Once more in Britain, the fall of a media mogul

The Murdoch story has turned into a major exhibition of national outrage at the press, the politicians, and the police. Here's a report from London by a Crosscut writer with deep experience in the British government.

Crosscut archive image.

Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The Murdoch story has turned into a major exhibition of national outrage at the press, the politicians, and the police. Here's a report from London by a Crosscut writer with deep experience in the British government.

— from London

Britain has a long record of benefitting from the entrepreneurial skills, fresh ideas, and capital of media moguls from overseas. We have bought and enjoyed the newspapers they saved from the sclerotic hands of British owners, tolerated their excesses, and then feasted on their entrails if they came to grief.

Long before the Australian Rupert Murdoch there was the Canadian Max Beaverbrook who acquired and built up the Daily and Sunday Express into stridently nationalistic and reactionary newspapers. Then, also from Canada, along came Roy Thomson who acquired a slew of British papers including The Scotsman and the Times, both at the time highly prestigious. He was also one of the first to invest in commercial television in Britain, notoriously describing the franchise as a “license to print money.”

Neither Beaverbrook nor Thomson came unstuck in any obvious way, and Thomson was generally well respected for his low-key lifestyle and for avoiding obvious influence peddling. Both achieved the press mogul’s equivalent of the warrior who manages, scarred perhaps, to “die in his bed.”

Not so their successors. First to fall was Robert Maxwell, who had reached Britain as a Jewish teenager from central Europe fleeing the Nazi terror. After service in the British army, including a valor decoration, he went into publishing.  At its height his empire included an important technical publishing company — he was among the first to exploit academic and scientific publications for profit — and the populist British tabloid the Daily Mirror. But, at least financially, things were not as they seemed. After his death by drowning off his private yacht in circumstances pointing to suicide but never fully determined, it transpired that he had illegally stripped the Mirror’s pension fund of hundreds of millions of pounds to try and save his tottering empire from the bankruptcy that it inevitably suffered after his death.

Next in line was Conrad Black, from Canada, who acquired the conservative Telegraph newspapers but has since been convicted of fraud in the USA.

None of their stories compares in drama and scope with the Murdoch family’s current travails in Britain. Their company News International owns the London Times, the Sunday scandal sheet the News of the World, and the populist daily the Sun. They also own 40 percent of BSkyB, a successful British subscription TV service. Their difficulties have been fully reported in the US, not least because the allegation that employees of their British affiliate bribed police might create difficulties under US law for its US parent — no mean threat, if real, for the owner of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

The extraordinary saga started with the conviction and imprisonment in 2007  of a private investigator for illegally hacking into the voice mails of staff working for the Princes William and Harry and of the News of the World “editor for royal affairs” who made use of his work. It was said in court that 609 royal office calls had been intercepted.

Skilled and determined investigative journalism, mainly from Britain’s Guardian newspaper, has progressively undermined the News of the World’s always implausible claim that these events were an isolated lapse from its normally impeccable journalistic ethics. The position now is that, on the present count, no fewer than six News of the World people have been arrested. They include two former editors, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, a former executive editor, an assistant editor, and two reporters. It remains to be seen, of course, whether criminal charges will follow, and if so with what result.

In an attempt at damage limitation the Murdoch family have closed the News of the World, and issued a grovelling public apology. They have also accepted the resignation of Les Hinton, the British affiliate’s Chief Executive up to 2007 and since then the head of Dow Jones which runs the Wall Street Journal. And after a surprisingly long hesitation they accepted the resignation of Rebekah Brooks who had succeeded Hinton as Chief Executive, a few hours before her arrest Sunday.

What tipped the whole business from being a scandal around a newspaper most people knew to be unsavory into a major exhibition of national outrage was the revelation that the cell phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old who was abducted and then brutally murdered in 2002, had been hacked into by the News of the World investigators after she went missing, with some possible prejudice to the police investigation of her disappearance. And this revelation, accepted as true by the Murdoch organization, has been followed by claims that other victims of crimes and catastrophes have similarly had their privacy invaded and their private sufferings intruded upon. The parents of two girls killed some years ago in Norfolk, the bereaved relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and of victims of the July 2005 terrorist bombings are said to be in this category, though these claims have not been definitively substantiated.

It is one thing for politicians, celebrities, and others who seek or know they have to accept high public profiles to have their privacy invaded. It is quite another when private citizens unexpectedly find themselves not just the victims of unexpected tragedies but also of gross and illegal press intrusion.

Matters boiled over in a scalding debate in Parliament last week. A particularly notable contribution came from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He had been the victim of highly intrusive reporting by the Murdoch Sun of a serious medical problem in his family, and claimed also that his bank accounts and tax files may have been hacked into. Abandoning his normal taciturn mode of utterance, he levelled the following against the Murdoch press: “In their behavior towards those without a voice of their own, News International descended from the gutter to the sewer. The tragedy is that they let the rats out of the sewer."

The Murdoch empire in Britain now has its back well and truly against the wall. They have been forced to abandon their bid to acquire full ownership of the lucrative BSkyB television franchise and they face potentially very expensive civil litigation from the alleged victims of their activities as well as prolonged police investigation. They have never given any quarter to their own quarries: They can expect none themselves.

Next in line of scrutiny are the Metropolitan Police. They are accused of failure to carry forward the investigation of illegal phone hacking after the initial prosecutions even though it is said that information long in their hands justified the much fuller and wider investigation that has now belatedly been set in process. Some attribute their lack of diligence to an excessive, even corrupt, closeness between some senior police and the press. It has not helped their position that the officer originally charged with the hacking investigation after his retirement got a regular slot for articles in the Murdoch press, that senior police have admitted socializing with Murdoch executives and that a former News of the World executive editor who was given a “public relations consultancy” by the Metropolitan Police is among those to have been arrested in the recent hacking inquiry. On Sunday night the Met Police Commissioner, Britain’s most senior police officer, resigned, followed the next day by a top assistant.

On the political stage, the ramifications may run even deeper. It has long been known that British politicians are great cultivators of the press but the scale on which both Labour and Conservative leaders have kept in with press moguls has been dramatically illustrated in recent weeks. Both Blair and Brown were assiduous in their attention to the Murdoch press. Their enthusiasm seems to have been exceeded by David Cameron, the present Prime Minister. He appointed Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor who had resigned after the initial hacking prosecutions, as head of communications for the Conservative Party and then gave him an important communications post in Government.

This was of course long before Coulson’s recent arrest, but in present circumstances the appointments do not look good. It has also emerged that Rupert Murdoch himself paid a private call on Cameron in his first day as Prime Minister and that there have been very numerous contacts with senior Murdoch people since as well as with other sectors of the press.

Cameron has done what British Governments often do in such difficult circumstances. He has appointed a senior and from all accounts highly respected judge to lead an inquiry into the circumstances of the hacking, the role of the police, and the wider issues of relations between press, police, and politicians. Some of this remit will have to wait until after police investigations have been completed and any prosecutions taken forward, so the whole business may stretch out for a long time.

The judge is also charged to head a separate panel to review the regulation of the press in Britain, it being widely acknowledged that the existing machinery for dealing with complaints against the press is weak. It is of interest that in 2009 James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and the present chairman of the family’s British operations, addressed media regulation in a prestigious lecture (video) to a media audience in Edinburgh. Concerned mainly at that time with airwave rather than print media, he argued passionately against any significant regulation or involvement of government and in favor of free and largely unregulated media markets. It was a well expressed and, from its own perspective, skilfully argued piece of work. It included a vigorous attack on the BBC and raised substantial issues worthy of debate about the means of protecting the public interest in British media markets.

James Murdoch’s main theme was that consumers should be the judge of what they want to see, hear, and read; that the state should keep out of the way; and that the best guarantee of quality and innovation in the media is the incentive to profit in a competitive independent sector. The title was “The Absence of Trust." Extracts with a particular resonance today are: “Independence [of the media] is sustained by true accountability — the accountability to customers — people who buy the newspapers,...people who deliberately and willingly choose a service which they value.... There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantee of independence is profit.”

People have certainly bought the Murdoch family’s newspapers as customers have bought the newspapers of other proprietors who have come to grief; and the company has certainly profited. But "trust" is more complex than a simple purchasing question. As these issues play out it will be interesting to see whether and how in Britain we can give a new meaning to the old ambiguous phrase: “The public gets the press it deserves."


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