Andy Walton looks at whether there is a "Religious Right" emerging in Britain
Police deploy extra patrols to Islamic sites as people report verbal, physical and online abuse, including threats to kill
Rupert Murdoch: A fit and proper person?
4th May 2012
Most of us have had the experience of getting up in the morning, looking in the mirror and deciding that we’re not fit and something needs to be done. It’s just difficult knowing where to start. Rupert Murdoch knows that feeling. On Wednesday morning the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee pronounced him unfit. Rather unhelpfully, they didn’t indicate what he needed to do to become fit again.
Strictly speaking the CMS Select Committee isn’t charged with deciding who is fit to run anything. But the inclusion of the “fit person” phrase in their report wasn’t a mistake. The Lib Dem and Labour members who voted for it clearly intended that it should ring a bell. They knew that OFCOM, the broadcasting regulator, is charged with deciding whether a person is “fit and proper” to hold a broadcasting license. They were well aware that in that quasi-legal context “person” means a company or organisation. And they knew that OFCOM would soon have to make that judgement in relation to BSkyB, a company in which Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp currently owns a 40% stake. Some members of the DCMS Select Committee, notably the campaigning Labour MP Tom Watson, clearly wanted to use their report to drop a big hint to OFCOM, who have the power to hit News Corp where it hurts most – their shareholders’ pockets.
But what really makes a person “fit and proper” to own a newspaper or hold a broadcasting license? Is it their competence to lead a hugely powerful and profitable business? Is it their track record of compliance with the law and the various broadcasting codes? Or is it a question of character?
The discussions at the Select Committee focussed on the competence of James and Rupert Murdoch rather than the morality of their activities. The committee’s chief complaint was that the Murdochs ought to have known what was going on at their papers. James Murdoch failed to read his emails. Rupert Murdoch was guilty of overseeing “failings of corporate governance” and displayed “wilful blindness” towards the weaknesses of his senior staff. There’s clearly no love lost between the Labour members of the committee and the Murdochs. But all they are substantively accused of is incompetent management.
When it’s their turn to rule on the fitness of News Corp, OFCOM will not be concerned with their competence but their compliance. The regulator only withdraws broadcasting licenses if a company fails to meet the legal requirements of the Broadcasting Code. The one recent occasion when OFCOM has invoked the “fit and proper person” clause to debar a company was in the case of a porn channel. The offence that lost them their licence wasn’t the salaciousness of their content but their repeated failure to comply with OFCOM’s adjudications.
But what about character? Is no-one going to assess whether James and Rupert Murdoch and their employees are good enough people to own newspapers or TV stations? Thankfully not. Much as we might like to dream of a media where power and virtue were correlated, we need to resist any attempt to enforce that correlation by statute.
This isn’t a counsel of despair. It’s just that regulation is not the route to improved standards. On Wednesday the Murdochs were censured by a Select Committee – one of the strongest, most personally damning parliamentary criticisms I can remember. It must have stung, but it was hardly a Damascene moment. On Thursday The Sun carried a picture of a semi-naked woman on page 3 and mocked the new England football manager (who speaks five languages) for his speech impediment. If our understanding of “fitness” relates to quality, then neither compliance with the law nor capability as a business leader will necessarily deliver it. What is needed is character. Jesus said that “A good person brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil person brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Every newspaper is an expression of the character of its proprietors, editors, journalists and readers. You can’t legislate or regulate for that. It has to come from within.
Most of us understand “a fit person” as one who has made good use of their gym membership. Aristotle understood fitness in moral terms. And he knew that moral character, like physical fitness, can only be developed by practice. You don’t lose weight overnight and you don’t learn goodness that way either. You develop it by reflection, and that reflection takes place in community. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that for years the Murdoch family and their senior staff have operated in a culture of isolation and deference, whilst their journalists have worked in an atmosphere of insecurity and fear. That’s certainly true of many newsrooms and media companies I know. A new edition of the Staff Handbook probably isn’t going to change that much. If, stung by the allegations of the Select Committee, the Murdochs really want to become fit, a good start would be to attend to their company culture.
Andrew Graystone is Director of the Church and Media Network
Image: World Ecomomic Forum