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.

What would an American journalist tell Rupert Murdoch if she could lunch with him? I pondered that and other questions from London, having crossed the pond this summer to teach a class on international journalism to American students.

Journalists here are calling the phone-hacking drama that played out at yesterday’s parliamentary panel hearing Shakespearean in its proportions. Was it "Richard III," "King Lear," or "Much Ado About Nothing" – this elderly gentleman experiencing the most “humble day” of his life, apologizing deeply to the victims of phone hacking, and being attacked by a foam-pie thrower?

For investigators, politicians, and police, there were few answers or revelations other than the very human drama unfolding between a man, his son, their famously “flame-haired” editor, and a media empire. As a journalist though, one had to watch searchingly for clues – into the mind of the man, and the mogul – about how things got to this point, and what lies ahead.

The British, it turns out, are skeptical of the spectacle. Analysts wondered, was the “humble” act an actual PR strategy? Is this broken-man stunt for real? Will the real Rupert Murdoch please stand up? But for many, the brokenness was believable.

And in the human aspect of the drama, there were other revelations. In all the conversations about journalism, society, and ethics that have been posed here during this crisis, shockingly yesterday it was Mr. Murdoch himself who offered an impassioned statement about what journalism means. He told members of Parliament of his father’s pioneering of the family business. He made the point that the diversity of media “voices” in a society and the competition it creates makes society stronger, and leads to greater transparency.

A funny feeling that was, listening to a media mogul whose outlets – whether with News International newspapers or Fox News – are blamed on both sides of the Atlantic for polarizing civic discourse. And here he’s talking “transparency” and diversity of “voices” in the press – using the very words we use to describe what we try to do in the newsroom of the National Public Radio affiliate where I work in Columbia, Mo.

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.

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.

Janet Lewis Saidi runs a public radio newsroom and teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo.

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