31 Jan 2016

Fronting the phone-hacking fallout

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 31 January 2016

When the phone hacking controversy in the UK was at its height three years ago, Rupert Murdoch put a New Zealander in charge of his newspapers there. Mediawatch asks Mike Darcey how he dealt with the fallout, and if all the anguish, inquiries and trials have actually changed anything.  

The octogenarian media mogul Rupert Murdoch recently announced his engagement to former model Jerry Hall in an old school way - the births, deaths and marriages section of his flagship UK paper The Times (bet he didn't have to pay for the ad either). 

He’s been down the aisle before, so it remains to be seen if he’ll be calling it the happiest day of his life. But we do know which was the "most humble" day of his life:   

Things were looking bleak for the News Corp kingpin back in 2011 when he fronted up at a UK parliamentary inquiry into the conduct and ethics of the press. The phone-hacking scandal, which revealed hundreds of phones were tapped by journalists and public officials were paid by papers, had already prompted him to kill off his top-selling but toxic Sunday tabloid The News of the World. It also scuppered a proposed mega-merger of his newspaper and pay-TV businesses. 

At the inquiry, Murdoch's third wife Wendi Deng famously fended off a cream pie wielded by an activist comedian. The assault garnered unexpected sympathy for an old man who looked like he was losing his power. 

But things have been looking up for Murdoch since then, and not just in his personal life.

The boss bounces back 

He still seems firmly in charge of his empire. During the last UK election, his papers were still taking sides and picking winners, and the journalist who first uncovered the phone hacking scandal, Nick Davies, told Mediawatch the revelations hadn't had much impact on how the media operated.

"Journalists have this sort of fantasy that they report on a bad thing, and the bad thing will stop," Davies said in the May 2015 interview. "What actually happens is you report the bad thing, the people responsible for it get very angry, people ran around shouting and then the bad things continue." 

"With the phone-hacking, there was a phase when Rupert Murdoch seemed to be in retreat. The politicians who had supported him were suddenly attacking him," Davies recalled.

"But when all the screaming and shouting had stopped, a new paper replaced the News of The World. A decent, fairer system of press regulation had been kicked into the long grass. You can see the papers at the dark end of Fleet Street still throwing their weight around in politics, and politicians placating them," he said.

"We'd be kidding ourselves if we thought we have actually changed anything very important at all in spite of the scandal"

In the clear

Last month, the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service announced that there would be no more journalists criminally prosecuted over phone-hacking. Murdoch’s company will not face any more charges. 

Neither will Rebekah Brooks, who was the head of Murdoch’s papers in the UK when the criminal and unethical conduct of its reporters was going on. After a lengthy trial she was acquitted last year, and – to the astonishment of many – reinstated as chief executive at News UK. 

Rebekah Brooks

Rebekah Brooks Photo: AFP

The man who had to step aside to allow her to return was Mike Darcey, a New Zealander who was working at Murdoch's pay TV company BSkyB before Murdoch himself asked him to take over his scandal-struck newspaper operation in 2013.

"That's the way it goes in that sort of world," Darcey told Mediawatch of having to step down, ahead of a talk at Massey University's journalism school in Wellington last month.  

"[Murdoch's] view would be that she was unreasonably required to step down as CEO, was acquitted on all counts so it was her job to have back," he said, matter-of-factly.

But if Brooks didn't know about serious and widespread law-breaking and ethical breaches in her newsrooms, didn't that raise questions about how hands-off she was in her job?

Tactfully, Darcey said that was before his time at the company, but the scandal certainly left a mess behind for him.

"In my three years, I had one year of people being consistently arrested. Then things were seemingly getting worse before it stabilised. Then I had a year of trials and all the trauma from that," he recalled.

"Some journalists were on bail for more than two years. In the end, juries time and time again essentially defied what appeared to be the public and judicial mood and said they would not send a journalist to jail for doing their job of getting stories into the public domain," he said. 

picture of Mike Darcey

Mike Darcey Photo: supplied

Chilling effects 

Critics claimed tough regulation would muzzle the UK's famously free and fearless press, and one of the journalists facing prosecution, former News of the World reporter Neville Thurlbeck, thought the inquiry quickly achieved that. 

In 2012, Thurlbeck, with heavy sarcasm, wrote: 

In the 12 months since the paper closed, no one can have failed to notice how Britain is a finer and more noble place to live. 

No peer of the realm has committed perjury, no “happily married” MPs have been taking secret mistresses and all celebrities have chucked their class A drugs into the Thames. I am immensely reassured by the fact that, search as they may, not one newspaper has been able to locate a single paedophile ring to bust. 

Opponents, however, pointed out stories like that could still be uncovered by journalists and made public without breaking the law.

"The mood has changed. It is a more cautious environment now. Everybody's more gun-shy," Darcey said. 

"But the confidence of the British press is undimmed," he claimed, pointing to the Sunday Times' dogged pursuit of FIFA corruption. That team or reporters has now moved on to investigating the IAAF and corruption in world athletics.  

"During this period a lot of people jumped on this bandwagon - people not all that comfortable with free speech and investigative journalism. They haven't curbed the press though, and that's a good thing".  

End of story?

Journalists and newspapers often paid people for information and help, said Darcey, but it's far from clear when that is illegal. That became clear during the recent trials of journalists, almost all of whom were acquitted. 

"We publicly stated we wanted to make News UK the best-regulated media company in the world. I was very confident in the environment I was managing. I'm proud of what's now in place". 

Last week, it was reported that civil claims by alleged phone-hacking victims are in the pipeline, mostly against Murdoch's UK papers. 

News UK said: "If the [High] Court permits such claims to proceed, we will defend them vigorously.”   

The UK's Independent says it'll be ironic if News UK has to settle any such claims financially. 

"In effect it will be Rebekah Brooks signing the cheques," the paper noted.