Rupert Murdoch’s loyal lieutenants usually stay that way — sycophantically loyal — until they die. But not Ken Cowley, who ran Murdoch’s Australian operations for 27 years and sat on the News Corp board for 32 years. On Saturday, in an extraordinary interview with the Financial Review, the 80-year-old Cowley unloaded mercilessly. At least, that’s according to the Financial Review.
It’s the best example of how to ruin a nice weekend at News Corp Australia. Cowley started by laying into Murdoch’s decision to appoint his eldest son Lachlan as non-executive co-chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox — “I like Lachlan … He’s a nice man but he’s not a great businessman. He’s not a big and good decision-maker in my opinion … Both James and Elisabeth are much smarter than he is.”
Then he turned to the management at News Corp in Australia, led by CEO Julian Clarke — “It’s a worry. Rupert has not . . . he hasn’t been, I think, careful enough to have picked the right person to run Australia.” And finished off with an impolite assessment of the company’s flagship newspaper — “The Australian now is pathetic … It should have been growing stronger. With each publication you’ve got to select the person who can give strong leadership and growth and business and look over the horizon all the time, and they’re not doing that.”
In one scathing interview, Cowley has inserted his name near the top of the News Corp enemies list. And while none of the criticisms are new, the background of the person making them means News Corp’s chief publicity organ has kicked into overdrive discrediting Cowley — and the story.
In a front-page “exclusive” by Oz media editor Sharri Markson, Cowley reveals he’s seeking legal advice over the piece, where he says he was “misled, verballed and misquoted” by AFR associate editor Anne Hyland. The article, Cowley said, was meant to be about RM Williams and not News Corp. Some of the comments he doesn’t recall making. Others were off the record. The comments conveyed in the piece weren’t a “true reflection” of his views. In fact, Cowley has great respect for Lachlan Murdoch, and thinks things at the Oz are going just swell. Furthermore, Cowley says he never gave permission to be recorded, and was shocked to discover the comments attributed to him:
“I was not aware the lady was interviewing me. I just thought it was a short story about RM Williams. She did not make clear to me she was going to write an in-depth story about News Limited and the Murdochs.”
It’s a curious defence for a former media executive. As the Fin’s editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury put it in today’s AFR: “Mr Cowley has a half a century experience working in the media.” Presumably, that means knowing that one probably shouldn’t say anything one wants to keep private on tape, and being able to tell when one is being interviewed. As such, Stutchbury continued, no apology was needed, and his paper stands by its story.
In a statement, Hyland says Cowley agreed to an on-the-record interview. “I taped it on a recorder clearly placed in front of him,” she wrote. She acknowledged the interview was meant to be about RM Williams, but said Cowley, unprompted by her, began to hold forth on other subjects. “As any self-respecting journalist would, I reported these,” she said.
And so Cowley is left with the worst of all worlds. A tape of the interview exists, and if released, it will leave little doubt as to exactly what he said. And even if it vindicates him and he indeed made no negative comments about News (he doesn’t actually deny all the comments, just says some were off the record), Cowley’s extraordinary interview has led to him being trashed in today’s Oz, which has well and truly begun the task of discrediting the former News Corp executive.
Later on in Markson’s piece, she goes to former News Limited CEO John Hartigan, himself no longer at the company but apparently happy to toe the line, for a pot-shot at Cowley. “It is a truly sad bookend to a long and significant contribution to the inexorable growth of the News Corp empire,’” Hartigan said. “I’m sure my many former colleagues share with me in offering sympathy to someone so gripped by delusion.”
And a piece by Darren Davidson this morning, run in the media pages of the Oz, reveals how Cowley unsuccessfully solicited an investment from Lachlan Murdoch in a company that later collapsed:
“Mr Cowley who yesterday distanced himself from an interview with Fairfax media’s Australian Financial Review in which he attacks News, also asked News non-executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch to join the board of RM Williams Agricultural Holdings. It is understood Mr Murdoch declined the offer and also advised against News making the investment after Mr Cowley’s approach.”
We are of course not clear who Davidson’s source is, but it could be Lachlan Murdoch or someone very close to him. The line of attack against Cowley is clear: the aging former executive, embittered by the rejection of his request for financial help and support from News and Lachlan Murdoch, turns on the company which fed him and attacks it through the pages of a rival paper owned by the (hated) Fairfax Media. Then he recants and claims he was verballed.
It’s a strong message to News’ critics, both in and outside the company, in politics or business. Criticise News Corp and they’ll come after you.