After all the shit that’s been dumped on the Murdochs in Britain this year, it’s extraordinary that one of Rupert’s immediate family could be cheered onto the stage at a major media function and clapped off at the end to rapturous applause. But that’s exactly what happened to Murdoch’s second daughter Elisabeth last night, as she delivered the keynote MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival.
So why the acclaim? Are we just suckers for royalty? Or was the speech a cracker? The answer, perhaps, is a little bit of both.
Elisabeth is undoubtedly the most successful Murdoch, apart from her dad, and also the most independent. It was she who quit the family business in 2001 to start the TV production company Shine — which makes The Voice, Biggest Loser and MasterChef for Australian audiences — and she who sold it to News Corp last year for $US673 million.
It was also Elisabeth who refused an invitation to join the News Corp board, after the News of the World phone-hacking scandal erupted last July, and she who told friends that her brother James and Rebekah Brooks had “f-cked” the company.
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And if you were to believe this morning’s headlines, she was almost as blunt and direct in her criticism last night.
Reuters’ report trumpeted: “Elisabeth takes aim at brother on media morality”; The Guardian crowed: “Elisabeth rounds on father and brother”; The Daily Mail went for “Tensions laid bare” and, in the US, The Daily Beast dubbed it “The Murdoch Family Feud”.
Sure enough, Elisabeth did have a go at her youngest brother in no uncertain terms, which is quite remarkable considering the occasion. And, albeit in more coded language, she had a tilt at Rupert too, by talking about morals, purpose, people, values and the way in which his whims and wishes have governed his media empire.
It will be an interesting Christmas dinner when they all get together in four months.
Three years ago, James used this same MacTaggart Lecture to launch his famous and famously ill-conceived attack on British public broadcaster the BBC, accusing it of “throttling” its commercial rivals — like the Murdochs’ BSkyB — and of killing independent, quality journalism.
James went on to tell his audience that Britain’s “authoritarian” regulation of TV should be dismantled and that the “state-sponsored media” should be drastically reduced in size by cutting or scrapping the BBC’s licence fee. He finished up with the remarkable claim that: “The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”
Last night, Elisabeth took direct aim at her younger sibling — who is blamed by many inside News Corporation for allowing the phone-hacking scandal to go nuclear — saying: “I think that he left something out: the reason his statement sat so uncomfortably is that profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster.”
Moments later, she was warning: “It is increasingly apparent that the absence of purpose — or of a moral language — within government, media or business, could become one of the most dangerous own goals for capitalism and for freedom.”
Naturally, Elisabeth also had something to say about the Murdoch empire’s own lack of moral compass in regard to the News of the World phone hacking and Sun corruption scandals, and about what might be done to fix it.
“Obviously News is also a company that is currently asking itself some very significant and difficult questions about how some behaviours fell so far short of its values,” she said. “Personally, I believe one of the biggest lessons of the past year has been the need for any organisation to discuss, affirm and institutionalise a rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose.”
Anyone who knows News Corp knows its values and purpose are largely driven by whatever Rupert wants at any particular point in time.
But there was far more to chew on, even in the small sections of the lecture that dealt with such family matters. And it’s no surprise to hear she didn’t get help from her family in writing it, or that she did get guidance from her PR guru husband Matthew Freud (whom Rupert is said to hate).
There was this for James and Rupert, for example, on the subject of the BBC, which both men regard with undisguised loathing and contempt: “Let me put it on the record that I am a current supporter of the BBC’s universal license fee. It’s what mandates its unique purpose; it continues to act as a strategic catalyst to the creative industries of this great country.”