Adrian Hamilton: A promise by Murdoch is meaningless

Friday 01 July 2011 00:00
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The people one should feel sorry for, in the shame of the Government genuflection to Rupert Murdoch – or maybe it should be simply contempt – are the independent directors appointed to preserve the separated Sky news from his interference.

We have been down this course so often before that it is hardly worth repeating just how meaningless any promises of independence by Murdoch are. As far back as his takeover of the News of the World in 1969, he promised that the chairman, Sir William Carr, would stay on as chairman to ensure traditions were maintained. He was out within three months.

When he took over The Times and Sunday Times in 1981, he was allowed through without a Monopolies referral because he said he'd have a board of outside directors to maintain its independence. That didn't stop the firing of Harry Evans or any other changes he decided to make.

So it proved with the purchase of the Wall Street Journal, when the Bancroft family agreed to sell on condition of the appointment of a committee to preserve its editorial integrity. Murdoch doesn't exercise interference by issuing memos; he exercises control by appointing people who will second-guess his will, and his prejudices.

The Government claims it is preserving editorial virginity by "imposing" conditions on Murdoch under which Sky News will be spun off as a separate company (in which News Corp will retain a substantial interest) and a "monitoring trustee" be appointed to ensure its independence from him. Everyone knows that such assurances are worthless but it suits everyone to pretend otherwise.

It's not that Murdoch particularly seeks to break them. It's just that he sees no point in them at all, regarding them as ridiculous leaves by which government cover their nakedness before their electorates.

He's not alone in this. Tiny Rowland used to refer to the "independent directors" from the ranks of retired ambassadors and media chiefs appointed to preserve the virtue of The Observer as the "garden gnomes". The great and the good flocked to the board of Conrad Black's newspaper group before his troubles had them diving for cover. It is little wonder that Murdoch (an Australian), Rowland (a German) and Black (a Canadian) have or had such contempt for an English establishment so ready to prostitute itself for the sake of a retirement stipend.

But none of us do ourselves any good accepting this window dressing for the realities of power. Murdoch can just ignore it. We, and successive governments, are humiliated by it.

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