Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Sad about the Wall Street Journal
Corriere della Sera - August 2nd 2007

If I had been one of the family shareholders in Dow Jones, owner of the Wall Street Journal, I would probably have agreed to sell my shares to Rupert Murdoch. The family had many years ago become distanced from the management of the newspaper and news agency group, so finance rather than sentiment ruled the day. But as a reader of the Wall Street Journal, and as a journalist, I am sad about the sale. The credibility and integrity of a vital source of business information and analysis will now be in doubt. No reader will trust the Wall Street Journal after today quite as much as they did yesterday.

          Rupert Murdoch is a truly great businessman: daring, visionary, ruthless and determined. But he has a proven record of interference in editorial decisions when his commercial interests might be threatened. Notoriously, he abandoned publication of a book by the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, for fear it would offend the Chinese government, and he dropped the BBC from his satellite TV service for the same reason. Everyone who works for his newspapers or television networks knows that if they contradict his interests or wishes they are likely to lose their job.

          You might respond to this fear by saying that no one trusts the media in any case: all media are biased, or subject to political influence in any case. There is some truth to that view, sadly, in all countries and of course certainly in Italy. But that does not exonerate Mr Murdoch at the Wall Street Journal. For the international business and financial media are a different species.

          In today’s media world, with the internet and multi-channel television, business and financial information is abundant and cheap. Good, credible, reliable analysis of that information is scarce. Business readers and viewers are busy: they want to get their analysis from sources that supply it efficiently and that they trust. As business readers we all benefit if that analysis and information is accurate and trustworthy, because it makes us more confident in our decisions and we have less need to spend lots of money checking the reliability of our information.

          Defenders of Mr Murdoch’s takeover argue that as a brilliant businessman he is well aware that the Wall Street Journal’s value depends on trust, so he will not want to put that trust or integrity at risk. He will invest more money in the newspaper and its online service, and so may improve it in many ways. That is probably true. But his record means that readers will not entirely trust him, even if he does not interfere at all. They may just believe that he is interfering. That belief alone is enough to erode trust.

A new body of trustees will be given the role of protecting editorial independence at the Wall Street Journal in the hope of preventing that erosion; but Mr Murdoch has broken promises about trustees in the past, at The Times in London, so it is right to be sceptical about this promise at the Journal.

          Apart from the Bancroft family, who have got a high price for their shares, the people who should be celebrating Mr Murdoch’s purchase are his competitors: the Financial Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, Forbes, and, yes, the publication I used to work for, The Economist. Commercially, Mr Murdoch is a tough competitor. But his purchase of Dow Jones has just handed them a vital advantage, as long as they can protect, nurture and promote their own integrity and credibility with their readers and users. Their advantage will not, however, last forever, so they had better exploit it now: after all, Rupert Murdoch is 76 years old. Even he is not immortal.


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