Ethics? Somewhere in east England, according to the Murdoch compass
Rupert Murdoch at the inquiry. Photo: Reuters
RUPERT Murdoch was having a lend, surely? How else to explain some of his extraordinary statements this week before the Leveson inquiry on the British press. Statements such as: ''We have never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers''; ''I have never asked a prime minister for anything''; and my absolute favourite, ''I do try very hard to set an example of ethical behaviour and make it quite clear that I expect it''.
I giggled at that one about commercial interests, remembering the last News Limited editors' conference I attended, in 2008. An entire session was devoted to discussing how papers could best promote the then forthcoming Fox film, Australia, directed by Baz Luhrmann, and when it finally came out - I'd been sacked in the interim - Murdoch's tabloids competed with one another to gush about it on front pages around the country.
As for encouraging ethical behaviour, I could barely contain my mirth. As I've written on this page before, the only time I discussed ethics in front of Murdoch during seven years of working for him he called me a ''wanker'' for doing so.
Leveson's lead counsel, Robert Jay, saw through the ageing proprietor's lofty pronouncement pretty quickly, replying with: ''Wasn't it your main objective, Mr Murdoch, to improve the commercial appeal of these papers, and you weren't really concerned with the ethical side?'' Of course it was.
Then there was the issue of Rupert asking prime ministers for favours. Maybe his denial is technically true - lobbyists and underlings ask, proprietors don't - but it sat awkwardly with the company's history here and overseas. Indeed, I sometimes think the News motto should be Quid Pro Quo. For wherever they go, a ''this'' seems to beget a ''that''.
Admitting it, of course, would be tantamount to conceding the democratic process is a sham. Indeed, Jay put that directly to Murdoch, noting that people think his newspaper endorsements of politicians are ''met with a quid pro quo after they attain power''.
''Do you feel that there's any validity, at least in the perception that there is an implied trade-off here?'' asked Jay, adding: ''If that is right, then the democratic process is distorted.''
Replied Murdoch: ''Oh, the perception certainly irritates me, because I think it's a myth. And everything I do every day, I think, proves it to be such.''
The problem is that events suggest otherwise. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher cleared the way for him to buy The Times and The Sunday Times after winning Murdoch's endorsement at the previous election; in 1987, the Hawke government allowed Murdoch's purchase of the Herald & Weekly Times and months later his papers backed Labor; in 1997, The Sun backed Tony Blair and the Labour PM and News boss forged a mutually beneficial relationship that still lasts (Blair is godfather to Murdoch's daughter, Grace); and David Cameron appeared to be doing the Murdoch family's bidding on a range of issues after The Sun backed him in the 2010 general election.
Clearly there's a pattern here, although the Murdochs were bent on denying it. Son James was particularly vehement in the witness box. Asked by Jay if he would expect someone he'd supported to ''show you favour rather than disfavour'', James replied in part: ''The question of support of an individual newspaper for politicians one way or another is not something that I would ever link to a commercial transaction … I simply wouldn't do business that way.'' Even Jay seemed incredulous.
It was easier for Rupert to deny mutual back-scratching because there was no paper trail. It wasn't so easy for James. The email trail between his office and that of Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt over the ill-fated BSkyB deal may yet cost the MP his job.
Ultimately, the most disturbing element of this week's testimony is that despite everything Rupert still doesn't seem to understand that the ethical standards of his papers stem from his own attitudes, not those of individual reporters or editors.
Late on the final day of his appearance, he gritted his teeth and said if he had got former News of the World reporter Clive Goodman in a room and cross-examined him one-on-one ''we wouldn't be here today''. Goodman was the first reporter charged - and jailed - over phone hacking at the News of the World.
The reality is that while such a confrontation might have made Murdoch feel better and, perhaps, spared James his downfall, the whole sad saga was too far along by then. What Murdoch should have done was long ago inculcate the staff of the News of the World, and indeed all his papers, with a sense of ethics and fairness.
Instead, as another former News Limited editor, Andrew Neil, has said, he sought to build a ''take-no-prisoners attitude to tabloid journalism … that created the kind of newsroom climate in which hacking and other things were done with impunity on an industrial scale''.
The result? ''It's going to be a blot on my reputation for the rest of my life,'' said Murdoch. Hopefully one day he'll figure out who's really to blame.
■ Bruce Guthrie was a senior News Limited executive from 1987-89 and from 2003-08 and is author of Man Bites Murdoch. Twitter: @brucerguthrie