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Murdoch’s coup

The launch of the Sun on Sunday is a perfectly timed riposte to Leveson

25 February 2012

3:00 PM

25 February 2012

3:00 PM

The launch of the Sun on Sunday is a perfectly timed riposte to Leveson

Beleaguered staff at News International say they have rarely seen Rupert Murdoch so full of energy. Sleeves up, literally and figuratively, the almost 81-year-old newspaperman is back in his
element, tearing around the offices at Wapping, doing what he always loves doing best — creating a new newspaper, and confounding his critics. The Sun on Sunday will be launched this

While other newspaper proprietors are in retreat all over the world, and while Murdoch himself faces the greatest ever threat to his empire as a result of the phone hacking scandal, he charges the
barricades, confounding his enemies, launching Britain’s first new Sunday paper in a decade. Even his arch foes at the Guardian, the paper whose nabobs hate Murdoch as much as those
at the BBC, are grudgingly impressed. A leading article on Tuesday acknowledged that he remains ‘the arch-magician of print — wrong-footing his critics, rallying his staff and stunning
his rivals with his sheer speed and audacity’.

Staff say he has been designing layouts, commissioning articles for the first issue, working out regional advertising rates, and immersing himself in every detail. That’s been his life
— starting new titles or transforming old — ever since he inherited two small Australian papers from his father in the 1950s. Perhaps the greatest creation in those early days was the
Australian, the first national paper Australia ever had. Murdoch was involved in every detail of its creation, rushing papers to Canberra airport and cajoling pilots to take off through the
constant fog. He was scoffed at and abused by his rivals then, just as he is today. He spent a fortune and persevered. The Australian has been one of Australia’s finest papers for decades.

As in Australia, so in Britain — where he acquired the News of the World and relaunched the Sun as a tabloid over 40 years ago. Over the years to come, both papers did horrible tabloid
stories — and excellent tabloid stories also. And since the early 1990s, faced with mockery and huge initial losses, he has built Sky television, a remarkably successful and popular business
with 10 million subscribers.

Despite the recent horrors at Wapping, advertisers are said to be eager to have the Sun on Sunday and Murdoch’s old friend Martin Sorrell, head of WPP, is in a better position than most to
bring them in. The presses which printed the News of the World until it was slammed shut are ready, with ample capacity.

Journalists at Wapping desperately want the Sun on Sunday to succeed and many are suspending their anger over the treatment of their arrested friends and colleagues. Morale has risen
dramatically since Murdoch hit town and toured the newsroom talking to staff. But the fallout from the hacking scandal remains hugely threatening.

The Sun, more than most papers, is a ‘family’ — which is why the arrests had such a devastating effect on morale. Reporters and editors believe Murdoch is genuinely on
their side and has been appalled by the devastation wreaked by those he trusted to act in their best interests. He is said to have taken all this very personally, sleeping badly. He has done some
difficult things — reversing the suspensions of those arrested and guaranteeing their legal costs. He has also accepted responsibility and promised, as he must, to fully co-operate with the
police in their enquiries into alleged wrongdoings at the News of the World and the Sun.

But he, like everyone else at News International, is faced with a home-grown Frankenstein monster — News International’s Management Standards Committee, which is handing millions of
emails straight to the police. To have such people inside the company talk about the Sun as ‘the swamp that needs draining’ and about ‘institutional criminality’ does not do
much for morale, present or future, at any of the Wapping papers.

The lawyers on the MSC report to lawyers in the New York headquarters who care little for Murdoch’s passion for his British papers. They are concerned only to protect the American parent
company — which is doing extremely well, especially from cable TV. The MSC has actually given the police not only names of journalists who may have paid sources, but even names of those
sources themselves. As the eminent lawyer Geoffrey Robertson pointed out last week, betrayal of sources is not only immoral but also illegal — and threatens the whole basis of a free press.

It is now reported that the MSC is handing over names from the Times and Sunday Times, two fine papers. The effects could be devastating. Threats to the press are clear not only
in what has happened at News International, but also in the unfocused and unpredictably wide-ranging nature of the Leveson inquiry into press standards. There, the most robust defence of the press
has been made by Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail. He knows that those who hate Murdoch’s tabloids hate all tabloids — and will go after his papers next.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, a former journalist, was right to refer to threats from Leveson in a speech on Tuesday. ‘There is a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression
which emanates from the debate around Leveson,’ he said. Even the Guardian was supportive in its recent editorial on Murdoch’s launch of the Sun on Sunday. ‘In the main,
this is a good decision. Anything that appears to increase the diversity of voices in the press and which gives employment to journalists in troubled times is broadly to be welcomed.’

Whatever the wrongdoing at ­Murdoch’s tabloids (and others) in the past, what matters now is securing the future of independent papers and broadcasters. Who has created and sustained more
English language papers and television stations than anyone else around the world in the last half-century? His army of detractors will hate to admit it. But the answer is an 80-year-old now
recreating his prime in Wapping.

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