How skittish the mighty News Limited looks following the weird Julia Gillard-Andrew Bolt-John Hartigan interaction over that nasty little Glenn Milne column.

In the wash-up, perhaps the most interesting question to ask is what it tells us about News Limited management, and in particular relations between the various company editors and glitterati and the Prime Minister.

In his column yesterday Bolt announced that he had considered resigning because he believed News Limited had crumbled to pressure from the Prime Minister. And on 2GB he said:

“But what I find really bad about this is, one, the number of really amped-up phone calls from the prime minister to demand the retraction entirely of a story that was 95% correct … the normal procedure would be to apologise for or remove only those bits that were incorrect, not the whole lot.”

I agree with him, on this point at least.

But he also, in his column, excused his employer with the words:

“You may blame News Limited for being weak, but never has it felt so politically vulnerable.”

Oh, give me a break. Poor widdle News Ltd.

Can the company really be feeling so defensive, so paranoid, that a little fairly standard political pressure (what newspaper editor doesn’t remember the “amped-up phone calls” from Paul Keating) sends it into chaos and malleability?

Certainly News Limited is under pressure. All mainstream media companies are, in different ways. But to be so wobbly, so variable — apologising one day, then virtually apologising for apologising — is a sign of management weakness, of a falling apart at the core. And it is not the first time this has been on display.

The original Glenn Milne column was a pretty ordinary piece of work. The bulk of it was accurate, but very old news that has been well and truly gone over for many years. The one bit that was new was also inaccurate.

So what would most newspaper managements do when on the receiving end of a fierce prime ministerial reaction? Withdraw and apologise for the inaccuracy, and hang tough on the rest (whatever their private thoughts on its worth).

The facts on which comment is based should be true, and corrected if wrong, but Bolt and Hartigan are correct in saying most opinion pieces do not involve seeking comment from those people on whom one is opining.

For example, I don’t intend to ring News Limited CEO John Hartigan this morning and say “I am about to suggest that this affair suggests you are losing your touch. What do you think?”

There is no particular reason Milne should have rung Gillard about his column. It is certainly inaccurate to say, as Gillard said, that he “breached all known standards of journalism”. He just wrote a silly piece, that’s all.

In the absence of new information, Bolt and others vastly overplay their hand in suggesting that Gillard has something to worry about in this old affair. Would they suggest that a man’s judgement was questionable because of a decades-old relationship with a woman who turned out to be a flake?

But that is all a matter of opinion, and they are entitled to disagree and to publish their views.

But to apologise unreservedly, then go back on the apology. Oh dear, oh dear.

Now, add to this skittish behaviour to some other events over the past few years: the Bruce Guthrie litigation, dreadfully damaging to Hartigan and News Limited, which should never have been allowed to reach the courts, if the company was being strongly managed.

The Pauline Hanson photos that weren’t — which should never have been published if the company was being properly managed, and that constituted a spectacular own-goal on the issue of privacy.

The Melbourne Storm salary cap rorts.

The extraordinary approach to public relations, a small example of which was the ferocious reaction to my suggestion, in July, that News Limited should publish its Professional Code of Conduct.

All this is evidence that News Limited is indeed feeling put upon, weak and defensive.

One of News Limited’s characteristics over the years is that it is run by the editors. There is no more powerful position within the company than to be an editor.

But what the past week puts on display is a lack of firm hand from the top, a lack of restraint, strength and wisdom.

It also gives credence, by the by, to the rumours firing around the company and outside that there are very serious tensions and enmities between some of these gimlet-eyed News Limited men.

The cracks in the empire are radiating, not from the fusillades on the outside, but from within.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey