If I could have lunch with Rupert Murdoch
The drama of the phone-hacking hearing in Parliament that starred Rupert Murdoch and his son has me wondering what I might say to the elder Murdoch if I had the chance. The main thing: Ethics matters, not just legality.
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Was anything believable in yesterday’s act? It’s debatable. But a couple of things seemed clear. First, that Rupert Murdoch considers “journalism” – let’s say his brand of it – a family business, and one that he is proud of. Second, that he seems to believe that his tabloid tactics actually create a more transparent society – as “inconvenient” as that is for some people, presumably people in power.Skip to next paragraph
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Up to this point, I think journalists throughout the world are with our Murdoch. But, if I could corner him over a London lunch for a half hour, there are a few simple things I’d want to say.
First, I’d tell him: Powerful journalism is not enough. It’s harder than that. Informing the public in a way that investigates power, while at the same time minimizing harm, as our NPR code of ethics prescribes, is more difficult than it looks. But it’s also non-negotiable. And, Mr. Murdoch, all of this is about more than selling newspapers.
One other crucial but simple point I’d make, if he lasted through dessert and coffee: Breaking journalistic ethics is not the same thing as breaking the law.
In his statement before the parliamentary committee yesterday, Murdoch apologized for the victims that had been harmed. He talked of a management standards committee that has been set up – in addition to his company’s full cooperation with a judicial inquiry into journalistic ethics – and offered this as a way forward. He lamented the people he had trusted who let him down, and declined to take responsibility for the tactics used by his so-called “journalists.”
But even then, when Murdoch spoke, however regretfully and brokenly, about what went wrong, he seemed to focus on the tactics that were merely illegal. It’s as if getting caught is how this man has been let down.
What someone needs to tell him – and what we need to remember ourselves – is that there is much that is legal that is still well outside the bounds of ethical, trustworthy investigative journalism.
What’s needed is not only a judicial inquiry into journalism ethics in Britain, but a journalistic inquiry into journalism ethics. It’s journalists here that are going to have to take the lead in the discussions and perhaps even the investigations – if we’re to ensure that journalists everywhere have, so to speak, a leg to stand on.