FiftyOneZeroOne

Media behaviour, Murdoch and public relations

Posted on: July 16, 2011

In recent times, as the endless litany of claims of phone-hacking and other journalistic behaviour by journalists at the UK’s now closed ‘News of the World’ and other newspapers in the Murdoch UK stable have arisen, friends in the US and other countries have suggested that I blog on it.

I have not rushed to judgement, as each day seemed to bring forward worse claims than the one before. And also because, and here I declare an interest, my first job almost 40 years again was as a cadet journalist on ‘The Australian’ the national daily newspaper established by (Keith) Rupert Murdoch in the late 1960s. On that paper, I gained my first experience of journalism and rose to be a national correspondent and, at times, night news editor.

I remember “Rupert” (or “KRM”) as innovative, hard-nosed, and wanting his newspapers to be the best – the newsiest and top-selling. He could be ruthless but was also immensely loyal to many editors and managers who stayed with him as his empire expanded into the UK, US, India and China.

So I have always had a continuing regard for this very driven media entrepreneur who has built an empire from one daily paper in Adelaide, South Australia. But that doesn’t mean that I have accepted the behaviour of his more popular papers.

In the UK, it has been obvious for some years that the News of the World and the Sun, the daily tabloid, have pushed the bounds of taste, decency, accuracy and ethical behaviour. In some ways, this non-establishment behaviour by “red tops” is what has made them so popular for over a century. The Sun, for example, sells more copies each day than all the “quality” daily news papers added together.

The “phone hacking scandal” is just the furthest extremes in practices. The News of the World may be just one example of the abuse of privacy of people who are not in the public eye. Please note that a non-Murdoch newspaper, Daily Star, has been raided by police and allegations have been made against the Sun and the very establishment Sunday Times.

As Rupert Murdoch has very publicly apologised to one set of victims and was heard saying that he was “appalled” by journalist behaviour, we can see that he has begun to realise the enormity of the problem and, possibly, to reinstate new values to his journalists.

Many public relations theorists (Coombs & Holladay; Fearn-Banks) have proposed ‘apologia’ as strategy in crisis communication and recovery. It sets a base for recovery and reinstating reputation. This has started but is questionable whether Murdoch’s News International group can recover its standing in order to maintain its ‘licence to operate’.

Regulators, parliament and a judicial enquiry into phone-hacking have already limited its operations. It’s possible that US authorities may become involved, as there are claims that 9/11 victims had phones hacked and that payments made by Murdoch journalists to British police for information may be addressed by US anti-bribery laws which reach beyond national jurisdictions.

At this point, the issues to address are 1) what were the Murdoch public relations strategies and behaviours and 2) what future strategies and actions are needed? From the evidence of News International’s public relations spokesperson’s interviews, the strategy had been to ‘deny and reassure’ even when obvious that continuing disclosures demonstrated phone-hacking was widespread.

That strategy painted News International into a tiny corner and has only been reversed when Rupert Murdoch flew into the UK earlier this week. Any “halo” value of past performance in terms of financial success, popularity of publications, political influence and innovation had been eroded. In short, the public relations behaviours were the same as the obstructive attitudes of management. Public relations counsel has either been ignored or supine.

For the future, the apologia delivered by Murdoch has to be followed by very transparent responses to enquiries and police investigations. News International must follow this approach as there is no skerrick of trust in it by major decision-makers. Any further obstruction will close the ‘licence to operate’ further.

Putting aside the phone-hacking scandal, the Murdoch papers have always been leaders in journalism and news. That’s what made them so popular. It has also held politicians and malefactors to account, along with numerous celebrities. The right form of transparent and values-;ed public relations strategy, along with new corporate behaviours, at the News International corporate entity can help restore robust journalism.

That will be very important because there are many key influencers, especially in Parliament, who want to get revenge on the media, not just the Murdoch press. They want to limit the scope of news-gathering and investigation, which will limit debate in a democratic polity. The ‘phone-hacking’ scandal has given them an opportunity, which must be resisted. Public relations strategies can help resist these attempts at greater control.

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