You have to hand it to Lachlan Murdoch. Though heir apparent to one of
the biggest media empires in the world, the 31-year-old chairman of New
Limited and deputy chief operating officer of News Corporation remains a
common man. He has never wanted for any material need in life. His
meteoric rise through the working ranks has significantly more to do with
birthright than ability. He socialises in the highest society, has the ear
of politicians and a supermodel wife, jets around the world and last
financial year was paid nearly $4 million for his troubles, despite the
fact he managed to lose the company more than $500 million through his
lacklustre performance as a One.Tel director.
But no, he is not part of the media elite. Because by his way of
thinking he is a man of popular tastes, and his company’s fortunes are
but an expression of solidarity with the masses. Thus he is no more proud
of The Times than he is
of any of the tabloids rags his company owns, sees no difference between
publishing a book by a Nobel laureate and making a movie like Dude,
Where’s my Car?, in fact makes no distinction between
"high" and "low" culture at all.
This we now know thanks to the Sun Prince’s outing at the 2002 Andrew
Olle Media lecture, which he delivered to an elite media audience at
Sydney’s ritzy Westin Hotel on October 13. It was a curious speech, one
that will perhaps in hindsight be cited as yet another example of his poor
grasp on the real world. His screed, exhibiting little of the clear
thinking one might expect from the holder in a degree in philosophy, was
so unconvincing it can only be assumed he wrote it all by himself.
Certainly, in light of Andrew
Olle and the journalistic values the lecture was meant to honour, it
was a regrettable performance. Seemingly unable to find anything more
edifying than a self-serving defence of the profit motive to drone on
about, Murdoch proclaimed his love of good journalism but failed two of
the most basic principles of the craft: he was boring, and he unfairly
represented views with which he disagreed, resorting to the crudest
traditions of light-weight tabloid commentary. Didn’t he learn anything
from all those weeks he spent working as a journalist?
"The self-anointed media elite among us believe, somewhat
self-servingly, that not only the act, or process of making a profit is
positively sinister, but also that the very desire to do so is,"
Murdoch said. "Two years ago this forum was told that Australian
journalists worked in two distinct camps: commercial journalism or serious
journalism. In that speech we were told: ‘The horse has bolted. The idea
that owners of media organisations regard the practice of journalism as a
public service is as outdated as the idea that businesses operate in the
interests of a better world. . . If you want to apportion guilt, blame a
system that demands growth and profits and lower costs from every public
"The speaker went on to say that commercial journalism encompassed
popular magazines, tabloid newspapers and news and current affairs on
commercial TV and radio, while serious journalism ... was restricted to
metropolitan broadsheets and the ABC, because, absurdly, serious
journalism was more akin to charity than to business.
"Well, this bloke couldn't have been more wrong. You can see here
that the Australian media elite define their club through standards
designed only to exclude. Entry requires that you either rely on tax
payers’ money to draw your pay cheque, or that your newspaper folds
twice over, and God forbid, don't ever even think about a profit."
The bloke who couldn’t have been more wrong was Eric
Beecher, whose own experience as chief executive of Text
Media and a former editor of the Sydney
Morning Herald hardly suggests he is a person given to ivory-tower
journalism alienated from the imperatives of the balance sheet.
Of course, Beecher didn’t actually argue that quality journalism was
incompatible with making money and that any profit motive was sinister.
The crux of his speech two years ago was a little more sophisticated. He
argued, somewhat more pointedly, that "money, budgets and profits
have become the biggest issues on the minds of most senior editorial
executives in Australia – people whose equivalents 10 or 20 years ago
were almost totally preoccupied with covering stories and breaking
news". He suggested that "the priorities of ratings,
circulation, demographics and profits have meant that more and more of the
money and time invested by large media companies is spent on entertainment
and lifestyle journalism, and therefore incrementally less is spent on
news and current affairs journalism".
It is worth quoting a little more of Beecher’s speech:
"Journalism and serious media, like many other elements of the
best of the 20th century, has been systemically transformed from something
that had institutional status into a commodity ... The old-style media
barons like Frank Packer, Keith Murdoch, Charles Moses and Warwick Fairfax
senior had real fun as they ruled their empires paternalistically and
autocratically, without barely a thought for shareholders or stakeholders
or returns on equity. For the Packers and the Fairfaxes, power always
seemed more important than money, although they also made sure there was
more than enough of the folding stuff available to support their personal
"Well, the fun is gone. The people who manage today’s media
companies are employed to be commercial. They have MBAs and marketing
degrees, and as highly qualified employees they are not the people to
blame personally for what is happening to journalism and the media
industry and the ABC. If you want to apportion guilt, blame a system that
demands growth and profits and lower costs from every public organisation,
regardless of whether it produces journalism or germicides."