The top-down culture of the Murdoch empire
What we learned yesterday is the Murdoch empire does what all big organisations, whether governments, quangoes or companies, do when they’re in trouble. They push the blame as far down the food chain as it’ll go.
So the Murdochs didn’t know about phone hacking. Their chief executive didn’t know. Their editors didn’t know. And anyone who’s ever dealt with News International stares in disbelief, for this is the tightest, most top-down, most micro-managed organisation I know.
Freelance writers get to know the difference between news organisations – that’s partly how we make our precarious living. At one end of the spectrum, section editors at the Guardian are largely left to their own devices, so long as they don’t spend too much money. Many are a delight to deal with, and a few are self-righteous and mean-minded. At the other end, a commissioning editor at the Sunday Times has always to refer everything upwards, and is constantly living on his or her nerves, fearful that the copy which emerges may not be precisely what the next person up in the food chain was expecting to be able to show to the one above that.
I have had several conversations in which I say to my ST commissioning editor: “You don’t really want to know that, do you?” “No” comes the reply “but They said I had to ask you.” The editor has to ask me, and I have to waste time making phone calls to check points that we both know will never appear, and aren’t needed. If you get a series of idiot questions from your editor at the Guardian, it’s because you’re dealing with an idiot. At the Sunday Times, it’s because your editor isn’t in charge.
Years ago, I met a fairly senior Sun journalist at the launch of a mutual friend’s book. After a couple of drinks, he started to tell me how much he was looking forward to his imminent retirement. His specialist knowledge was useless because They decided what the story was and told him to write it. He was ashamed of some of the copy that appeared under his by-line and scared of a bullying newsroom culture. He felt like a cog in a machine.
Very early the next morning, this man phoned me in a state or terror. He had, he realised, been very indiscreet, and he knew I was rather left wing and wrote often for the Guardian. He wouldn’t ask, but they’d fire him and he’d lose his pension, so could I assure him....? Of course I could. Actually I was a bit offended that he thought I might make use of a conversation like that. Even now, though he’s long retired, I won’t tell you his name. But I tell you the story so you understand the culture of the organisation where we’re asked to believe that fairly junior journalists ran away and did dreadful things and spent lots of money, and their editors and proprietors had no idea what was going on.
Much more recently, I had dealings with another senior Sun correspondent, and wrote a piece about it on my own blog, which was rapidly picked up by that prince of media commentators, Jon Slattery. To my amazement, she besieged me with emails, texts and tearful telephone calls (honestly), begging me to take the offending blog down. No sane journalist would have done that from their own personal embarrassment. She had clearly been told by someone Higher Up: get that thing taken down.
You can tell how centralist the organisation is by looking at how it’s dealing with the crisis. The message is clear and consistent, and no one steps out of line. The real big beast in the media jungle is the BBC, says the Times, quite often. Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home website, is wheeled on to write in The Times that News International speaks to people “who are often neglected by the BBC.” Trevor Kavanagh goes on the Today programme to say that the BBC is gloating over News International’s troubles and devoting far too much airtime to them.
Maybe Wade, Coulson and the Murdochs don’t know who decided to try to blame the BBC. Only I think they probably do.