Murdoch’s Fine Print

It looks like Rupert Murdoch might not be using the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal as his personal gazette after all.

According to details emerging about the sale of the newspaper to Mr. Murdoch, The Journal’s editorial page editor, Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Gigot, will continue to call the shots on editorial policy. That’s the result of what seems like an ironclad agreement between Mr. Murdoch and The Journal.

It’s an extraordinary arrangement, one that flies in the face of journalistic tradition and, some might note, Mr. Murdoch’s record as a publisher.

Remember, the Aussie-born mogul has been accused in the past of using news pages, never mind editorial columns, to promote favorite causes and politicians—sometimes in the pursuit of ideology, sometimes in pursuit of the almighty dollar or euro or pound sterling or yen. New Yorkers of a certain age will remember the way in which Mr. Murdoch’s New York Post created and promoted Ed Koch’s ill-advised gubernatorial candidacy in 1982. And that’s just one example, from among many, of Murdoch properties crafting the news to suit the boss’s agenda.

Ironically enough, Mr. Murdoch would be well within his prerogative if he had, in fact, insisted on control of The Journal’s editorial page. Editorials generally reflect the publisher’s views, no questions asked.

In a way, it is Mr. Gigot’s power, not Mr. Murdoch’s, that stands out according to the agreement between the publisher and The Journal. According to the fine print, not only is Mr. Gigot in charge of the paper’s editorials, but he is responsible for hiring members of the editorial board and editorial page columnists In addition, Mr. Gigot has oversight over Op-Ed page pieces.

That gives Mr. Gigot extraordinary power not only over The Journal’s editorial positions but also over the views expressed elsewhere on the newspaper’s pages. If not unprecedented, the arrangement certainly is unusual.

Mr. Gigot, it should be noted, is an extraordinary talent. Nobody has every accused him of abusing the power he was given after his legendary predecessor, Robert Bartley, retired in 2001. Still, if Mr. Murdoch himself attempted to assert the kind of control Mr. Gigot now has over The Journal’s opinion pages, journalistic watchdogs would wail and gnash their teeth and proclaim the end of civilization as we know it.

And if Mr. Murdoch decides he simply must use the editorial page to soften up (or flatten) a politician or fellow business leader, Mr. Gigot can take the case to an independent editorial committee set up under terms of the purchase. If the committee decides in Mr. Murdoch’s favor, Mr. Gigot can appeal to a court of law. Again, this is an extraordinary provision, and one that should silence Mr. Murdoch’s critics and journalism’s professional worrywarts.

What happens if Mr. Gigot resigns, retires or is fired? According to the agreement, Mr. Murdoch cannot fire Mr. Gigot without the consent of the editorial committee. Given that the committee includes a former chief executive of The Associated Press, former editorial page editors of The Detroit News and The Chicago Tribune and a former chairman of M.I.T.’s Media Lab, it would seem unlikely that the members would allow a whimsical dismissal of Mr. Gigot. And anyone Mr. Murdoch proposed to replace Mr. Gigot would need the committee’s support as well.

Mr. Murdoch obviously sees The Journal as a business opportunity, not just a personal soapbox. More power to him—as if such a thing were possible.

Murdoch’s Fine Print