In his third blog on the ethics of journalism, George Pitcher compares the personal morality of the media leaders of the past and present.  Read his previous posts here and here.

Do media owners or leaders have a moral compass?  And, if they do, does that compass have a magnetic north, in the sense of an ethical ideal to which they are drawn, a direction of travel to which they intuitively aspire?

The old press barons of the first half of the twentieth century might have pretended to a mission to inform, to put a newspaper into the hands of every British family every day, but they were more often than not propagandists. Take Max Aitken, who as Lord Beaverbrook commanded the highest-circulation daily newspaper in the world with the Express, where he opposed European economic integration (plus ca change…). His biographer, AJP Taylor, has him relentlessly firing off memos to staff: “Spend less money on foolish propaganda and more money on wise propaganda”; “Repetition is the principal secret of successful propaganda.”

Nor did the next generation of commercial newspaper proprietors manage to create an industry of unparalleled virtue. Robert Maxwell (Mirror) was a crook who stole his company’s pension fund. Richard Desmond (Express again) made his fortune in pornography. Rupert Murdoch’s UK group presided over the biggest newspaper scandal of the new century, in phone-hacking, which brought him to “the most humble day of my life” before Parliament.

Now there are the new digital proprietors. Not that they have wanted to be called media-owners, for they have been anxious not to be publishers of content, but rather platforms for the content of others. Google was said to be a straightforward, algorithmic rank-order of the content of news organisations (never mind that it was leeching the advertising revenue from those outlets) and Facebook was the creator of a new democracy of citizen journalists.

Meet the new boss…

Times have changed. Perhaps the Emperor’s-new-clothes moment was the (albeit attempted) humbling of Facebook’s billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg before the US Congress over terrorism and abusive content, privacy-invasion and illicit data-harvesting of voters in the Trump election and Brexit referendum. Suddenly the social-media liberators looked like more of the same – meet the new media boss, same as the old boss?

Photo by MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9623182q)

It may be, of course, that Zuckerberg is so young, at 34, that he is simply an ingenue who has a tiger by the tail, a Frankenstein creation of which he has not so much lost control as is itself beyond control. But, to stand that up, it would mean establishing that there is no continuum of character between the old media proprietors and the new breed. A glance at a couple of recent stories suggests otherwise.

In the first, Christine Armstrong, author of a new book, The Mother of All Jobs, which exposes the myth of have-it-all career women (she notes, inter alia, that Facebook COO and Lean In women’s champion Sheryl Sandberg has a domestic staff of 10), points in the Sunday Times to Eliza Kuhner, a Facebook executive and mother of three told by Zuckerberg and Sandberg that she couldn’t work part-time from home, as it would put undue strain on other people.

This from the pair that flaunt their family-conscious credentials. Zuckerberg has written publicly to his children (“Childhood is magical”), while there’s this from Sandberg’s Lean In: “It’s important to…give people the time off and support they need so that we don’t have to rely on the kindness of our bosses.”

Urinating in bottles

The second piece is by the Guardian’s Marina Hyde and points out that, instead of launching the Day One fund to help the world’s poor, Amazon tycoon (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos might start by paying and treating his warehouse staff half-decently. Among the many whistle-blown stories are those of Amazon packers urinating in bottles in order to avoid being docked time for going to the lavatory.

There does seem to be a direct line of meanness, perhaps spiritual as well as financial, between Beaverbrook – who famously upbraided a female employee for using a new envelope for a memo to him – and the new media magnates.

The question is whether it matters, beyond the people who suffer. Billionaires are mean and treat their staff badly, not to say hypocritically. Who knew? BBC2 is currently serialising Trust, which follows the fortunes, in every sense, of J. Paul Getty, who had a payphone for guests in the hall of his Sussex mansion. This much we know: parsimony often goes with the territory of being very rich.

But it matters to us in so far that communication cannot be separated from the influences and ownership values of the medium that carries it.

If true, it has implications for the ethical stature of social-media platforms, something that I will be addressing in my next blog.

George Pitcher advises Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, on ethics and the future of journalism and is a Visiting Fellow at LSE. He formerly held senior editorial positions at The Observer and the Daily Telegraph. @GeorgePitcher

Views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Dow Jones or the LSE.