Some years ago, at a management retreat held by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, the senior managers and their distinguished guests returned from lunch to find freshly minted copies of the Times — the original London Times, that is — lying on their chairs. This was slightly odd because the afternoon speaker was Kelvin Mackenzie, then the imaginative editor of its much less respectable neighbor, the noisy, populist tabloid Sun.
Still, Mr. Mackenzie bounded up to the lectern and genially invited his audience to look through his rival’s stories. What did they think of them? Solid responsible reporting? Or dull conventional stuff? Which was it?
The audience, doubtless suspecting a trap, indicated cautious approval.
Whereupon Mackenzie expressed unfeigned delight since, as he told them, the paper they were reading was composed word for word from stories originally written and published in the Sun
and then re-printed for the occasion in a Times
Managers from the Times present were not best pleased, but everyone else was amused and, more important, thoughtful. Mackenzie had taught them several valuable lessons, including “don’t judge a book by its cover” and “give a dog a bad name (and you can get away with hanging it”.)
Denunciations of tabloids in general and of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids in particular have been crowding both the front pages and the airwaves since the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World broke in earnest over the summer. The attack has gradually widened to include the entire News Corporation stable of news providers — the Times, the Sun, Fox News, Sky News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, more than 150 Australian newspapers, etc., etc., etc. And until this weekend the attacks had gone largely un-resisted, or answered with high-minded assertions of corporate and editorial responsibility — which is much the same thing.
An apologetic attitude was probably inevitable because the phone-hacking scandal is a real and serious one. NewsCorp (News International in the UK) had to make clear it regretted that the NOTW had both hacked into the mobile phones of celebrities and had paid police for information. Closing down the NOTW — where these practices were most egregious — established that regret. So did setting up a Management and Standards committee to sift through internal memos and pass along anything damaging to the legal authorities. Arguably, however, these steps went too far — costing jobs at NOTW, perhaps revealing the names of sources, cooperating with a police “fishing expedition,” and conceding widespread criminality too readily.
Above all, this stance of constant apology effectively meant that the company was unable to make certain key points in its own defense. For instance, all newspapers pay police for information; there would be no good crime reporting unless they did so. Nor is the practice necessarily illegal even in Britain if the newspaper can demonstrate that revealing the information was in the public interest. Both those points also apply, if less strongly, to telephone hacking.