Singapore’s recent elections and the ongoing Malaysian politics – two countries where the mainstream media are controlled closely by their governments -- demonstrate the far-reaching effects of social media, mobile communications and the Internet as citizens initiate, share, query and distribute information virally to groups and individuals without the agency of mainstream press or TV. In Thailand, despite the jamming of tens of thousands of websites and the jailing of scores of people on spurious charges of insulting the royal family, the entrenched regime lost the most recent election at least partly because the citizenry were communicating with each other outside the reach of government-controlled television.

This is having an interesting effect on the behavior of journalists, editors and politicians. The mainstream press, which once dismissed bloggers out of hand, now follows the established ones closely to track the cyberchatter of posts and counter-posts. They quote bloggers in press reports. The Malaysian government has invited bloggers to press conferences. Tony Tan, bidding for presidential elections in Singapore, announced his decision on a blogging platform to reach young voters.

Governments and their intelligence agencies are vigilantly tracking cyberchatter for clues to political sentiment and the public will. The Chinese government is particularly adept at this silent eavesdropping. It has resulted in delayed statements from the prime minister to address public anger about rising food prices and unaffordable housing.

This crowd-sourced feedback bypasses the inefficient and unreliable network of spies and informers who filter intelligence for their political masters. In some ways this is an amplified, authentic mirror of public sentiment to governments which hopefully will reduce misbehaviour of the power structure.

What are the lessons for the business of news?

The news process is becoming a ‘curation’ of content from formal, informal and co-opted amateur sources on mobile phones, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Trusted brands have an advantage in credibility on all platforms which consumers access at different times of the day, from home to office and back. The people, formerly known as the audience, now participate in the process of news creation, sharing and verification.

Digital distribution of rich media blurs the previous distinction between printed, online and broadcast channels. News producers have to become multimedia orchestrators for consumers who want to read, see, hear and experience news. Tablet publishing is the first such integrated rich-media platform for busy citizens on the go.

The garden variety reporter is starting to become useless. Domain experts who comment, analyze and contextualize news will be needed to add value to content. News will be channel agnostic. Dependency on advertising has been diminishing rapidly as news businesses are forced to find new revenue streams from consumers, brands and transactions. Mr Murdoch, meet the brave new world, that has such people in’t.