Thursday, August 4, 2011

W P Reeves saw much to like in Murdoch

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 3.)

The late W P (Bill) Reeves was one of the most distinguished New Zealand journalists of the 20th century. He was also a friend and admirer of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media tycoon now demonised as a malevolent, manipulative press baron in the tradition of the infamous American William Randolph Hearst, the man who inspired the film Citizen Kane.

A refined, erudite man, Reeves was editor of Wellington’s Dominion when the then 32-year-old Murdoch acquired a controlling interest in the paper in 1964, his first foray outside Australia. The two developed a warm rapport.

Writing in the centennial history of “the Dom” in 2007, Reeves described the Murdoch of that time as “sophisticated, clever, ardent, handsome and, of course, ridiculously young”. He added that the Australian knew more about newspaper production and content, and industry politics, than anyone on the board or management of the paper he had just acquired.

Murdoch was born with printers' ink in his blood. His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was a distinguished war correspondent in World War One – in fact the first journalist to thwart military censors and report the fiasco at Gallipoli. He went on to head the then-mighty Herald and Weekly Times empire based in Melbourne.

Murdoch Jr earned Reeves’ respect because he was a passionate newspaperman. The journalists at the Dominion loved him, Reeves wrote. “Here was an enlightened rich boss who knew all about what made newspapers succeed and was a journalist to boot.”

I have since learned that Reeves and Murdoch would spend hours sprawled on the floor of Reeves’ living room, planning the layout of the soon-to- be-launched Sunday Times (now the Sunday Star-Times). When in Wellington, Murdoch would stay with the Reeves family rather than put up in a hotel.

Reeves wrote that Murdoch never attempted to interfere with the Dominion’s editorial policy, which during Reeves’ tenure underwent a transformation from its traditional trenchant conservatism to a much more liberal stance (in line with Reeves’ own leanings). Indeed, Reeves recalled that Murdoch himself was something of a left-winger in those days.

An old journalist friend of mine who worked for Murdoch’s News Corporation for many years – indeed was a Murdoch favourite, working for him in three countries – largely echoes Reeves’ affectionate view of the Australian. Though strongly disapproving of Murdoch’s political machinations, and particularly his support for the Right, my friend remembers him as personally fair, understanding and generous.

Why do I relate this? Because it presents a very different picture of Murdoch – or perhaps I should say a picture of a very different Murdoch – from the one portrayed in recent weeks.

Murdoch has made innumerable enemies in his march to global media dominance, nowhere more so than in Britain. Those enemies are now so gleefully relishing his fall from grace that hardly anyone pauses to give him credit for the good things he has done.

These include the establishment of Australia’s first national paper, The Australian, in 1964 – a paper Murdoch patiently bankrolled for years before it began to turn a profit. It was something that only a man passionately committed to newspapers and serious journalism could have done.

As mentioned in this column previously, Murdoch also rescued the technologically moribund British newspaper industry from the grip of the greedy, bully-boy unions that controlled Fleet Street. Murdoch’s biographer, William Shawcross, has written that without his epic victory over the print unions, “there would be far fewer papers in Britain today”.

Not that he was ever thanked for it. British columnist Simon Jenkins has gone so far as to say that Murdoch was the best thing that ever happened to the British media – “and they hate it”.

In New Zealand, his influence was generally benign. Until 2003 he had a controlling interest in Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL), which evolved out of his Dominion purchase, but he was a distant figure who seemed content to leave INL in the safe hands of its New Zealand bosses. INL had become, after all, a remote and inconspicuous corner of Murdoch’s global business; he had much grander ambitions to pursue.

One journalist has written, rather fancifully, that “journos up and down New Zealand celebrated” when Murdoch sold INL to Fairfax, the current owners. This implies that the purchase by Fairfax liberated INL from the clutches of an evil empire, but I spent much of my career with INL, including two and a half years as editor of its flagship paper, and Murdoch’s influence was virtually imperceptible.

Indeed, his contribution to New Zealand newspapers was positive. He was a solid cornerstone shareholder in INL throughout its expansion from the 1960s to the 1990s, a period that saw the acquisition of many provincial papers which would very likely have foundered without the capital and resources that came with ownership by a bigger company.

We are left, then, with something of a paradox: a man who at times has demonstrated an admirable commitment to newspapers and serious journalism, but is now irrevocably tarnished by the sleazy behaviour of his ghastly tabloids and by his naked exercise of political patronage.

We can only conclude that he has been corrupted by power. He would hardly be the first; the history of the press is replete with examples of men – Northcliffe, Rothermere, Beaverbrook, Hearst, Robert Maxwell and (closer to home) Australia’s Sir Frank Packer – who somehow thought the ownership of mass-circulation newspapers gave them the right to exercise political power.

But journalism should never be about the direct exercise of power. Its purpose should be to empower ordinary people by giving them the knowledge they need to make informed choices. British prime minister Stanley Baldwin, quoting his cousin Rudyard Kipling, famously described the exercise of political power by press barons as “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.

For all their failings, politicians are ultimately answerable to the voters. Media owners are accountable to no one.

One last thought, though. Before we get too sanctimonious, abuse of media power is not the exclusive preserve of the evil press baron.

The opportunity exists for any media gatekeepers to control and manipulate the flow of information and opinion for their own purposes. In fixating on obvious targets like Murdoch, we overlook the fact that even publicly owned media organisations, such as the sainted BBC and our own Radio New Zealand, are capable of abusing their power.


Owen said...

Have you seen Adam Curtis' blog/programme about Murdoch's predecessor, Cecil King?

Vaughan said...

My favourite member of the Murdoch family is Sir Walter Murdoch (1874-1970), a very wise man and a superb writer.

I recommend his essays,

He was Rupert's great-uncle.

Another admirable Murdoch is Rupert's mum, Dame Elizabeth.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thanks - I'll follow that up. King, of course, was a nephew of Lords Harmsworth and Rothermere. I have the autobiography of his close associate Hugh Cudlipp.

I hadn't heard of that member of the Murdoch whanau. Interesting ...

Karl du Fresne said...

Whoops - I meant Northcliffe and Rothermere. Harmsworth was the family name.