Rupert Murdoch's Twitter slap-down has big implications - and not just for News Corp editors

The Middle East is already one of the most difficult territories to cover. This well-publicised intervention won't make it any easier

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Rupert Murdoch’s public slap down of the new acting Sunday Times editor Martin Ivens over the publication of Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon of Benjamin Netanyahu raises a number of important issues.

One is that all of the editors in Murdoch’s News Corp media empire have been made aware of the danger that when they next find themselves mired in a controversy and fighting to protect their editorial reputation the boss might use his favourite social media network to cut them down at the knees.

It seems inevitable that those editors will be more likely than in the past to try to second guess the views of a man who assured the Leveson Inquiry that he does not interfere in the editorial content of his papers.

As Ivens sought to justify the drawing, published in the first edition of the Sunday Times since he was made acting editor last week, Murdoch took to Twitter to offer his apology for the “grotesque, offensive cartoon” showing Netanyahu apparently building a wall and using Palestinian blood for mortar.

The comments raise questions about the future of Scarfe at the Sunday Times, a title that has published his drawings for almost half a century. Ironically, some more jealous members of Britain’s cartoon artist community sometimes complain of Scarfe’s apparently cushy lifestyle in Chelsea, married to the cake-baking actress Jane Asher. Well, no one could say his latest piece isn’t controversial. He may well have enjoyed Murdoch’s critique of his work. 

This Twitter intervention will have been noted by those powerful friends who feel they have the ear of the world’s most famous media mogul. If Rupert can be persuaded to publicly embarrass the Sunday Times then perhaps he can be induced to denigrate other News Corp content that angers those in his circle, from Republican politicians to climate change sceptics?

The episode also gives an indication of the power of the Israel lobby in challenging critical media coverage of its politicians. The Independent experienced something similar when cartoonist Dave Brown depicted then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a child killer in his adaptation of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” in 2003. Campaigners generated a flood of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission, which rejected the idea that the cartoon was anti-Semitic.

The Middle East is probably the most difficult territory for any global news organisation to cover. My attention was recently drawn to Al Monitor, an ambitious website that pulls together the commentary of distinguished writers from across the region, with articles offered in Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish, as well as English, and covering social as well as political developments.

But the area remains a media minefield. It’s interesting to note the approach of the Daily Mail, which despite the enormous scope of its website and the strengths of its editorial department, essentially steers clear of the subject.

Some might call that an abdication of journalistic responsibility while others would recognise the business sense of avoiding a live hand grenade of a topic which brings no obvious commercial benefit to the publisher. Which is why the paper and its website have ignored this Netanyahu story, uncomfortable as it is for one of its greatest media rivals.

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