AUST gets wake-call with Sydney terror. Only Daily Telegraph caught the bloody outcome at 2.00 am. Congrats.
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) December 15, 2014
In one brutally insensitive tweet, Rupert Murdoch told the world
everything it ever needed to know about the central tenet of the News
Corp culture: nothing matters except the story.
It is a culture in which the ends justify the means.
It is a culture that celebrates cruel vulgarity, infamously exemplified by the headline “Gotcha”
in the London Sun when, during the Falklands War, the British forces
sank the Argentine warship the General Belgrano, with the loss of 368
lives. In Stick It Up Your Punter!,
their account of life on The Sun, Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie
wrote that although even the editor, the egregious Kelvin MacKenzie, had
second thoughts about the heading, Murdoch said:
I rather like it.
This is a culture that ultimately leads to the kind of criminality exposed in the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed
the British branch of Murdoch’s empire in 2011. It is a culture that
says if that’s what it takes to get the story or sell a newspaper, let’s
In the case of the Lindt Café siege, it is a culture that permitted
the publishing of the faces of hostages as they were forced at gunpoint
to hold up the gunman’s black flag in the café window. There was a
strong news case for showing them holding up the flag but no case for
showing their faces.
These are images that are likely to haunt those hostages all their
lives. The risk of doing harm should have been obvious. The disregarding
of that risk is unjustifiable and unforgivable.
It is a culture that permits the publication of a door-stop photo of
the father and husband of Katrina Dawson, who died at the gunman’s
hands. They are leaving the hospital where Dawson died. The photo is
clearly taken against the husband’s wishes: he is covering his face with
his hand. The father’s face is a mask of shock. The intrusion on their
grief is another unforgivable act.
There are ways to cover these stories without committing these gross
ethical violations, and much of the other media showed how to do it.
Channel Nine’s graphic live footage of the final police assault, and
other television footage of hostages dashing from the scene, were vivid
and immensely strong pieces of news reporting. ABC TV’s careful
pixelating of faces of hostages in footage taken during the siege was
another example of good ethical decision-making.
However, the newspapers – and not just News Corp’s but Fairfax’s too
– seemed to think that material posted by the hostages on Facebook was
simply public property to be exploited for media purposes.
This is a clear violation of a foundational privacy principle that
says material supplied for one purpose shall not be used for another
purpose without the provider’s consent. Many people – young people in
particular – post material on Facebook for the purpose of sharing it
with their friends. They do not anticipate that it will be used by the
media in whatever context or for whatever purpose the media thinks fit.
The focus of this article has been on News Corp because the
connection between its performance and Murdoch’s tweet is the principal
point of argument. However, that is not to say News Corp coverage was
all bad, nor that others were blameless.
The coverage of the Lindt Café siege is as a strong a candidate as we
have seen in recent years for the Australian Press Council to conduct
an investigation into the performance of the newspapers generally, and
for the Australian Communications and Media Authority to use its own-motion powers to do the same in respect of radio and television.
The mixed quality of the media performance was illustrated by the responses to it
by the NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, and the chair of the
Australian Press Council, Professor Julian Disney. Scipione publicly
thanked the media for acting responsibly in the way they covered the
For you to act the way you did, to be responsible, all I can say is “thank you”.
Disney issued a statement, saying:
Much of the coverage has been excellent and has not
hesitated to tell painful truths when necessary. But there have been
some deeply regrettable errors and exaggerations, spreading dangerous
misinformation without any reasonable basis. This type of material can
be a serious risk to public safety, as well as causing an unjustified
level of fear and distrust across the community.
It was a general statement of assessment, and did not make specific allegations against any particular media outlet.
However, it provoked a response from News Corp broadsheet The Australian, which has been running a campaign to undermine Disney in his last year as chair of the Press Council.
In a front-page story, it accused Disney of “triggering concerns” –
by whom, one wonders – about “whether his organisation has abandoned the
rules of procedural fairness”.
The basis for this accusation was that Disney had spoken without
hearing the media’s side of the story. The weakness in this argument is
that Disney was not making a finding against a specific newspaper, but
making a general statement about the performance of the newspapers as a
However, the motive for the story became clear in its last paragraph.
There, The Australian quoted its own editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell,
as saying Disney:
… has just dealt the Press Council out of any future complaints about the role of the media during this week’s events.
This was clearly meant as a shot across the bow of the Press Council.
In the event that the Press Council does decide to hear complaints
about the coverage of the siege, it is reasonable to suppose that News
Corp will challenge its fitness to do so. This may not thwart any such
inquiry, but it might make it more difficult to accomplish, especially
if News Corp decided not to co-operate on the grounds of apprehended
This brings us finally to another aspect of the News Corp culture: every critic is an enemy, and we take no prisoners