Top critical review
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on 27 July 2012
This book is amongst many that will appear about Murdoch and his media empire. Hopefully the others will be better. Certainly, they could hardly be worse than this semi-biographical account of John Lisners and his relationship with News International since 1966. His account of the unscrupulous nature of Murdoch's methods is provided in detail but without judgement, apart from the odd obsequious nod towards ethics. He quickly establishes the role of executives in the Murdoch empire was to agree with the master. "They have to follow the corporation's aim of beating the opposition at all costs. Colleagues must be part of the cult of the 'Mini-Me', a cloned version of Rupert Murdoch." The master, meanwhile, established relationships with decision-makers, a trail blazed by his father, Sir Keith Murdoch, which was to prove his ultimate downfall.
Although Murdoch claimed his father was not a rich man his base line was far in excess of the average wage. Sir Keith Murdoch received kudos on the back of a highly emotional letter to the Australian Prime Minister, with a copy to the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, in which he blamed Sir Ian Hamilton and the British military leadership for the heavy losses suffered by ANZAC troops at Gallipoli. It was, "a compound of truth and error, fact and prejudice" which led to the dismissal of Hamilton and set the tone for the Murdoch method of writing news for effect rather than for truth. Owning newspapers gave him the opportunity to meet and influence decision-makers, a strategy adopted by his son. Keith Murdoch boasted he had Joe Lyons elected as Prime Minister in 1932, his son backed Gough Whitlam in 1972 and, of course, "It was the Sun Wot Won It' in 1992.
It's difficult to deny Lisner's claim that "News Corporation dominated the world, as the largest and most successful multimedia organisation" until cracks started to appear in 2005. In that year the News Of The World's royal reporter, Clive Goodman, placed two bland stories about Prince William. The Royal Family do not, as a rule, become embroiled with the press but, on this occasion, it was apparent that William's phone had been hacked which led to an investigation by the Scotland Yard anti-terrorism commander. In court Goodman and a private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, admitted intercepting phone messages with Mulcaire admitting a string of non-royal interceptions. The method was simple. The miscreants would ring a mobile phone and when the answer message came into play would punch in a security code which came as standard for most mobile phones. This would give access to all messages left on the phone.
Goodman claimed he was driven to break the law because of pressures to perform. The judge, Mr Justice Ross, dismissed the claim that the defendants were practicising press freedom and decided the issue was one of privacy. He called it "low conduct, reprehensible in the extreme" and concluded that Mulcaire had not confined his dealings to Goodman "but with others at News International". The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) carried out a formal investigation which cleared everyone at News International and News International claimed it was the work of one 'rogue' reporter. Undeterred, Murdoch continued his pursuit of power by bidding to bring the whole of the very profitable BSkyB organisation under the complete control of News International. The bid was controversial and was only withdrawn when the extent of the News Of The World's phone hacking became clear with the revelation that the paper had accessed the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler. The News of The World, badly hit by an advertisers' boycott, was shut down and replaced by The Sun On Sunday. By then the Government had set up the Levenson Enquiry " To inquire into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press" and make recommendations. Soon after criminal charges were laid against senior executives at News International.
The Sun's predecssor was the Daily Herald, owned by the Trades Union Congress and the IPC group which also owned the Daily Mirror. It was sold to Murdoch to prevent it being bought by Robert Maxwell. It was an expensive mistake. The Murdoch-owned Sun went downmarket immediately as a daily News Of The World. IPC's Hugh Cudlipp's bitter comment when the Sun's sales overtook that of the Mirror was that it catered for 'the mentally underprivileged'. One observer described it as 'being put together by people who can't write, for the benefit of those who can't read.'
It was not in Murdoch's nature to allow editors too much freedom and he would remove those who did not understand that policy. He encouraged those who achieved his objective of increasing circulation even if it meant publishing the falsehoods that characterised its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. He knew how to divide and rule, taking the journalists to Wapping in 1986 and leaving the print unions and their restrictive practices in limbo. Therefore, it was surprising to hear him deny ultimate responsibility for the hacking fiasco. When asked who was responsible he replied, 'The people that I trusted to run it and then maybe the people they trusted." It formed part of the collective amnesia in which no-one apparently knew anything and which no-one with half a brain believed.
Much of the book is devoted to Lisner's own journalistic escapades, most of which should deter anyone from becoming a journalist. He quotes Kelvin Mackenzie as saying he never checked sources whereas he (Lisners) "did have to check my stories". Unfortunately, this did not extend to checking facts. It was the long-serving Kingsley Martin who was editor of the New Statesman in 1932, not Kingsley Amis. On the other hand Bramshill Police College is correctly identified in my copy of the book. However, the reader would have been served better had the book carried an index. Three stars but best borrowed rather than bought.