Many readers of Catholica would be aware of the current inquiries, court actions and police, parliamentary and judicial investigations underway around the world at the moment into media ethics, control of the media, and related issues. One of the most significant of these is the Leveson Inquiry underway at the moment in London. In particular, yesterday the world's present most powerful media baron was in the witness box at the enquiry for nearly four hours and he is to continue his evidence today (tonight Sydney time). These various enquiries are hugely significant for society as the formal name of the Leveson Inquiry might suggest: "The Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press". Today's editorial examines some of the background concerns in society that have led to this spate of investigations presently underway in various parts of the world.
The trouble with Rupert...
What a fascinating moment in the evolution of democracy we live in where a high level judicial inquiry being held in a court room in one country is beamed around the world in real time and watched by a huge audience albeit perhaps not the general public but the political, journalist and "opinion leader" sectors in society. Even half a dozen years ago this would not have been possible. What we would have been more likely to see then were edited sections of the evidence in news bulletins rather that the full, unexpurgated court examination. Even this little development itself has been a massive advance for the democratic process and greater accountability and transparency in public affairs.
Of course we don't yet know what conclusion Lord Justice Leveson and his Inquiry might eventually come to — and here at Catholica we are actually not sure of the legal situation in commenting on the Inquiry, or the evidence being delivered while it is still underway, more so that it is taking place in a very different legal jurisdiction to our own. For those reasons therefore this editorial commentary should not be read so much as commentary on the present inquiry, or what it might find, but a more general exploration of some wider ethical and philosophical principles that this Inquiry is presently bringing to some kind of focus in our world.
Journalist Cliff Baxter, whom we jokingly refer to sometimes as the co-founder of Catholica — if he wasn't actually the co-founder he certainly was one of the principal reasons why we decided to establish Catholica — was one of Rupert Murdoch's senior and trusted journalists back in the 1960s and early 1970s and had personal experience literally of working alongside the man in his newsrooms. The editor of Catholica, Brian Coyne, while he never worked for Rupert Murdoch (apart from writing a few paid book reviews and, for a time, being a prolific letterist in The Australian) drove the man crazy for a period in the early 1980s trying to get Rupert to fund a television series titled The 1984 Project which was broadly trying to examine "the state of civilisation" at the coming of age of George Orwell's famous novel "1984". One of the interesting little by-products of that entire exercise is that while The 1984 Project never made it into production, the late Morris West was one of the script consultants on the project and he did get Rupert to fund a television series examining the history of Catholicism and this was screened on the Ten Television Network across Australia which Murdoch controlled at the time.
While watching the evidence being presented to the Leveson Inquiry over the last two nights by Rupert and his son James, Brian and Cliff have been in regular phone contact swapping thoughts during the breaks and at the end of each session. Brian and Cliff come from almost diametrically opposite ends of the mainstream political spectrum and have different perspectives on Rupert Murdoch and how he has ended up in this present "soup" as the focus of these various high level enquiries now underway around the world.
Saying some nice things about Rupert Murdoch
There can hardly be any dispute about Rupert Murdoch's success as a businessman, and an entrepreneur, in building one of the most diversified and largest media empires in history. It is intriguing to speculate on what ingredients are embedded in the man's character, outlook and abilities that have enabled him to do this. His recent appearance before the Culture Committee of the House of Commons last year and his current appearances before The Levison Inquiry are providing valuable insights into what makes Rupert "tick". While there might be many in the world who would envy Murdoch his wealth and his position as a "global citizen" having access almost at whim to the most powerful politicians, civic, religious and business leaders across the planet, there are perhaps many fewer who would envy the expenditure of energy that he still makes, even in his 80s when most people have retired, to still build the endeavour even bigger.
In my first conversation with Cliff Baxter last night I asked for his impressions as to whether Rupert Murdoch was different in the way he was presenting himself before this judicial inquiry to how he had encountered him in his working life dealings with him in the newsroom? Cliff's conclusion, similar to mine, is that Murdoch isn't putting on an act in his appearance before Lord Justice Leveson. The stance he seems to have adopted appears to be one of not "putting on a front" but of endeavouring to be as honest with himself, and with the Inquiry, he can be and to "tell the truth" as far as possible — and as far as he can remember events from decades ago that would test the memories of any person. In his evidence to this Inquiry, Murdoch appears to be genuinely trying to give us insight into his "life philosophy", his governance and management style and even his attitudes towards ethical matters. It is perhaps a measure of why the man has become as successful as he has that he has chosen honesty and a humble style against an alternative of trying to bully his way through the questioning he has been subjected to. Those of you who follow these sort of things might be familiar with a couple of other media tycoons who ended up being significantly humiliated when they chose a more confrontational style when faced with public interest in their philosophies, ethics and ways of doing business. [See Robert Maxwell's and Conrad Black's entries in Wikipedia.]
Rupert Murdoch appears to be telling the truth when he suggests he is not an interventionist proprietor dictating to his editors and journalists what they should think and write. Cliff Baxter reports to me that that is how he found him back in the early days when Murdoch was far more hands-on in the day-to-day activities of his newsrooms. Equally, it can be argued, he doesn't need to. Murdoch is not a dictator but he does have great skill in selecting editors and staff who have a keen ability to know the sound of "His Master's Voice" — people skilled in reading "the mind of their boss and paymaster". It could be argued that Rupert's present "troubles" are principally caused by this and he simply no longer has the time amidst all his other responsibilities to be actually exerting close scrutiny in what has been happening under his name. At a number of points in his recent testimony to the House of Commons and The Leveson Inquiry he has admitted as much.
I would argue that Rupert Murdoch's great skill is NOT to be found in some superior intellect, nor his management style, nor even in his personal integrity — which I sense, and more so coming through from his present appearances at these inquiries, is actually very high. (Cliff Baxter, on another of occasions in the course of our recent conversation, keeps referring to Murdoch as being very "egalitarian". He does prefer to rub shoulders with the workers on his printing presses or editing rooms possibly even more than he enjoys socialising with society's elites. At one stage, Cliff told me, when Murdoch was getting in his way when he was trying to beat a pressing deadline, he told Rupert to "fuck off" and Rupert didn't take offence but literally did just that and left Cliff undisturbed to complete the writing assignment.)
Listening to the evidence last night I couldn't help thinking how much Murdoch's style seems almost to be taken from the very Catholic notion of "subsidiarity" — allowing people to take responsibility at the lowest level as possible in an organisation. Murdoch's management style is very much a "subsidiarity" management style. He does allow his journalists and editors and managers great autonomy.
So what is Murdoch's great skill?
As argued two paragraphs ago, Murdoch's great skill is not going to be found in his management styles nor his personal sincerity and integrity. We think Murdoch's great skill is in an uncanny ability to "read the mind" of the average citizen. Murdoch understands what is called the "lizard brain" or "reptile brain" cravings of the ordinary person whose main interests in life centre around "eating, roots and leaves". Page 3 "tits and bums" sell newspapers by the tens of millions. The ordinary person is not interested in the lengthy philosophical and theological conversations we have in places like Catholica — their attention span is limited to about the 140 characters allowed in a tweet. They crave entertainment and distraction far more than they crave information and enlightenment. Rupert Murdoch really does understand the mentality of the average Jo and Sally Blo in the suburbs in any of the major countries of the Western world. Rupert understands how to feed their needs for "entertainment and distraction" in ways that attract massive readership numbers, or massive electronic media audiences, and through that, massive advertising revenues. The question is: is that good for the overall health of human civilisation? Is there a question of "balance" involved here?
In many ways it might be compared to the philosophy of Joseph Ratzinger who said back in 1979:
"The Christian believer is a simple person: bishops should protect the faith of these little people against the power of intellectuals." (Allen,130)
Rupert plays the same game in the secular sphere of society. And he has become without peer at doing it. Just as Pope Ratzinger seems to believe that if the "ordinary person" wants miracles, weeping statues and simple devotions and pieties he will deliver it to them; Rupert has worked out if all the average citizen craves in life is celebrity and sporting star gossip, tits and bums titillation, political scandal, and acres of massage parlour and dating advertisements he'll deliver it to them by the truckload and denuded forest. It's a great way to make money.
The great ethical challenge that society faces...
Rupert Murdoch has argued at this enquiry as well as in public speeches and comments over the years that he sees it as "elitist" for him to dictate what the tastes of the ordinary citizen should be. Here at Catholica we would argue that is the great ethical challenge facing society and, more especially, those who are graced, or fortunate enough, to rise to very powerful positions in society. What is the correct balance between giving the ordinary peasants and plebs of society, what are sometimes referred to as the working classes, that which they most crave and in endeavouring to lift society out of lizard brain thinking and behaviour and aspire to a higher set of values? We do not argue that elites ought be the sole arbiters of public opinion and public educational agendas. The question here is one of "balance" or "the middle ground" — discerning that "place of balance" between respecting the faith, beliefs and mores of the "simple people" or "little people" to borrow Joseph Ratzinger's designations, and in educating and lifting society to higher standards in their thinking and behaviour. Within the local context here in Sydney where in recent months there has been a sharp escalation in lawless behaviour and drive-by shootings in what were once peaceful suburbs — what role do institutions like the Church, and the media, the First and Fourth "Estates of the Realm", in preventing any society slipping back into the law of the jungle or fundamentalist behaviours?
Brian Coyne, Editor and Publisher, 26 Apr 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?