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Newsroom culture: how Murdoch set the tone at his tabloids

by Deborah Orr

On Monday, the Leveson Inquiry will begin a week-long questioning of newspaper proprietors. The man himself – Rupert Murdoch – will be making an appearance. Don’t waste any time hoping that he will incriminate himself. Charismatic and powerful leaders of organisations set a tone. They don’t do any dirty work themselves, and those who are doing dirty work are usually at pains to shield their bosses from any possible consequences. At immense risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, this is usefully understood as “Working towards the Fuhrer”. Murdoch senior’s hands are likely to be clean, legally if not morally.

Nevertheless, examination of the way that “tone-setting” worked at News International is extremely worthwhile. It is often noted that Murdoch took a much more enthusiastic interest in the contents of his tabloids, The Sun and the News Of The World, than his qualities, The Times and The Sunday Times. This is not merely the personal preference it is often portrayed as being. It is in keeping with the unwritten rules of two differing cultures within journalism. These rules are barely ever acknowledged, not least because they are far from hard and fast. But they are important and highly influential. Qualities, broadly, are writer-led. Populars, broadly, are editor-led.

The public assumes, when it sees a picture byline on a story, that the writer has come up with the idea, and executed it as he or she sees fit. Often, however, the idea and the “line” within the piece, have been originated with the commissioning editor. Even when a writer is coming up with their own subjects, it’s often under agreed constraints. One high-profile entertainment journalist told me that when he’d been interviewed for a job doing television coverage for a tabloid, the editor had made it clear that positive coverage of one celebrity, who had a close relationship with the paper, was expected, and highly negative coverage of another, who was critical of it, was essential. He made his excuses, and left.

But on “the qualities”, an editor would not be considered within his rights to make a similarly explicit demand. He might hire a writer who likes Ross Kemp, and hates Chris Morris. But expressing this as a working condition would be a complete and utter no-no. The relationship between writer and editors, on the qualities, is less prescriptive than it is on the populars. Writers are more often expected to generate ideas, stories and angles themselves (Though not so much if you’re a reporter on the news deck and there’s a bunch of stuff that has to be covered). In the same spirit, all proprietors, not just Murdoch, are expected to respect greater distance between themselves and their editors.

It would be wrong to say that the qualities are entirely “bottom-up” and the populars entirely “top-down”. But it would be true to say that the different beasts have not-so-subtly different attitudes to editorial freedom. Many survivors of demanding tabloid operations, even the generally supportive, complain that a prescriptive editorial culture can all-too-easily veer into becoming a bullying editorial culture, where fear of failure drives reporters to do and say things they are not comfortable with, because that’s the nature of the hierarchy in which they work.

This is not to say that the editors of the qualities are not in ultimate control of the material that appears in their newspaper, or the staff they employ to provide it (they are more likely to be in ultimate control, actually, in the respect that being ultra-close to their owners is frowned upon). But they tend to achieve the overall mix that they want by using attraction much more than compulsion. It’s a simple difference, little discussed, but, I think, quite basic. I think it’s of crucial importance in understanding the many complexities of what went wrong with the British press in recent decades, and in particular, with the parts of the Murdoch empire that set off the current crisis.

Deborah Orr is one of Britain’s leading social and political commentators. She writes for the Guardian and tweets @DeborahJaneOrr

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Richardreply
April 21, 2012 at 7:39 pm

Some interesting points here.

I think that a major contributor to the recent problems is the failure of the press to review itself. The Guardian reviews TV, opera, cars, restaurants, wine and so on. But it never reviews Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. That is left to bloggers.

I’d welcome an explanation as to why this should be. Some unwritten code? Cowardice? Fear of damaging job prospects? Who knows? But it is not healthy.

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