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Rupert Murdoch has appointed a tabloid charmer as his new chief executive in Australia because his management ranks are so diminished there were few other options.

Firstly, let’s check out the profile in the SMH and then set a few things straight.

utting the ink into News Inc

By Anne Davies

Canberra columnist

At News Ltd, the journalists are breathing a sigh of relief. The appointment of John Hartigan as chief executive of News Ltd has put one of their own at the helm of News Corporation’s $2.18 billion Australian operations.

Most had assumed Peter Macourt, deputy chief executive, would step up to fill Lachlan Murdoch’s shoes when inevitably he was recalled to the US to work more closely with his father, Rupert.

But much to the newspaper staff’s delight it was John Hartigan, or Harto, as he is known at the Holt Street headquarters, who got the top job.

The appointment of Hartigan, 52, is almost certainly going to intensify the combat between News and Fairfax for circulation and advertising revenues.

It will pit one of Australia’s most talented newspaper men against the McKinsey-trained Fred Hilmer at Fairfax. Instinct against analysis.

Macourt’s background is in accountancy and finance. Within News’s Holt Street offices, he was referred to as a bean counter.

Harto, on the other hand, is steeped in the culture of the News Ltd newsroom. He is the quintessential journalist, showing the best and worst traits attributed to the profession.

He’s charming, urbane and bright. Perhaps too charming. In recent years he’s become something of a health fanatic, but that is not the first thing that springs to mind when you ask colleagues to talk about him.

The bulk of his exploits at the now-demolished News Ltd watering hole, the Evening Star, are unprintable, even in the business pages.

What can be said is that he is – or was – a ladies’ man, who occasionally liked a drink or three.

“He’s an immensely attractive individual,” said one former colleague. “He comes across as laid back, but that’s part of the charm.

“He has the ability to engage your fun side one minute and your intellectual side the next,” said another colleague.

Hartigan began his career in journalism at John Fairfax, but moved to News Ltd in 1970 after his cadetship. On the staff of the Daily Mirror he flourished and became news editor in 1978.

After a stint overseas on London’s Sun and the New York Post, Hartigan returned to become editor of Queensland’s Sunday Sun and later became founding editor of the Brisbane Daily Sun.

In 1986, he was appointed editor of The Daily Telegraph and three years later was promoted to editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.

Most recently he has been News’ most senior editorial executive.

“He and Col Allan [the current editor of the Daily Telegraph], have the most finely honed tabloid skills in Australia,” said one journalist who worked for many years at News.

The two are part of a close-knit clique which includes columnist Piers Akerman and other longtime News Ltd journos.

They typify the culture that makes News what it is.

“It’s a mutual protection society,” said one journalist who spent years immersed in the News Ltd culture. “It’s like Lord of the Flies over there.”

“Hartigan’s appointment will increase the tribalism of News,” said another.

But to paint Hartigan as just a tabloid warrior would be wrong.

He’s highly respected by the staff on the more urbane Australian newspaper, as well.

Bob Muscat, chief executive of PMP who spent many years as News’ chief operating officer, recalls how capable Hartigan proved during the introduction of new printing presses and technology at News.

While he might now lack some of the experience required in the chief executive, Muscat says he will easily rise to the job.

Friends and foes alike also point to his people skills.

“John is a natural leader and motivator,” Lachlan Murdoch said in the official statement announcing his appointment.

In particular he has an eye for talent and actively promotes it.

The former editor of the Sun Herald, Alan Revell – now managing director of content and commerce at f2; Alan Oakley, editor of the Newcastle Herald; Philip McLean, editor of the Sun Herald, and Campbell Reid, editor of the Australian, are among his proteges.

“Alan Revell and I arrived here from the UK in 1985,” says Oakley. “He plucked us from the chorus line and set us on our paths.”

As chief executive, Hartigan will have his business challenges. News must decide if its future lies with Telstra in Foxtel, and whether an expanded partnership in interactive television is possible.

Then there is the investment in Fox Studios, which by all accounts is struggling to find a business case. And like all newspaper groups worldwide, there is the issue of slowly declining circulation and the issue of how to make money, if ever, out of the Internet.

Ends

Crikey’s take on the Harto appointment

First things first, if I was a News Ltd shareholder I would be a little concerned about having someone with such limited hands on business experience thrust into the top job in Australia.

Then again, David Montgomery went from being editor of The Mirror in England to CEO of Mirror Group Newspapers but that company’s operations were largely newspaper based.

But what would Harto know about how to negotiate his way through deals such as Foxtel and Fox Studios or on whether News should take up a bigger slice in One.tel or close down News Interactive.

Harto and Col spend a lot of their time working out how to get News Corp’s enemies. Often they just employ blatant head-kicking tactics as was demonstrated by the attacks on John Howard after the digital decision last year.

But running a multi-billion business is a lot different from directing the editorial troops across a country where Rupert control 70 per cent of the newspapers.

The Davies piece made much of Harto’s charm and he clearly has perfected the art of charming Lachlan. One senior News Ltd editor executive once told Crikey that he was appalled at the way Col and Harto charmed and sucked up to young Lachlan.

One of the worst examples of this was the day Lachlan got engaged to his super-model girlfriend Sarah O’Hare. He popped the question at a restaurant on Melbourne Cup eve in 1998 and then they were the celebrity couple on Cup Day.

Chaperoning Lachlan around was none other than John Hartigan who was then Editor in Chief of The Daily Telegraph and Group Editorial Director across the country. That night, Col Allan and Piers Akerman flew down to join the happy couple for dinner and they all finished up blowing rings into the air at Fidels Cigar Bar at Crown.

All that can be said this is poor Sarah. Can you imagine having the question popped by Lachlan and then having this boorish “gang of three” big drinking tabloid types hanging around all day. Who wants to celebrate their engagement with these middle-aged pot-bellied types?

It appears that Harto has played Lachlan absolutely brilliantly. I can’t think of any truly visionary things he’s done since taking over as group editorial director. The Telegraph is a viper’s pit of factions and it’s circulation has fallen badly over the past 18 months.

They lost Phil McLean to the Sun Herald by overlooking him for the top job and putting Steve Howard in as editor. This was a mistake and John Hartigan was one of those who made it.

I can remember having lunch at Lucio’s with Col and Harto in late 1997 and the conversation moved to Steve Harris who had spent less than 12 months in Sydney working as a “group executive, office of the chairman”.

Col was bagging Harris for “not once setting foot on the editorial floor of the Telegraph”. He then made the comment that Harris wanted Harto’s job as group editorial director.

Having working with both Harris and Harto, I reckon Lachlan made a mistake in letting Harris go back to The Age as chief executive. Harris is an excellent executive inspite of what Piers Akerman wrote in his Sunday Telegraph column two weeks back.

We hear that Piers had just been knocked back for a pay rise by either Harto or deputy CEO Peter Macourt so this is why his column probably started with the line about him being envious of Harris getting $530,000 a year.

Anyway, check out these quotes from the big slug.

“Mr Harris seems particularly generously rewarded as both The Age and the real milch cow, the Saturday Age, are in serious circulation decline.

“Both Mr Harris and Hywood have attempted to stem the flow of subscription cancellations by resorting to the usual gimmickry beloved of marketing departments but neither, it would appear, has addressed what I suspect to be the underlying reasons for the decline in popularity of their newspapers: lousy journalism.

“That this has escaped Mr Hywood is surprising, as he built a sound reputation during his years at the Financial Review; that it eluded Mr Harris is not at all surprising, as he claimed a decade that newspapers were all but dead and there is nothing known of him that would indicate he had any of the necessary creative skills to prevent their death.”

Akerman really does have an incredibly thick skin and an extraordinary penchant for hypocrisy. The reality is that the Herald Sun’s circulation went into free-fall during his reign of terror in the early 1990s. The Sunday Age, then edited by Harris, splashed with an excellent front page profile of Akerman and Akerman sued but later withdrew the claim. Even to this day Amerman claims he received a “settlement” something that Fairfax vehemently denies. Harris was brought by Rupert to run the Herald Sun and clean up the mess created by Akerman. He did a good job. Piers went to Fox Television and was effectively sacked within months so Rupert parachuted him into his columnising gig in Sydney and ever since he’s been used to blatantly push the company’s commercial interests.

It is no coincidence that he wrote a column beating up on Fairfax to coincide with Rupert’s arrival in town. I used to get asked to do the same but sometime the target was Packer instead. Rupert loves to read critical pieces of his opposition and reinforced what a wonderful job his own managers are doing.

This is partly how Col, Harto and Piers entrench their legend and their power base. The spend much of their time beating up on the opposition to hide their own management inadequacies. For instance, knowing that News Ltd journalists would not win many Walkley awards, Harto and Col would boycott them each and discourage everyone from entering. Akerman would then write columns denouncing the Walkleys as a biased union-backed affair and it was all just a way of covering up for the same “lousy journalism” that Akerman accuses Fairfax of.

There would be a lot more “great journalism” at News Ltd if people like Harto didn’t waste their time going into pitched battle with Treasury over the terms of the budget lock-up each year to save a few thousand dollars. Decent papers just send the requisite journo to Canberra to cover it, yet News Ltd quibble and carries on and even boycotts the thing on occasions.

There would also be a lot better journalism if they spent more time getting to know their staff and less in the pub or at lunch with each other. The irony of Col’s attack on Harris for not walking the floor is that he rarely did either. He’d choose to piss in his office sink three times a day rather than walk the length of the newsroom, chat to reporters and be seen about the place. Harto was more sociable but as editor in chief of the Telegraph he should have been coming down on Col to stamp out all his worst attributes. No editor should skulk in his office all day watching television, smoking, reading AAP and sending computer messages to people. And no editor in chief should let him.

We hear that News Ltd deputy CEO Peter Macourt tendered his resignation after being overlooked for the top job but was asked to stay on until the AGM by no less than Rupert himself. Macourt was a bean counter with no idea about editorial. One of the reasons he was overlooked at the last minute apparently flared up during the Olympics.

When the courtesy bus did not show up to pick up Rupert and his party after the opening ceremony, Macourt went ballistic at Olympics marketing director Rebecca Wilson and made some comment about her looking after the children at home.

Wilson told Macourt to stick his job and she left a day or two later. Harto is a very charming individual and had charmed Ms Wilson over the years. He then stuck by her during this blow up and she is now being coaxed back into the fold with a promise that she’ll no longer have to deal with Macourt. That’s because Macourt is now on the outer and Rebecca’s big fan Harto has the top job.

The conclusion from all of this is that News Ltd has a dearth of management talent in Australia. Ken Cowley was Rupert’s long time lieutenant but made a hash of Super League, Ansett and more latterly PMP.

Bob Muscat was poached to run Fairfax but certainly didn’t set the world on fire there and is now wallowing in mediocrity with his old mate Cowley at PMP.

Malcolm Noad has worn the blame for much of Super League, Graham Morris left after a couple years of frustrating lobbying his old mate John Howard and Foxtel struggled under the leadership of Tom Mockeridge. Jim Blomfield is a good operator but failed to deliver on digital and Bruce Dover was brought back from Hong Kong but got sacked from the loss making News Interactive pretty quickly and is now poaching journalists from The Australian to join him in his new gig at CNN.

The man who should be running News in Australia is Rod Eddington – a terrific fellow and excellent manager who cleaned up the Ansett. Unfortunately, Rupert couldn’t keep him when British Airways offered him the top job so we’ve now got a tabloid charmer in John Hartigan running a a $2 billion company.

It might be good for Harto’s mates on the Telegraph, but whether it is good for the company overall remains to be seen. Let’s hope the first thing Harto does is introduce a regime of editorial independence. A good start would be to tell executives they are no longer allowed to brief the Akerman’s of this world to spout predictable and uninteresting columns dumping gratuitously on the opposition.

Peter Fray

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