Ethics of the Murdochs
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Rupert Murdoch was no doubt telling the truth when he testified before Parliament that the hearing into the so-called hacking scandal was the humblest day of his life. He certainly towered over the room, even when — after a protester the parliamentarians had failed to protect him from grazed him with a cream pie — he had to continue in shirt-sleeves. Our own favorite moment came when Mr. Murdoch referred briefly to the role his father, Keith, had played at Gallipoli. The parliamentarians failed to pick up on the remark, and more’s the pity.
For the Gallipoli episode reminds that this isn’t the first time a Murdoch has been in trouble with the authorities for testing the bounds of newspaper ethics. His father’s derring has endured for nearly a century as a matter of legend and controversy. It is also a reminder of what newspapering is really about and of why newspapermen of a certain crust, like Mr. Murdoch, rarely get too upset over the many charges that are hurled at their industry. They know that the press is usually vindicated by history.
Keith Murdoch certainly was by those who describe the Dardanelles. The episode involves his role in exposing the ghastliness of Gallipoli, which he did in an 8,000-word dispatch, if that’s what it was, known as the Gallipoli letter. One account of it is up on the Web site of the National Library of Australia. By our lights it would be wrong to say that the Murdoch patriarch got the story by deception, but if he’d obeyed the authorities, the story would have taken longer to come into focus and the scoop would have gone elsewhere.
Then a young newspaperman from Australia, Keith Murdoch had under-taken to submit to wartime censorship when, for the United Cable Service, he made his representations to the British expeditionary commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton. Keith Murdoch, according to the Australia National Library, “was made to sign the standard press declaration that he would submit all his writings to army censors for approval. He filed some uneventful press despatches. Subsequently, in London, free of the censors, he composed a letter that was to have a greater impact on contemporary events at Gallipoli than any articles published in the press.”
To get the word out he conspired with a competitor, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett of the Telegraph, who had, in the Australian Library’s account, “become increasingly hostile towards the British leadership at Gallipoli, particularly Hamilton” but was chafing under the censorship. Their plot was that Ashmead-Bartlett would write up a report, which he did, and that Murdoch would deliver it to Prime Minister Asquith at London. General Hamilton found out about it, and Rupert Murdoch’s father was arrested in transit, at Marseille, and forced to give up the document.
When Keith Murdoch got to London in September 1915, he promptly cranked out his own letter. He had become, as the Australia Library account puts it, “angry at the enormity of the Australian loss of life at Gallipoli and unleashed passionate criticism at those he believed to be the perpetrators.” In the letter, the Library account tells us, he praised “the ‘brave hearts’ endurance and ingenuity of the Australian troops” and railed against “what he saw as their needless sacrifice, describing the outcome of one battle as nothing short of the ‘murder’ of their own troops by allied headquarters.”
One historian quoted in the National Library of Australia account set down Keith Murdoch’s report as “as a ‘farrago of fact and gossip’” (sort of reminds one of what they say about the News of the World). The Gallipoli letter, though, went to both the Australian prime minister, Andrew Fisher, and also to Asquith, who circulated it widely, with the effect that the gist of the letter became public. The journalists had their ethics questioned furiously at the time, but General Hamilton was brought home and, not long thereafter, the expeditionary force as well.
So the fire was lit for what is, today, the world’s most powerful newspaper empire. Clearly the analogy isn’t perfect between the predicaments of Keith Murdoch and his son. But we see this similarity: They are both beset by government officials and competing journalists who are consuming themselves with the fine points of journalistic ethics, while both have their eyes set on far more important stories. It is a credit to Rupert Murdoch that he didn’t sneer at the questions of ethics but far more so that in the struggles that have, in his time, engulfed America, Britain, Israel, and the West, his newspapers have towered over those of his detractors.