“A nice dilemma,
We have here,
That calls for all our wit,
For all our wit.”

— W. S. Gilbert, Trial by Jury

Half a world away from the epicentre of the snowballing News of the World disaster, the crisis has pinned Rupert Murdoch’s most-cherished antipodean newspaper, The Australian, in an uncomfortable position. While its creator now grovels in apology before his phone-hacking victims in London, the editors of his national daily in Sydney must grapple with a difficult dilemma. It is this: how to explain — if not excuse — the ghastly ethical failures of their corporate colleagues in the UK while at the same time remaining consistent with the strident editorial positions The Australian has taken on local media issues.

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Their response has been to publish an extraordinary barrage of opinion, comment, analysis and editorials. In the week following the News of the World closure, its distant broadsheet cousin in Australia has already run at least 20 of these “think pieces” — a scattershot approach presumably intended to create such a froth of surface debate that readers will be distracted from recognising the thundering inconsistencies at the bottom of The Australian’s own editorial line over the past decade.

Some of us aren’t so easily deflected. This is the newspaper that led the pompous “Right to Know” campaign, claiming freedom of the press is under threat in Australia. This is the newspaper that relentlessly accuses the ABC and the Fairfax press of bias and elitism. This is the newspaper that repeatedly asserts market forces are the only true determinant of social value and relevance.

None of these professed principles sit comfortably with Murdoch’s current embarrassments. An astute local editorial team would understand that the best way to minimise any collateral damage in this situation would be to say and do as little as possible — to offer no targets and ride out the storm. But rather than adopt a dignified pose of quiet forbearance, editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell has bolted down the opposite path. Blind loyalty to Murdoch and his empire overwhelms journalistic common sense. So it’s not the subtle click of cautious back-pedalling we now hear from the Holt Street headquarters of News Limited but the banshee wails of a furious counter-attack.

The Australian isn’t so stupid that it would directly defend the phone hacking and police bribery outrages in the UK. Instead, it has churned out a steady stream of in-house, commissioned and imported opinion articles in an increasingly transparent attempt to shift the blame and patch up the ugly holes in the corporation’s credibility.

The arguments so intensely promoted by News Limited through the pages of The Australian can be categorised within five broad themes:

  • the tabloids are only giving the public what they wanted
  • competition in the UK popular press is so fierce it leads rogue staff into unethical excesses
  • everybody else is doing it anyway
  • it’s only the left-wing cosmopolitan elites who have complained
  • it could never happen in Australia

There is no need here to individually demolish these feeble excuses. Any sensible person with even a basic grasp of how the media operates can see the flaws of reasoning and deliberate misrepresentations behind those five assertions.

Meanwhile, the common, implicitly self-damning characteristic of the responses is that they all seek to avoid the central issue of morality. A few specific actions of the News of the World are deplored, but the culture that encouraged and paid for them is not.

Yet there’s a far more disturbing undercurrent that runs through many of these apologias: corporate paranoia. Time and again, the writers seek to frame the current difficulties at News not in terms of ethical lapse but as an unwarranted holy war launched against their leader.

This is an “anti-Murdoch moral crusade”, argues Brendan O’Neill, (repeating those words a few paragraphs later just in case we missed the thought). The campaign against the News of the World is “underpinned by a cultural aversion to the tabloid world” and has nothing to do with “journalistic integrity”. It’s a “hysterical crusade”.

Yes, says Mark Day, there’s a “media frenzy over the corporate morality of News International”. Murdoch has “many enemies” and “the pack now senses his vulnerability”. For elements of the British Labor Party this has become “akin to a holy crusade”.

Frank Furedi joins the chorus, railing against the “group-think, group-speak moralising of the crusade against the Evil Murdoch Empire”. This “public fit of morality” is confined to a cultural elite “drawn to the anti-Murdoch crusade”. OK, we get your drift, fellas.

At one point The Australian grouped its coverage of the unfolding scandal under the page heading “Media Wars”. It would be difficult to imagine a more telling admission that, for Murdoch loyalists, any criticism of News or challenge to its journalistic practices is immediately seen as an assault that must be met by force.

When bullies start complaining about persecution, their days are usually numbered.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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