HONG KONG – The resignation of two key lieutenants of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his own full-page signed apology in British newspapers — “We are sorry for the widespread wrongdoing that occurred” — is clearly a desperate attempt to save his News Corporation group from being incinerated in the firestorm of criticism for widespread telephone hacking, almost certainly illegal payments to policemen, and attempts to probe the private lives of politicians, royalty, the great and good, and victims of crime and terrorism. (Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World editor, was arrested in London on Monday in the phone hacking scandal.)
It may prove a classic case of too little, too late. Only days before, Murdoch had claimed that with “minor mistakes” his British group had handled the crisis very well. By ditching both the flame-haired Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, Murdoch’s British newspaper arm, and her predecessor Les Hinton, who became publisher of the Wall Street Journal when Murdoch bought it, Murdoch clearly hopes to take his son and heir-apparent James, the chairman of News International and of the BSkyB pay-tv channels, out of the firing line.
But dissention runs deep, even into the tightly family-run group. A leading biographer of Rupert Murdoch claimed that his daughter Elisabeth had said at a book launch this month that James Murdoch and Brooks had “f**ked the company.” The close Murdoch control of News Corp — the family owns 13 percent of the stock but 40 percent of the B voting shares — may make it hard for Rupert as well as James to run away from responsibility for newspapers without any sense of right and wrong.
The critical question may be whether illegal telephone hacking by News reporters crossed the Atlantic to include victims and families of the 9/11 terrorism, as the Daily Mirror alleged.
Rupert Murdoch certainly changed the face of British journalism and global media. Back in 1969 I had a revealing non-encounter with Murdoch. I was a reporter on the ailing Sun newspaper and was named the Young Journalist of the Year in the British press awards for my “sharp but sympathetic coverage of the crisis of conscience in the Catholic Church over the birth control pill.”
With trepidation, since bets were being taken on how soon the Sun would set, I used the award money to travel overland to India, to explore several countries from the grassroots. Having spent two weeks in poor Bihar villages without electricity or running water, I arrived in Delhi to sit at the feet of Indira Gandhi as she gave a lesson in power, smashing the old party bosses who had made her prime minister believing that she would be their gungi gudiya (dumb doll).
I excitedly sent a telegram to the Sun, which Murdoch had just taken over, saying that I had a front-row seat as Gandhi tightened her grip on the world’s largest democracy, surely worth a full-page feature. There was no reply.
On the boat crossing the English Channel for home, I bought a copy of Murdoch’s newly risen Sun and understood that I no longer had a job. His bright design, bold headlines and the trademark bare-breasted page 3 girls lifted the paper’s circulation from an ailing 800,000 a day to more than four million.
The old Sun had been a serious newspaper, sending reporters to cover the Biafra war and famine from deep inside rebel country, with foreign and diplomatic editors, air and defence correspondents who took great pride that their reporting was superior to their peers.
Some eminent commentators praise Murdoch for rescuing the newspaper industry from oblivion. Roger Cohen in the New York Times believes that Murdoch has “been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant.” The Sun certainly has been noisy, noisome and often noxious, narrow and chauvinistic.
Its screaming front-page headlines, such as “GOTCHA” — when Britain sank the Argentine warship the General Belgrano during the Falklands war -, “Up yours Delors” — attacking the head of the European Commission -, and “Papa Ratzi” — when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope — show the thinking of drunken English yobbos.@
The Sun and the News of the World, bought slightly earlier, were only the start of a transatlantic media group today worth more than $32 billion in revenues and almost $4 billion in profits. Newspapers, even after the acquisition of the Wall Street Journal, are a smaller part than television and film. In the UK, the News International newspapers produce only 37 percent of the revenues of BSkyB, and the newspapers lose money, thanks to consistent losses at The Times.
Murdoch denied as “rubbish” rumors that he might sacrifice his UK newspapers to gain full ownership of BSkyB, of which he currently owns 39.1 percent. That bid for Sky has been dropped after the relentless criticism, but bets have started that Murdoch will try again with a lower bid when the fuss dies down.
As Murdoch’s business has grown, he has demonstrated that it is money the thrill of empire-building that drives him. He was willing to give up his Australian citizenship and become an American to keep and extend his U.S. empire, including 20th Century Fox, Fox News and later the Wall Street Journal.
But with new details emerging daily of a culture of abuse of the law, let alone ethical journalism, it is not only News International but Murdoch’s management that is being questioned. The group’s persistent claim that a single rogue reporter on a the News of the World was responsible has been shattered: thousands of people suffered from intrusion by Murdoch reporters whose techniques included hacking telephones, paying police for information, and blagging — deception pretending to be the target person or company — to obtain private information of financial, health or educational records.
Families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, victims of terror attacks and a murdered 13-year-old girl are among the tragic roll-call. Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister, whose bank and family medical records were allegedly accessed by News International papers, branded Murdoch’s company as “a criminal media nexus,” which “claimed to be on the side of the law-abiding citizen,” but “stood side-by-side with criminals against our citizens.” It should also be a matter of concern that police had evidence of possible wrongdoing but chose not to examine it.
Murdoch is not the first newspaper tycoon to exercise undue power. The difference is that leading British politicians have been sucking up to Murdoch. The Sun’s vote was worth almost any price, so Tony Blair infamously flew to Australia to get Murdoch’s blessing. David Cameron hobnobs with leading Murdoch executives and employed the ex-News of the World editor at the centre of the original hacking row as his head of communications.
Murdoch’s decision to close the 167-year old News of the World was praised as showing guts, but his losses will be limited because the profitable Sun will soon go to seven-days-a-week publication and fill the gap. Murdoch may swim or sink depending if wrongdoing is proved in the U.S. Even Murdoch defender Cohen admits that Murdoch’s Fox News has significantly led to “the polarization of American politics, the erosion of reasoned debate, the debunking of reason itself, and the ensuing Washington paralysis.”
The real tragedy would be if politicians use Murdoch as an excuse to tighten restraints on the press. What Britain, the U.S. and the world need is a press that focuses on the real issues and keeps the politicians honest, not jumps into bed with them.
Kevin Rafferty is a Hong Kong-based journalist.