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Lachlan Murdoch: black-tie champion of the common man?

By Tim Wallace - posted Thursday, 11 July 2002

You have to hand it to Lachlan Murdoch. Though heir apparent to one of the biggest media empires in the world, the 31-year-old chairman of New Limited and deputy chief operating officer of News Corporation remains a common man. He has never wanted for any material need in life. His meteoric rise through the working ranks has significantly more to do with birthright than ability. He socialises in the highest society, has the ear of politicians and a supermodel wife, jets around the world and last financial year was paid nearly $4 million for his troubles, despite the fact he managed to lose the company more than $500 million through his lacklustre performance as a One.Tel director.

But no, he is not part of the media elite. Because by his way of thinking he is a man of popular tastes, and his company’s fortunes are but an expression of solidarity with the masses. Thus he is no more proud of The Times than he is of any of the tabloids rags his company owns, sees no difference between publishing a book by a Nobel laureate and making a movie like Dude, Where’s my Car?, in fact makes no distinction between "high" and "low" culture at all.

This we now know thanks to the Sun Prince’s outing at the 2002 Andrew Olle Media lecture, which he delivered to an elite media audience at Sydney’s ritzy Westin Hotel on October 13. It was a curious speech, one that will perhaps in hindsight be cited as yet another example of his poor grasp on the real world. His screed, exhibiting little of the clear thinking one might expect from the holder in a degree in philosophy, was so unconvincing it can only be assumed he wrote it all by himself.


Certainly, in light of Andrew Olle and the journalistic values the lecture was meant to honour, it was a regrettable performance. Seemingly unable to find anything more edifying than a self-serving defence of the profit motive to drone on about, Murdoch proclaimed his love of good journalism but failed two of the most basic principles of the craft: he was boring, and he unfairly represented views with which he disagreed, resorting to the crudest traditions of light-weight tabloid commentary. Didn’t he learn anything from all those weeks he spent working as a journalist?

"The self-anointed media elite among us believe, somewhat self-servingly, that not only the act, or process of making a profit is positively sinister, but also that the very desire to do so is," Murdoch said. "Two years ago this forum was told that Australian journalists worked in two distinct camps: commercial journalism or serious journalism. In that speech we were told: ‘The horse has bolted. The idea that owners of media organisations regard the practice of journalism as a public service is as outdated as the idea that businesses operate in the interests of a better world. . . If you want to apportion guilt, blame a system that demands growth and profits and lower costs from every public organisation.’

"The speaker went on to say that commercial journalism encompassed popular magazines, tabloid newspapers and news and current affairs on commercial TV and radio, while serious journalism ... was restricted to metropolitan broadsheets and the ABC, because, absurdly, serious journalism was more akin to charity than to business.

"Well, this bloke couldn't have been more wrong. You can see here that the Australian media elite define their club through standards designed only to exclude. Entry requires that you either rely on tax payers’ money to draw your pay cheque, or that your newspaper folds twice over, and God forbid, don't ever even think about a profit."

The bloke who couldn’t have been more wrong was Eric Beecher, whose own experience as chief executive of Text Media and a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald hardly suggests he is a person given to ivory-tower journalism alienated from the imperatives of the balance sheet.

Of course, Beecher didn’t actually argue that quality journalism was incompatible with making money and that any profit motive was sinister. The crux of his speech two years ago was a little more sophisticated. He argued, somewhat more pointedly, that "money, budgets and profits have become the biggest issues on the minds of most senior editorial executives in Australia – people whose equivalents 10 or 20 years ago were almost totally preoccupied with covering stories and breaking news". He suggested that "the priorities of ratings, circulation, demographics and profits have meant that more and more of the money and time invested by large media companies is spent on entertainment and lifestyle journalism, and therefore incrementally less is spent on news and current affairs journalism".


It is worth quoting a little more of Beecher’s speech:

"Journalism and serious media, like many other elements of the best of the 20th century, has been systemically transformed from something that had institutional status into a commodity ... The old-style media barons like Frank Packer, Keith Murdoch, Charles Moses and Warwick Fairfax senior had real fun as they ruled their empires paternalistically and autocratically, without barely a thought for shareholders or stakeholders or returns on equity. For the Packers and the Fairfaxes, power always seemed more important than money, although they also made sure there was more than enough of the folding stuff available to support their personal lifestyles.

"Well, the fun is gone. The people who manage today’s media companies are employed to be commercial. They have MBAs and marketing degrees, and as highly qualified employees they are not the people to blame personally for what is happening to journalism and the media industry and the ABC. If you want to apportion guilt, blame a system that demands growth and profits and lower costs from every public organisation, regardless of whether it produces journalism or germicides."

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About the Author

Tim Wallace is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. He has worked for The Canberra Times, The Age and The Australian Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. He has one book, True Green @ Work: Making the Environment Your Business, to his name and edits a website,, focused on social and environmental sustainability issues and media.

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