LAST WEEK, as the corruption eating at Rupert Murdoch’s British operation threatened gangrene over the rest of his global empire, I sent an email to Judith Whelan, editor of Good Weekend magazine. This was ‘the media’s Arab Spring,’ I wrote. ‘Nobody is scared any more… no more meetings in the lift.’
The Mid-East comparison is self-evident: toxins germinating in the Cotswolds spreading through Wapping, Westminster and beyond to rock the octogenarian potentate ‘Rupert Mubarak’ and his cronies, whose obsolescence as powerbrokers arrived when they least expected.
The lift allusion refers to what insiders told me at the time about how an exhaustive assignment Whelan gave me in 2007 — a profile of Rupert’s wife Wendi Deng — was killed in a deathblow administered as Whelan shared a Sydney elevator with her then chief executive David Kirk.
This was a Nuremberg moment, a functionary doing what she was told by a superior doing what he was told. Revisiting my notes, I see I advised Whelan midassignment that I had received threats from News toecutters as she devoured the copy I sent her en route. ‘I anticipate you getting some subtle, and perhaps less so, pressure from hereon,’ I warned. Whelan responded: ‘Pressure we can deal with. This piece is going to be terrific.’
I doubt it would happen now, but this sudden collapse of vertebrae over an expensive story Whelan had fulsomely praised before Captain Kirk applied the frighteners was very disappointing. But capitulation out of fear is what people do sometimes to protect their job, their mortgage, their nice life in Sydney’s fashionable east. Ruthless projection of real or imagined dread explains how Mubaraks and Saddams and Chinese communists and Burmese generals exercise power, and apparently Murdochs too. It scares many of the democrats we elect to lead us, as we’ve known in Australia for decades and has become shockingly evident in Britain.
The Deng commission broke the omertà of Australia’s media moguls against digging into each other’s lives. But Mrs Murdoch does, and will further, influence Australian democracy — because she influences her ageing husband, who controls 70 per cent of our metropolitan media; hers is the remarkable rise of an unremarkable though persuasive woman, a Chinese Becky Sharpinserting herself into the world’s most influential media empire and the bed of its leader, twice her age. And we knew so little of her.
In the event, the spiking achieved little. Those News toecutters did their job, but the yarn was republished widely anyway, including in China, where the statecontrolled New Century magazine crowed, with a delightful irony, that they’d obtained the ‘controversial cover story the Western press ruthlessly suppressed’. But it was not (significantly, regarding recent disclosures) published in London’s Guardian, where it was bought but pulled at the 11th hour by editor Alan Rusbridger, prompting the Independent’s Stephen Glover to wonder aloud if it was because ‘Rusbridger might be alarmed by the thought of Mr Murdoch unleashing grubby reporters from the News of the World to turn him over by way of retaliation’. (As things turned out, clearly not, at least not later.)
In the end, we knew Wendi some more, we had less faith in our media, I got drunk special-guesting at a Private Eye lunch in London, Whelan honourably paid my fee and even suggested where I should run what she described as an ‘excellent’ piece, and kept her job. And the sun rose again the next morning.
Years on, such recollections might seem inside baseball for media luvvies, circle completing curiosities for hacks less important than we imagine ourselves to be. But there’s always revealing detail behind stories like this Murdoch scandal, where we learn that police backhanders were delivered at a Wapping McDonald’s: ‘Here’s your bung, guv’nor, and would you like fries with that?’
The Wendi saga revealed how media power flows and how public life is privately manipulated by those who do because they can, out of the public’s view but by those self-appointed to be trusted with their interests, the details dismissed as too trivial to care about. Remember that the News phone-hacking scandal began as part of an NOTW item about a painful royal knee.
Whelan was a bit player, and Kirk too, functionaries both. The more compelling personae were those ordering Kirk: the waspy Melbourne glad-hander Ron Walker, since resigned as chairman, and his deputy, Murdoch’s placeman, the floating investment banker-fixer Mark Burrows.
The year after Wendi, I reconnected with a lifelong friend, part of Richard Pratt’s circle, the flawed cardboard billionaire who was then still alive. Wendi somehow came up, and my mate dropped a bombshell: ‘You know Ron Walker shut that down.’ In my eyes, the main interferer-villains were Burrows, casually dropping incendiaries around the office, and the assassin Kirk. ‘No,’ my friend said. ‘Richard told me that Walker told him that he’d shut it down on Rupert’s personal request.’
I’ve sat on that morsel for a few years now, and it’s grown whiskers. But as details of Murdochian intimidation have been aired, I’ve revisited Wendi now that the players — except for Whelan — have passed from the scene. Kirk promised to respond but didn’t, Whelan politely declined and Burrows ignored me. But Ron Walker called me back from Singapore, transitting home from British Grand Prix jollies.
‘I have it on impeccable authority that you closed down the Wendi story,’ I said. ‘Indeed, Richard Pratt said you told him you did.’ ‘Nonsense!’ Walker blustered. ‘Er, umm, the only time Pratt and I discussed the media was when he complained about our treatment of him in his monopoly probe.’ (My Pratt friend says he is in no doubt whatsoever about his late boss’s comments to him.)
Separately, another old friend and one time Walker pal in motor racing matters has urged me for years to probe Walker’s links with Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One mogul. By chance, he contacted me last week and we exchanged anecdotes; me the Pratt-Walker story and he an intriguing revelation that he’d been approached by an investigator working for Pratt to dig dirt on Walker, which could be why Pratt was there in Walker’s office, testing the frighteners on him. My mate referred him to British author Terry Lovell’s book Bernie’s Game, which says ‘Mr Melbourne’ trousered $93 million in commissions for delivering F1 to the city, this while working for the Victorian government.
I ran that nugget past Ron. ‘This book says you accepted millions from Ecclestone, a very serious charge. If that’s not true, why don’t you sue for libel?’ I asked. ‘If I sued everyone for libel who said bad things about me,” he protested, “I’d have no time to get on with the real things in life… anyway, what’s the latest with Rupert?’
I updated him of Murdoch’s dash to London to salvage the remains of his reputation and empire. ‘It’s very sad, what has happened to that newspaper,’ Ron lamented. ‘I disagree,’ I said. ‘I think it’s a victory for journalism. Good riddance to a trashy rag. This all shows that the truth will eventually out, which may well be something that resonates with you at some point, Ron.’
There was a longish pause, down that line from Singapore, from a wily old powerbroker never usually lost for words.
‘Hmm…’ he mused. ‘Probably.’