Publisher's Note — July 13, 2011, 9:39 am

A Pinch of Sympathy with My Disgust

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the July 13, 2011 Providence Journal.

Rupert Murdoch’s legal, and now political, problems in the U.K. — stemming from the practice at one of his newspapers, the News of the World, of eavesdropping on cell phones and paying police for information — remind me of a dark joke I sometimes share with the staff at Harper’s Magazine.

As it happens, the Australian-born press baron owns the Harper’s trademark because he owns HarperCollins publishers. So, for 24 years, I’ve been putting out a highbrow monthly devoted to serious literature and quality journalism with the revocable permission of a man best known for bad taste and low ethics in nearly everything he does.

The 1980 sales contract with the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company, which formerly owned Harper’s Magazine and a percentage of Harper & Row Publishers, says I’m permitted to affix the hallowed name Harper’s “only on or in magazines of high literary quality of a standard equivalent to that which has been maintained by [Harper & Row] in publishing ‘Harper’s Magazine.’ ” When Murdoch’s News Corp. bought Harper & Row, in 1987, it inherited this contract and thus could haul me into court if its chairman thought that Harper’s Magazine was damaging his book company’s trademark by scurrilous behavior.

So my joke goes: Just how low would we have to go to provoke Murdoch into trying to halt our use of his license? There are plenty of possible punch lines, but the most realistic is that lower for Murdoch could only mean better, so any such legal action is inconceivable.

Still, I confess to some ambivalence about the publisher dubbed the “Dirty Digger” by Richard Ingrams, the former editor of Britain’s Private Eye magazine. I’ve generally hesitated before seconding critics who asserted that Murdoch was destroying journalism. For one thing, it didn’t sound so implausible when people said that Murdoch was a genuine newspaperman who couldn’t bear to close a paper — even big money losers — because he so enjoyed running them. For another, I appreciated that unlike such newspaper monopolists as the Newhouse family and Gannett, Murdoch seemed to relish competition.

Even now, I retain a tiny bit of sympathy for the Digger as the “respectable” press bays for his blood. For The New York Times to run four stories about Murdoch last Friday was excessive, and seemed to be intended as revenge against Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal for having launched a local New York section to compete with the Times’s Metropolitan section.

One is usually more likely to get an accurate recounting of an event by reading The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Financial Times than by reading the Murdoch-owned Sun, The (London) Times, or the New York Post. But in the grand scheme of things, are Murdoch’s frauds really worse than those committed by the “serious” dailies?

The Digger’s 1983 publication of the forged “Hitler Diaries” in the (London) Sunday Times was an embarrassment (shared by Newsweek) that nearly destroyed the reputation of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. But The New York Times’s publication of Judith Miller’s and Michael Gordon’s fairy tales about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent nuclear-weapons program hastened the destruction of an entire country, with the lives of more than 100,000 people.

Strangely, Murdoch has become quite respectable in recent years. Courted by American presidents as well as British prime ministers, he turns up at all sorts of mainstream conferences, like the World Economic Forum in Davos and Allen & Co.’s media/money festival in Sun Valley, Idaho. I have friends who have worked directly for Murdoch and appear genuinely to like him, even, in the case of one of them, after he was fired. Some say that Murdoch “loves” not only newspapers, but also those newspaper people who share his “anti-establishment” contempt for social propriety. The head of his British newspaper division, Rebekah Brooks, is “a kind of favorite daughter” to the Digger, says The New York Times.

Increasingly, though, I’ve come to think that Murdoch doesn’t love anything or anybody. Fox News’s right-wing populism is phony — it’s a three-ring circus, not a serious political movement — and Murdoch is happy to back such “liberals” as Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Barack Obama if he thinks he can get something out of them.

Marvin Kitman’s cover story in last November’s Harper’s Magazine described how in the 1990s Murdoch corrupted the Federal Communications Commission, through lobbying then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in his drive to make the Fox Network the grotesque and profitable creature it is today. This is normal behavior for a media baron, but Kitman’s article makes it clear that for Murdoch it was all about money, not ideology.

And when it comes to getting the dirt, Murdoch turns out to be an arch-hypocrite, even by his own degraded standards. Before she exhibits too much filial affection for her surrogate father and boss, Ms. Brooks should consider Tonice Sgrignoli, a New York Post reporter who posed as the relative of a passenger who died in the crash of TWA Flight 800, off Long Island, in 1996. Sgrignoli, who used to work for me as the Harper’s copy-desk chief, was merely adhering to Murdoch/News of the World operating procedure, doing whatever it took to get a human-interest story about the real victims’ relatives by sneaking inside their private gathering.

Yet when the police arrested her, the Post’s editor, Ken Chandler, mounted a tepid defense: “The Post apologizes if there was any inappropriate behavior.” Sgrignoli left the paper not long after.

However, the worst of Murdoch is revealed in his decision, supposedly to appease public and parliamentary outrage over the phone-hacking scandal, to kill the News of the World, 168 years old and with the largest circulation in Britain. The closing threw hundreds of people out of work for doing what their avaricious master taught them to do — so that Murdoch can make even more money through buying all of Sky Broadcasting. So much for his “love” of newspapers and buccaneering journalists.

Murdoch’s son James was quoted as saying that the tabloid’s habit of infiltrating murder victims’ phones, if true, was “inhuman” and that the News of the World’s image had been “sullied by behavior that was wrong.” For fake contrition — for pure cynicism — you can’t go lower than that. I only wish that, for his scurrilous behavior, I could take Rupert Murdoch to court.

For more on the News of the World scandal, read Marvin Kitman’s blog post, “As the News of the World Turns.”

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