Vendetta against Murdoch goes from manic to malicious

Mark Day
April 27, 2010

As appeared in The Australian on October 27, 2005.

IN terms of brazen spin, Stephen Mayne's reports of the News Corporation annual general meeting in New York were classics. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Mayne, doubling as a reporter and shareholder activist, accused News of indulging in brazen spin, yet he was incapable, or unwilling, to keep his own passions and conspiratorial opinions under control.

Mayne, the former owner of the Crikey website, now a strident contributor to its dailyemails, makes no secret of the fact thathe doesn't like the way Rupert Murdoch runs News Corporation, ultimate owner of The Australian. But he has now gone past reporting events and past being merely critical. He is running a full-scale vendetta against Murdoch and the company, obsessed by his conspiracy theories, fixated by the inner workings of the Murdoch family and consumed by his belief that Murdoch exercises ruthless control over every headline, every word and every comma that appears in his worldwide publications.

In the first 100 words of his reports from New York, Mayne accused Murdoch of indulging in brazen spin, dodgy tactics and procedural trickery. That was followed by the throwaway line that ``We all know that Rupert Murdoch is a control freak'', and his recent calculations that News Corp would be worth more if Murdoch were dead. Charming. Even the measured and respected commentator Alan Kohler describes Mayne as Murdoch's nemesis, an agent of vengeance and retribution.

Normally I wouldn't bother too much about what Mayne says or does, or spring to the defence of Murdoch on the basis that you may believe, as a former employee who takes his shilling as a freelancer, I would say that, wouldn't I?

But Mayne has recently taken the level of his campaign from manic to malicious, thereby raising the legitimate public relations question: how to deal with him?

There is no doubt that Mayne is considered an irritant by News. His outpourings may also have been damaging to the company, but they have not been effective in the sense that they have led to outcomes the company did not want. His campaigns against proposals at the AGM were profoundly ineffective. Clearly, the company's credibility outweighs Mayne's among most of the shareholders, but it is also possible that his continued chip, chip, chipping away could in time affect outcomes.

To date the approach of corporate relations managers at News has been to mostly ignore Mayne, dismissing him as a gadfly with a long track record of getting his facts wrong. This is the textbook approach: to take him on in News mastheads by refuting his claims and fixations would give him oxygen and spread his message to a far wider audience than he can presently command.

He would also love it, as he will probably love this column, because he is driven by a rampant ego. Only Derryn Hinch could come close to Mayne's habit of putting himself at the centre of his story, stoking the flames of publicity because his marketing persona as a quixotic shareholder activist and fearless campaigner depends on it.

The negatives of the heavy-handed confrontational approach in dealing with corporate critics have been clear since the famous McDonald's case in Britain, when the hamburger-maker spent millions on a law case, using a figurative sledgehammer to crush a couple of nuts protesting about the nutritional value of its products.

It won, but shot itself in the foot by bringing the claims to the attention of millions of its clients across the world.

Crikey's emails go to about 5500 subscribers daily. That's not a large audience but it is influential, inasmuch as it is widely read by journalists, politicians, political staff members and business analysts.
Given its notorious disregard for the facts – only partially improved since Eric Beecher and Di Gribble took over the ownership of the site – Crikey has instituted what it touts as a model corrections policy. It says errors will be corrected immediately and with the same display as the original article.

This provides perhaps the best way to fight back. Whenever Mayne fires off another volley loaded with spin, News management could respond with a correction, and demand immediate and equal treatment.
In this way Mayne's vendetta would be met head-on, and quickly, in front of the limited audience that sees the opening salvo. If the battle were to spill into the wider media, so be it. At least the denial would be reported alongside the original, and now contested, allegation.

It's not for me to tell News, or Murdoch, how to suck eggs. But I do find some ironies in the situation.

Murdoch in the mind of Mayne and his followers is berated as the controller of 70 per cent of the nation's mastheads. He is portrayed as the gatekeeper of our thought processes. He is demonised as the dictator of editorial policies across the nation. He is a monopolistic opponent of diversity. He is too powerful and all-powerful.
Yet he cannot shut up a single commentator on a website.

The web delivers the kind of diversity Mayne says Murdoch denies, yet Murdoch at the AGM announced new strategies to transform News into a digital powerhouse, adding more and more consumer choice and, with it, greater diversity.

I don't condemn Mayne for exercising his right to have an opinion or a say, but I do believe it is incumbent on those who call themselves journalists to hold facts sacred and clearly label opinion.
Show ponies who set out to attract headlines and attention by their activism need to separate those antics from what they purport to be journalism.

Disclosure: The writer has an indirect interest in News Corporation shares.
* Last week in Media I listed News Limited as a one-third partner in Sky News Australia. It should have been BSkyB, 37 per cent owned by News Corporation.