August 11, 2022

The Media Equation: Troubles That Money Can’t Dispel

Time and again in the United States and elsewhere, Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation has used blunt force spending to skate past judgment, agreeing to payments to settle legal cases and, undoubtedly more important, silence its critics. In the case of News America Marketing, its obscure but profitable in-store and newspaper insert marketing business, the News Corporation has paid out about $655 million to make embarrassing charges of corporate espionage and anticompetitive behavior go away.

That kind of strategy provides a useful window into the larger corporate culture at a company that is now engulfed by a wildfire burning out of control in London, sparked by the hacking of a murdered young girl’s phone and fed by a steady stream of revelations about seedy, unethical and sometimes criminal behavior at the company’s newspapers.

So far, 10 people have been arrested, including, on Sunday, Rebekah Brooks, the head of News International. Les Hinton, who ran News International before her and most recently was the head of Dow Jones, resigned on Friday. Now we are left to wonder whether Mr. Murdoch will be forced to make an Abraham-like sacrifice and abandon his son James, the former heir apparent.

The News Corporation may be hoping that it can get back to business now that some of the responsible parties have been held to account — and that people will see the incident as an aberrant byproduct of the world of British tabloids. But that seems like a stretch. The damage is likely to continue to mount, perhaps because the underlying pathology is hardly restricted to those who have taken the fall.

As Mark Lewis, the lawyer for the family of the murdered girl, Milly Dowler, said after Ms. Brooks resigned, “This is not just about one individual but about the culture of an organization.”

Well put. That organization has used strategic acumen to assemble a vast and lucrative string of media properties, but there is also a long history of rounded-off corners. It has skated on regulatory issues, treated an editorial oversight committee as if it were a potted plant (at The Wall Street Journal), and made common cause with restrictive governments (China) and suspect businesses — all in the relentless pursuit of More. In the process, Mr. Murdoch has always been frank in his impatience with the rules of others.

According to The Guardian, whose bulldog reporting pulled back the curtain on the phone-hacking scandal, the News Corporation paid out $1.6 million in 2009 to settle claims related to the scandal. While expedient, and inexpensive — the company still has gobs of money on hand — it was probably not a good strategy in the long run. If some of those cases had gone to trial, it would have had the effect of lancing the wound.

Litigation can have an annealing effect on companies, forcing them to re-examine the way they do business. But as it was, the full extent and villainy of the hacking was never known because the News Corporation paid serious money to make sure it stayed that way.

And the money the company reportedly paid out to hacking victims is chicken feed compared with what it has spent trying to paper over the tactics of News America in a series of lawsuits filed by smaller competitors in the United States.

In 2006 the state of Minnesota accused News America of engaging in unfair trade practices, and the company settled by agreeing to pay costs and not to falsely disparage its competitors.

In 2009, a federal case in New Jersey brought by a company called Floorgraphics went to trial, accusing News America of, wait for it, hacking its way into Floorgraphics’s password protected computer system.

The complaint summed up the ethos of News America nicely, saying it had “illegally accessed plaintiff’s computer system and obtained proprietary information” and “disseminated false, misleading and malicious information about the plaintiff.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/18/business/media/for-news-corporation-troubles-that-money-cant-dispel.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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