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Barking Mad: Murdoch's Ex Editor Snarls
In his book Man Bites Murdoch, Bruce Guthrie concludes with an account steeped in glee of how he triumphed over News Limited in a case of unfair dismissal. The reader however closes the book asking himself: just who is it you are writing for, Mr Guthrie? Could it be for a professional journalist with a bias against News Corps CEO, Mr Rupert Murdoch. Probably not, given there is no derision of Mr Murdoch. And while there is mention of the mid 1990s tussle for John Fairfax Holdings (the precursor to Fairfax Media) between Conrad Black-Kerry Packer-Australian Independent Newspapers-Tony OReilly battle for ownership of Fairfax, there is no analysis of that seismic event or for that matter, no study whatsoever of Australias media policy, content or feuds.
Guthries tome will hit a nerve, as its capacity to polarise readers into two camps is assured. Those who feel that it is well written and says a great deal about the hypocrisy and double-dealings at News, and those who hate it for both its misleading title and underwhelming contents (I am among the latter).
The book has nothing to do with Murdoch, but everything to do with Guthries ego.
The authors ambivalence about the way he wishes to chronicle his story doesnt help matters. He takes an interminable amount of time to get to what the media hype about this book suggested was the heart of his gripe: the court case in which he was victorious. After spending eighty percent of the book on his lifes ups (he lists very few downs), he devotes a paltry 70 pages to what seem to be his motivation for writing: dumping on News.
Guthrie reviews his media career at great length. Beginning as a copy boy at The Herald in Melbourne in 1972; working in a series of reporting roles for thirteen years following which he was appointed US correspondent for the Herald and Weekly Times; rising to become Deputy Editor of The Herald, then the Sunday Age and culminating fifteen years later as Editor-In-Chief of the Herald Sun. Eighteen months after taking that job Mr Guthrie was dismissed from his position, which lead to his court case and in turn is presumably the root cause for penning his angst.
For the most part Guthrie writes as if a theme to story is an optional extra. As though the classic formula of a beginning-middle-end recipe is something only other writers follow (this reviewer tried but could not find the middle). His over-attention to milestones in his life, authored, granted, in a very readable narrative, is sorely juxtaposed by an inattention to the complexities of human character. Forget analysing and understanding the motivations of his superior officers at News, Guthrie doesnt go anywhere near even reporting on what he thinks makes such people tick.
Guthrie leaves a great deal unsaid. The subplots of Man Bites Murdoch include Guthries idealism; expediency; egocentricity and jealousy. Lets look at some of these:
1. While he rails against the managers (of News Ltd), whom he argues constantly placed the corporate good ahead of the public interest, Guthrie quixotically supports print media consolidation rather than competition
"I could see how a few new owners in the industry might be a good thing, but overall, I think the benefits of having one proprietor across The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review probably outweigh the disadvantages, I told [Minister for Communications] Richard Alston" (p172).
2. He delights in the contents of a meeting he had with former ALP card carrier (and at the time) Victoria Governor Richard McGarvie, where the latter urged him to take on the state Premier, Jeff Kennett.
Emboldened by the meeting, Guthrie felt a little less alone in opposing the Premier and his conservative agenda (p 173).
It is telling that Guthrie expediently and blithely welcomed McGarvies support. A situation that many readers would find as going well beyond a papers duty to keep an honest watch on the Victorian government.
3. A strong theme throughout the book is Guthries focus on awards, such as the Walkleys.
"We won swag of Walkley awards later that year in a range of categories" (p180)
Like many editors of a certain type, Guthries ego swelled as he reveled in his team out-writing and out witting their peers rather than out-selling them. This condition still afflicts many senior managers in media companies until reality sets in. Reality often sets in with a new name on the proprietors office. Think Boston Globe.
4. He cites a case where newspaper partnerships with advertisers went awry. According to script, an advertiser would drop a bucket load of money with the paper in exchange for favourable editorial treatment. The story goes that Fairfax advertising supremo Nick Jones convinced General Motors Holden to launch the new Commodore through the pages of Sydney Morning Herald. The advertising would be worth millions to the paper.
But the very day prior to the launch, the Editor, John Alexander, ran a negative review of the car; outraging Holden and having the motor vehicle maker pull their advertisements from Fairfax.
Alexander was unapologetic when Jones confronted him, citing that although he regretted the loss of revenue, editorial could not be qualified because of it (p 184).
Guthrie seems angry that those who act as Ruperts Australian eyes and ears did not accord him similar editorial latitude.
Readers coming to the book with an open mind and are quickly irritated when an author doesnt get to his point will find Guthries work a waste of their money and worse, a rude imposition on their time.
While it starts off at a fine clip and is filled with direct experiences, the book remains woefully unreflective on a key element of inter office politics: why people do what they do. And as such, the reading is very, very unsatisfying.
But that surely wont stop the anti-Murdoch brigade recruiting Guthrie to their cause.