News for news junkies

James and Rupert Murdoch appear before MPs

What an incredible day yesterday was. Yes, a famine was being declared in parts of Somalia but here in the UK news junkies are perhaps not ashamed to admit being obsessed with live coverage of Rupert and James Murdoch appearing before the Commons culture, media and sport select committee. Murdoch senior is chairman and ceo of News Corp and his son is his deputy and they are arguably the biggest media moguls on the planet. We have never heard them speak, side by side, for so long in public. It was truly fascinating.

Which meant the telly or some form of live streaming was on somewhere in the house from 2.30pm until after 7pm when Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and The Sun and former chief executive of News Corp’s UK newspaper division News International, finished giving evidence to the same select committee.

There were the headlines: James Murdoch admitting News Corp had paid legal fees for the investigator Glen Mulcaire who hacked into phones for The News of the World; Murdoch grandstanding with a line about this being “the most humble day” of his life, before being rudely hit in the face with a plate of shaving foam from a protestor. There were also countless, repeated denials from Rupert, James and, later, Rebekah that they knew anything about the illegal interception of mobile voicemail messages including those of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. They all found out about Dowler’s phone interception two weeks ago, they said, when The Guardian broke the story.

Brooks said yes, she was on holiday at one point when Milly Dowler’s disappearance was in the news but that was “irrelevant” as she was editor of The News of the World at the time. Perhaps that is why MPs didn’t pursue a question suggested by Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who has done so much to cover the phone hacking story. Davies suggested MPs say this: “When you were editor of the NoW, you published a story which referred to a message left by a recruitment agency on the voicemail of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old schoolgirl, who was then missing without explanation. Did you read that story? Did it occur to you to question how your reporter could have known about this message?”

Many of the questions the MPs did put were batted away as being more appropriate to the ongoing police investigation into wrongdoing at the NoW; or the Murdochs, James in particular, said things had been done on the basis of legal advice News Corp was being given at the time; or James said he wasn’t at the company in 2007 when NoW reporter Clive Goodman was sentenced to four months for intercepting voice messages.

Then there were the finer points of the drama. James Murdoch saying at the outset that he would like to submit a written statement to the committee “if it pleases you” as he worked out the protocol of the occasion. Rupert Murdoch saying his son had just asked him to stop gesticulating as he temporarily stopped patting the desk as he spoke. He may be old but Murdoch Sr seems used to thumping a desk as he speaks. All TV viewers were impressed by Wendi Deng’s dual role as wife and bodyguard, landing an open slap on the perpetrator of the foam pie. She had carefully ushered Rupert into the chair directly in front of her at the beginning of the session. It’s amazing to see Murdoch family dynamics on show like this.

I’m left with a sense of how far the Murdoch myth has got away from the reality. Rupert Murdoch is a very successful media businessman. He genuinely loves newspapers. He rings the editor of the Sunday Times almost every Saturday night, he said. He rang the editor of the NoW less often, about once a month. He doesn’t have a grasp of the day to day detail of how his newspapers get put together and nor should he. He is a chairman and ceo; he employs 52,000 people around the world. James Murdoch is a smooth-talking, slightly wall-eyed individual who is good corporately.

But it is precisely because we have heard so little from the Murdochs directly over the years, save for carefully crafted speeches, that politicians and the public have imagined what they like about the Murdochs. That they are ogres. That they have no morals. On the basis of yesterday’s appearance I would say they are simply very, very successful businessmen. They and Rebekah Brooks must be incredibly certain that there is no evidence linking any of them to illegally intercepted voicemails and, without evidence, there need be no admission of guilt.

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Not the News of the World

News of the WorldI am stunned that News International, the newspaper group owned by Rupert Murdoch, has decided to close its Sunday title and the biggest selling British paper the News of the World. I am not alone. Even when The Guardian revealed on Monday that News of the World journalists had hacked into the mobile phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, no one was predicting the imminent closure of the paper.

Acres of words have already been written about the phone hacking scandal and I’m not in a position to add much to them. But I am deeply sceptical about the idea that neither Andy Coulson nor Rebekah Brooks, both former editors of the News of the World, knew their reporters were illegally hacking into people’s mobile phones.

By comparison to the NOTW I used to edit a lowly business publication. But the industry we published for took the paper seriously and so did we, the editorial staff. At Broadcast magazine I would never have run a major story without knowing exactly who or what the source of the story was. We might have dissembled to some readers about sources to protect them but we knew where each and every story had come from and we were confident that, if we were ever forced to stand by a story under oath, we could do so.

It is therefore “inconceivable” to me that Rebekah Brooks and/or her deputy and successor Andy Coulson didn’t know where stories came from on their paper. Coulson told a Parliamentary select committee he had no “recollection of any incidences where phone hacking took place”. Yesterday News International chairman and Rupert’s son James Murdoch said the NOTW had “made statements to Parliament without being in the possession of the full facts. This was wrong.” Coulson has today been arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.

Prime Minister David Cameron has today announced two inquiries, one into the culture, ethics and practices of the British press and the other into the specific phone hacking charges to establish “what exactly was going on at the News of the World” and other papers. Like the rest of the country, I cannot wait to read the results. Perhaps they’ll be covered by a new Sunday paper, The Sun on Sunday?

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The future and the blindingly obvious

 Guardian logo

Media companies, but particularly newspapers, have had their knickers in a twist for some time now as they wonder how to make money out of “online”. That is, the provision of information via the internet which, before the advent of the internet, they were able to charge money for. It is almost axiomatic today that if it’s “online”, it’s free. Unless it’s porn.

The answer to me, coming from a background of business publishing, is so screamingly obvious that I wonder how so many highly-paid executives have avoided it for so long. Don’t give unique information away for free. Whatever the medium.

The trouble is that, online at least, every organisation is waiting for another to jump first. No company wants to be the first to start charging online readers while others continue to provide things for free because the first to do so fears losing their audience.

Predictably, it’s taken Rupert Murdoch to question this lame, lemming (as in suicidal) attitude to the internet. A few weeks ago he said his British newspapers (The Sun, News of the World, The Times and Sunday Times) would have to charge for content provided online. Now more and more people agree with him, not least Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian. The argument against charging is that advertising revenue will cover the cost of content that’s free to the end-user. But if that wasn’t true in the real world, why should it be true in the virtual world? And, as a business, why deny yourself a potential revenue stream? Altruism? After a recession? I don’t think so.

Having just renewed my mobile phone contract (for 18 months, thank you) and while questioning why I spend tens of pounds each month on a Sky TV package that I barely watch, another thing has occurred to me.

As a regular Guardian reader and user of its many free websites, I would gladly pay (what? £10 a month?) for unlimited access to its online news/comment/reviews sites plus – and this is the deal-breaker – a hard copy of the Saturday paper. To do full justice to Tim Dowling’s weekly column in the Weekend supplement you have to place the actual magazine on a table where it will be covered in a niagra of apple & elderflower squash and the discarded, slightly grey inner tubes of several half-eaten sausage rolls over lunch. (If only Waitrose sold empty pockets of cooked pastry, I’d save a fortune on deli goods.)

It then occurs to me that it’s only a matter of time before content from different brands such as The Guardian and Sky is bundled together in packages in the way that broadband, mobile and TV services are. OK, it’s more likely to be content from The Times bundled with Sky as they’re both ultimately owned by Murdoch. But I can dream, can’t I?

I have seen the future. And it’s sausage-shaped.

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