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A Revealing Argument from The Times of London: ‘Don’t Worry About Journalistic Ethics, What Matters is the Money’ 

Columnist Gerard Baker glossed over the Murdoch press’ criminality in a recent comment piece – and the accusations against his own Editor. Why?

Rupert Murdoch speaks to the media after meeting with the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler over phone-hacking claims on 15 July 2011. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA/Alamy

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The Times of London recently carried a comment article by Gerard Baker about events at The Washington Post, where the new publisher, Sir Will Lewis, is at war with his journalists. Headlined ‘If sanctimonious staff have a veto, the game’s up for Washington Post’, it opened a window into the festering soul of Murdoch journalism. 

Baker’s high-octane contempt for the Post – with its “left-wing, woke, progressive ideology” and its “preening sanctimony” – is matched only by his apparent determination to distract the readers of The Times from the realities of a dispute that is deeply shaming for the Murdoch organisation.

Lewis plans to introduce big changes at the loss-making American title, but his past in UK journalism has been catching up with him, with The New York Times and the Post’s own staff raising questions about what he did as a senior Murdoch executive during the phone-hacking scandal

He is accused, notably, of participating in the attempted cover-up of hacking and bribery and of helping or permitting the destruction of evidence. Other evidence links him with a plot by the Murdoch company to discredit political opponents of its ambitious television projects. He denies wrongdoing, just as he denies further accusations that he tried to quash reporting on the allegations. 

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Lewis appointed a new Executive Editor for the Post, Robert Winnett, who is currently Deputy Editor of the Telegraph in the UK. But, after claims that Winnett had published articles based on phone-hacking, he withdrew from the role. Winnett also denies wrongdoing.

Gerard Baker, whose chief take on all this, overtly at least, is that it is both pious and suicidal for journalists to concern themselves with such matters when the newspaper is losing $77 million a year. “If you can’t sell your product,” he writes, “you are doomed.”  

This is not what the article is really about, but let’s engage with it for a moment. 

Though Baker may not like it, what may be true of shoes and chocolate bars is not necessarily true of journalism – and he need look no further for proof than the record of The Times itself, which though it happens to have turned a profit in recent years, lost money every year for the best part of a century before that – including 30 years under Murdoch ownership. Something similar is true of the Guardian. Murdoch’s The Sun also loses a lot of money.

It is true that money usually matters (although it would take a century for the Post’s losses to make a noticeable hole in the $200 billion fortune of its owner Jeff Bezos), but here is a second point. If you go to market, you have to have a product to sell – and the Post’s product is ethical journalism.

The proposition that Baker is making, without of course expressing it, is that the Post should ditch its ethics to make money. Which, of course, is pure Murdoch. 

But, in reality, this money argument is just a distraction – it is where Baker wants you to look.

What is most revealing about Baker’s case is that he fails entirely to consider the accusations against Lewis and the entire business of UK press criminality. While he tells the Post’s staff to forget about all of this, in other words, he makes no attempt to show that it can reasonably be forgotten.   

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The reason is simple: with the relevant details attached, his argument becomes obviously and grotesquely self-serving. In fact this is not about the Post at all, but about the Murdoch empire, and to a degree about The Times of London itself. 

What Baker really seems to be telling his readers – as a Murdoch employee writing in a Murdoch publication – is that the crimes and wrongdoings of the Murdoch press in the UK do not matter and ought to be be forgotten. Murdoch, he is implying, should be allowed to get on unhindered with the business of making money from doing news his way.

But Baker’s readers would undoubtedly have seen his argument differently if he had come clean with them, for example, about the position of the editor of The Times, Tony Gallagher.

Two months ago, it emerged that Gallagher is named in litigation against the Mail papers, where he used to work, as a serial user of private investigation companies previously shown in court to have specialised in unlawful practices such as accessing police records, acquiring unlisted phone numbers and stealing – through trickery – personal medical and financial information.

Gallagher is embraced in the Mail’s blanket denials of these claims, but they are serious claims, brought by the likes of Elton John, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Sir Simon Hughes and Prince Harry, and as things stand they are heading to court. 

Baker doesn’t mention any of this. No doubt he would consider it ‘preening sanctimony’ to let his readers know that the argument he appears to be advancing – that all of this must be forgotten in the interests of making money – is one that might be seen as serving the personal interest of his Editor. 

Bear in mind, too, that if Gallagher did not personally commission this article (and he might have), he almost certainly approved it before publication and, without any doubt, carries the ultimate responsibility for it. There is Murdoch ethics for you. 

More generally, Baker fails to mention at all that it was Rupert Murdoch who presided over the very scandal that is causing Lewis such inconvenience.

That was a veritable epidemic of unlawful conduct, lies, and cover-ups, resulting in what Murdoch called “the humblest day of my life”, and to date costing his company more than £1 billion in legal settlements. No wonder Baker, writing for a Murdoch newspaper, didn’t want to go there. Yet, it would have been interesting to see him make a case that it was all trivial. 

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Nor, when Baker bangs on about how brilliant British journalists are, does he bother to tackle some of the complexities in that picture – complexities with names such as Piers Morgan, Kelvin Mackenzie, Andy Coulson, Colin Myler, Mazher Mahmoud, Clive Goodman, and Gary Jones.  

He also mocks the Post’s slogan – ‘democracy dies in darkness’. He writes: “Roughly translated it states, with total ingenuousness: we are the light of freedom. If you tried that in a British newspaper you’d invite a lifetime of ridicule.”

Bold talk, and he is probably right, except that of course the British corporate press is such a fountain of hypocrisy that the moment it had finished laughing it would be writing in the loftiest terms about how some law it doesn’t like is the gravest threat to press freedom in 300 years and how a free press is vital in a healthy democracy. Not so much ingenuous as downright cynical: which do you prefer?  

Baker himself acknowledges in throwaway style that “journalism is of course important; exposing wrongs and holding powerful people to account is essential”. Again, however, someone more self-aware might have wondered how true that was of The Times, which for 10 years, far from holding power to account, has been a cheerleader for the most corrupt and incompetent governments this country has seen in more than a century. 

Journalism is serious. It has a vital mission, which is to inform the public so they can play their role as citizens. The job of informing means, so far as physically possible, telling the truth. Telling the truth is only taken lightly by people who want to sell you lies. 

But hey, Baker might say, that’s just ethics – and how can that put money in the pockets of billionaires? 


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