"Ethics? As far as I'm concerned, that's a place to the east of London where people wear white socks." That's Kelvin MacKenzie, the legendary editor of Rupert Murdoch's flagship paper The Sun.
News Corp always had its critics ("From what I've seen of Murdoch's papers," quipped journalist Mike Royko in 1983, "I don't know any self-respecting fish who would want to be wrapped in one!") but no one could doubt its proprietor's understanding of the newspaper business.
In Breaking News, Paul Barry quotes one of Murdoch's early editors: "We were doing things with newspapers that hadn't been done before; we were turning the world on its head."
Murdoch has always been a hands-on owner, phoning his staff at all hours, from anywhere in the world. Rodney Lever, who worked for News Ltd in Australia for decades, said: "At the first ring, people said: ‘It's Rupert' and their face went white."
Those who displeased him did not last; as the former Australian editor, Max Newton said: "He's a tremendous sacker."
Most of the time such interventions weren't necessary, because his employees learnt to anticipate his wishes.
In his memoirs, former British prime minister Tony Blair likened liaising with Murdoch to Faust's attempts to "cut a really great deal with this bloke called Satan". Yet, as prime minister, Blair met 30 times with Murdoch protege Rebekah Brooks (to whom he sent birthday cards) and 31 times with Murdoch himself, even becoming godfather to one of Rupert's young daughters.
Likewise, British PM David Cameron's relationship with Brooks became so close he signed his text messages to her with "LOL" (apparently thinking the acronym meant "lots of love").
As MacKenzie put it: "The most incredible aspect I have seen in my lifetime is the queue of politicians anxious to kiss Rupert's backside."
That anxiety becomes less inexplicable when one considers how ferociously Murdoch's men pursued those perceived as his enemies.
According to the News of the Week's Neville Thurlbeck, when a British parliamentary committee began investigating hacking, the paper's staff were told: "Find out every single thing about every single member: Who was gay, who had affairs, anything we can use."
The Labour MP Tom Watson - an outspoken Murdoch critic - became a particular target, regularly described in the press as "poisonous", "a tub of lard" and "Two Dinners Tommy".
As the Sun's political editor told him: "Rupert never forgets."
The hacking scandal has, of course, embroiled News Corp's British operations in a world of trouble, at a time when print news seems in decline everywhere. Although Murdoch apparently wants to keep the business in family hands, it's far from clear who will take charge when he departs to the great editorial room in the sky.
Barry depicts the three heirs-apparent (Lachlan, Elizabeth and James) as deeply conflicted about their family. All have, in their own way, rebelled; all have been drawn, however reluctantly, back to their father's trade.
Barry says the old man regards all three as disappointments: "Lachlan because he isn't smart enough or tough enough . . .; James because he wasn't wise enough to avoid the hacking crisis; and Liz because she is a woman, who refuses to accept her place."
Indeed, the entire clan comes across as somewhat damaged, almost as if they've suffered collateral damage from their patriarch's single-minded pursuit of power and money.
Still, if there are moments when one feels a twinge of sympathy for the old monster, these dissipate quickly enough in the face of the industrial-scale criminality unearthed during the hacking scandal.
NOTW journalist Greg Miskiw was once taped explaining his paper's methodology to a troubled colleague.
"This is what we do," he said. "We go out and destroy other people's lives." Barry's excellent book leaves you in no doubt Miskiw wasn't joking.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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