A court case looms for Beecher and "Crikey" in March next year. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Eric Beecher’s diary: I'm being sued by Murdoch

The editor of "Crikey" says unelected media tycoons have abused power with impunity for too long
November 3, 2022

The defamation writ from Lachlan Murdoch arrived a few months ago, in the middle of my birthday dinner. According to the writ, an opinion piece in Crikey, our Australian news publication, had accused Murdoch of criminal behaviour due to the role of Fox News (he is executive chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation) in the attack on the US Capitol on 6th January 2021. The headline over that opinion piece was: “Trump is a confirmed unhinged traitor. And Murdoch is his unindicted co-conspirator.” In the final paragraph, Crikey’s politics editor wrote: “The Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators are the unindicted co-conspirators of this continuing crisis.”

As a result of these words, claimed the writ, “Murdoch has been gravely injured in his character, his personal reputation, and his professional reputation as a businessperson and company director, and has suffered and will continue to suffer substantial hurt, distress and embarrassment.” The court case has been scheduled to start in Sydney in March next year. A judge will decide whether our headline and paragraph defamed Lachlan Murdoch under Australian law. That’s all I, or my colleagues at Crikey, can say about the matter until it is adjudicated.

Media power is both amorphous and real. Under Thomas Jefferson’s famous edict—“our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and this cannot be limited without being lost”—journalism became the protected species of democracy. At the same time, there were unleashed a handful of unelected media tycoons who have abused power with impunity for nearly 150 years.

This is the paradox at the heart of the free press. The custodians of journalism are entrusted to protect it, yet incentivised to exploit it. The dominating media moguls in history—like Beaverbrook, Maxwell, Black, the Harmsworths, the Murdochs and now Zuckerberg—accepted their role as society’s watchdogs while also running their own agendas, intimidating governments, peddling mistruths, dispensing patronage, distorting society’s values and building obscene fortunes.

The owners of big media in the west effectively run a state-sanctioned protection racket

“I operate in a world so free that its only explicit law is that there shall be no law,” acknowledged Henry Luce, co-founder of the Time-Life magazine empire, in the 1930s. “Ours is the only business in America whose behavior the Senate of the United States would not yet dare investigate. This is the great freedom which remains. This is the Freedom of the Press.” A freedom that encourages its owners to publish “yards and yards of mediocrity, acres of bad fiction and triviality, square miles of journalistic tripe.”

The owners of big media in the west effectively run a state-sanctioned protection racket. Their actions, safeguarded by freedom of speech laws and conventions, are largely based on trust and conscience. As they hold governments and institutions to account and report essential news, they operate under the protective banner of Jefferson’s other great axiom about journalism: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

But Jefferson wasn’t naive. He recognised the crucial distinction between the role of the press and the behaviour of its owners. Attacks on public figures by newspapers, he wrote to a friend in 1786, are “an evil for which there is no remedy”. John Stuart Mill described journalism as “the vilest and most degrading of all trades because more affectation and hypocrisy and more subservience to the baser feelings of others are necessary for carrying it on than for any other trade from that of brothel keeper upwards.”

In some sense, almost nothing has changed in two centuries. Even though technology has transformed how we consume information, and even though print newspapers are in the final stages of their lives, journalism is still deeply mistrusted and yet integral to the framework of democracy. And while most of the old-style moguls have faded away—with the notable exceptions of the Murdoch and Harmsworth families—their influence has been replaced by social media, an even more powerful communications tool that messes with facts, taste, privacy and civility on a global scale.

The arrival of social media has made Mark Zuckerberg the new model media baron. Zuckerberg’s empire doesn’t own a single newspaper or TV station, or employ journalists or editors, or publish original content. Yet it operates a platform that has likely disseminated more incendiary, hateful, racist and sexist content than any traditional publisher. Because Zuckerberg insists he’s not a “publisher”, he believes Facebook is exempt from the social compact that requires the “fourth estate” to take responsibility for all its content.

As someone who is a publisher, I believe in Jefferson’s essential thesis that journalism is so important to democracy that it should be valued and protected—despite its many flaws and the overreach of some of its owners and practitioners. It’s just a pity that good conscience and civic responsibility can’t be regulated for.