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Murdoch’s media morality tale

Jul 17, 2011 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, so long a global behemoth, is in serious trouble. Commentators are scrambling to make sense of the events that led to the closure of a 168-year-old newspaper, the News of the World (NOTW) – until last Sunday Britain’s most popular newspaper.

It won’t end there. The shenanigans at NOTW threaten to infect and damage the rest of Murdoch’s News Corporation empire. They threaten the reputation of one of the world’s oldest police forces, London’s Metropolitan. And they are even threatening the UK’s prime minister himself, who employed a tainted NOTW editor in his top team.

The nature of media power, its influence on politics and politicians, the limits of press freedom – all these dimensions of the issue are under renewed, intense scrutiny. All very interesting, I’m sure, but to me this is a morality tale, pure and simple.

When Murdoch took over The Sun and its Sunday cousin NOTW, he immediately created a circulation-at-all-costs culture. He shrewdly played to the lowest common denominator – giving Britain’s working classes a salacious mix of sex, nudity, gossip, celebrity-worship and dumb, mindless, trivia.

The formula worked. Millions joined those newspapers’ circulation lists. Advertisers, eyeing the eyeballs, streamed in. Other newspapers, panicked by loss of numbers, began playing the same game. The tabloid culture took serious root in Britain. And Murdoch began playing political broker, influencing the votes of millions and placing leaders into 10 Downing Street.

So far, so bad. But it got worse. The Murdoch papers, in their burning desire to get even more people reading their rags, began stretching the rules. They began paying for stories. They began following people around and invading their privacy. They began bugging hotel rooms. And we now know they also began hacking into voicemails, searching for clues and hints of anything they could use.

The reason Britain is so disgusted now is that the invasion of privacy breached all barriers of decency. It has now been revealed that hacking was done of the voicemails of a murdered schoolgirl, and of grieving relatives of dead soldiers. Even former British prime minister Gordon Brown may not have been spared.

I ran a seminar for chairpersons of boards this week, and pointed out there that the ethics of an organization lies in the hands of its chair. An organization with a chair and board of integrity can withstand the effects of a dodgy CEO – but when the topmost decision-maker has a flawed sense of ethics, things can only disintegrate.

Murdoch’s tactics led to great business success. The man is a shrewd business brain and remarkable risk-taker who did much good for Britain’s media, breaking the grip of print unions and hidebound old-world mandarins. But that is not going to be his final legacy. He will be remembered not for the good he did, but for the final unravelling.

And what an unravelling it is. At the time of writing, British leaders have united in opposing News International’s bid for British broadcaster BSkyB. Murdoch has been forced to abandon the deal. Advertisers are pulling out of all his media companies. Minority shareholders are finding their voice, calling his sprawling corporation a “family candy jar” – and suddenly noticing the unabashed nepotism at the heart of it. All his brands are now being seen as toxic. His share price is plummeting. The man himself has signed a written apology to Britain – perhaps the first time in his career he has had to say sorry for anything.

All because, all those years ago, Rupert Murdoch failed to draw an ethical line in the sand. He allowed his people to chase the story at any cost and by any means. He winked and looked away. He looks set, in his final years, to pay a heavy price.

It’s never worth it, people. When the temptation to take the low road comes, know that a reckoning will come. It may take a while, but it will come.

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