A paper that might even deserve Murdoch

His $5bn move for the <em>Wall Street Journal</em> provoked outrage and a desperate rearguard action

Let us imagine that a century-old manufacturing company based in a Midwestern town is being stalked by a corporate asset-stripper. The company turns a modest profit and is both the backbone of the local economy and, through tradition and good works, the heart of the community. What does the Wall Street Journal say?

It says bad luck, the predator can take your company and pull it apart in the name of efficiencies, synergies and the like, and your town must suffer because the market must have its way. That has been the Journal's message for generations, a message delivered with a consistency and vigour that few other papers, even the People's Daily of Beijing, can rival.

So you might think that, when Rupert Murdoch came knocking on the Journal's door with his $5bn takeover bid, the paper's staff, and particularly the senior staff, would put their hands up and go peacefully to the fate they have wished upon countless other managers and employees.

But no, the Journal is special, we are told, and shouldn't be bought and sold like other businesses. And Murdoch is especially bad, so he must make pledges not to meddle with the paper's editorial independence.

From this distance (both geographical and ideological), it is a little hard to swallow. Though a lot of distinguished careers may well end with a change of regime, it is still difficult to resist the feeling that if there is one newspaper in the world that deserves Rupert Murdoch, it might be the Journal.

Not that anyone should be pleased at the prospect of Murdoch acquiring another very large media organisation. The Journal is big - America's second-biggest selling paper - and it comes in a package with Dow Jones, the financial information service, so the deal, which at the time of writing looks almost done, will make him a global player in one of the few media markets where he was not already a global player.

And he is bad. A monopolist and a manipulator, he uses business power to build political influence, which he then uses to increase his business power, which increases his political influence, and so on - and he has the ethics of an alley cat.

But the outrage his bid for the Journal caused among the great and good of New York is more likely to have amused than worried him, and my guess is that it has done nothing for the anti-Murdoch case around the world.

In this country we know him well. With four leading national newspapers, a swathe of television channels, MySpace, HarperCollins and the rest, he enjoys a domination of the media rather greater than he does in the US and possibly as great as Northcliffe had here a century ago. No doubt in time he will try to buy more, and he will be resisted when he does.

But no one here would dream of suggesting, as has been done at the Journal, that he might be restrained by promises. He won't.

Nor would we waste much time complaining that Murdoch will drag a paper downmarket (an argument he himself mocked by joking that he would put page three girls in the Journal, but they would all have MBAs). Certainly he took the Times and Sunday Times a little downmarket, and he allowed the Times's unique historic authority to be frittered away. But if that is what he wants to do at the Journal, he will not be shamed or embarrassed out of doing it.

Nor would we be much alarmed, as some in New York have been, by the prospect that a Murdoch-owned Journal would not provide critical coverage of the Murdoch empire. That again is what happens with this man (and he knows that readers don't walk out in protest).

Yes, Murdoch needs to be resisted, but in the end the argument has to be about setting limits to the power of money. On those terms, the Wall Street Journal was never a good place to fight him because people there can't make that case without looking foolish.

Writing the unwritable

Jack Shafer, press columnist for the online magazine Slate, is a scourge of sloppy journalism and must have made some enemies in the trade in the past, but if (heaven forfend) he should be found in the next week with a sub-editor's spike through his heart, the suspects will probably be too numerous to count.

For he has written an article all journalists will hate, an article every bean-counter sitting in the corner of every newsroom will frame, an article Rupert Murdoch will wave at his axemen with glee.

Shafer compared the New York Times of 1972, when it employed 500 journalists, with the paper today, when it employs 1,200. Then he did the same for the Washington Post, which also roughly doubled its staff in that period. And what, with only minor qualification, did he conclude?

"By my personal measure, the national and foreign news published in the summer of 1972 by the Times and Post matches the current product . . ." From now on, Jack, sleep with one eye open.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant