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We Need a Journalists' Spring

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Rupert Murdoch has one chance to redeem himself. And it lies in his exit strategy from the UK.
Increasingly his position resembles that of a tyrant facing an Arab Spring.

The only hope for his people - and rehabilitation of the titles they work for - is regime change.
But there are no demonstrations in the privately-owned Thomas More Square outside News International in Wapping.

That's because the journalists who want to be free of him have too much resting on their jobs to protest or walk away.

On hearing of the suicide bids by staff at the Sun this week, some of my friends asked: "Surely no job is worth that." Others, with equal disbelief, ask why Murdoch's staff aren't walking out in protest.

I can understand why News International's treatment of staff makes some people feel suicidal.
It's because everything they have stood for and aligned themselves with in their working lives has been destroyed.

Some of Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants have been betrayed by the hand-over of email and, consequently, sources to police.

The enormity of this treachery will be felt, above all, by a tier of journalists who are the Murdoch equivalent of Chairman Mao's long marchers - who brought China's first Communist leader to power.

This dwindling band of journalists helped forge the print revolution in the 80s, braving the trauma of violent picket lines. In modern industrial terms, they have given their lives to the cause.

Okay, they were well rewarded for their efforts. But equally big money for journalistic excellence has been available elsewhere.

It shouldn't be hard to imagine how hard, psychologically, News International's current cultural revolution has hit some of these dedicated journalists, several of whom would be on speaking terms with Murdoch.

This might all reek of "old school" values no longer relevant in modern corporate structures. But Murdoch has managed to convince staff he lived by them, until recently.

And that is what is hardest to take for anyone associated with News International - the sense that, ultimately, all of that personal loyalty and dedication has been simply trashed, not for any moral reason, but simply for commercial expediency.

In short, Murdoch has made mugs of them.

And it feels bitterly ironic that all News International has to offer is counselling or medical care to those who cannot take the pressures caused by his stewardship.

As far as other Sun staff members are concerned - those untouched by the police investigation - they simply have to hang on. If they walk away, they do so with nothing. If they protest, they risk being fired.

The picture of News International at present is grim, but it hasn't always been so. I worked there on various titles for 19 years with some of the finest people and journalists you could meet. And the service that Murdoch has done to the British print media cannot be ignored. Who knows how many newspapers would be in existence today had it not been for him?

But sadly, the plain truth is Murdoch's titles are a victim of his own sensational success. As his empire expanded, he paid less and less attention to the newspapers that formed the basis of his cash-streams.

Which leads me to suggest how he can redeem himself.

If he wants to avoid the industrial equivalent of being hunted down by his haters, to be found cowering in a storm drain, he should get out as soon as possible.

And, if he wants to leave the British press in a healthier state than he found it, he should sell off each title he owns separately, including the defunct News of the World and Today mastheads.

Let him sell to people who just want to own a news brand, online and print, so that each title will live or die on its own merits.

If Murdoch had treated the News of the World and the Sun as stand-alone entities, able to reinvest their profits in their own publications, how much better the quality of their products might have become? And how much less the temptation and or imperative to cut corners might have arisen?

Instead, these newspapers, much loved by the British public, had their profits ploughed into supporting the Times and the Sunday Times.

Journalists have been forced to produce Britain's best tabloids within a business model distorted by this subsidy. And that is a great testimony to their skill and talent.

And how much healthier might the Times and Sunday Times have become if they had not been afforded this luxury?

As for the defunct News of the World and Today titles, why not sell them too, now that they can no longer be competitors to Murdoch titles?

This exit strategy might sound economically naive. But it would not be unrealistic for the new owners to be independent while reaping some shared economies of scale.

In print, small is beautiful these days. Look at the success if the i, which has helped the Independent brand outsell the Guardian. And look at the spread of the quality freebies, such as Shortlist.

Newspaper success or failure has traditionally rested with their editors. In this case Murdoch is responsible, even if, as he claims, he is simply responsible for trusting the wrong people.
If he really does care about press freedom, he should free up his titles and let a new generation of newspaper owners take over.

Around the Web

News International - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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James Murdoch out at News International - Yahoo! News

BBC News - James Murdoch quits News International

James Murdoch Steps Down As Executive Chairman Of News ...