Murdoch’s Hacking Scandal

Two stories cover the political, police, and press angles on the News Corp. coverup

If you haven’t followed the growing scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, it’s worth sitting down with Sarah Ellison’s piece in Vanity Fair and Archie Bland’s in our very own Columbia Journalism Review.

Between the two stories, you can get up to date quickly on why this story matters and what it reveals about corruption in the political, police, and press power structures in the UK. No way around it: The picture Ellison and Bland (and others before them, especially Nick Davies and Don Van Natta Jr. et. al ) paint of a corrupt and incestuous British establishment is downright ugly.

You can trace most of the malign influence on these institutions back to the power of one man: Rupert Murdoch. If for some reason you ever had doubts on the perils of media consolidation, this scandal ought to put them to rest.

First, the political angle. It’s been well documented that Murdoch is by far the most powerful press baron in the U.K., which is a strange position to be in for a foreigner. I’ll never understand how or why the country let a non-citizen grab such outsized influence over its media and government.

Murdoch famously had Tony Blair on a string, and it appears that he still has Labour wrapped up. Ellison actually gets anonymous News Corp. execs to brag about this:

The resignation of Andy Coulson, they said, had slaked the Labour Party’s fervor for the cause. Indeed, they pointed out that, just two weeks after Coulson resigned, Labour M.P.’s received a widely publicized e-mail from a top Labour adviser (and former Times of London journalist) to stop stoking the phone-hacking debate: “We must guard against anything which appears to be attacking a particular newspaper group out of spite.”

On the Murdoch-10 Downing Street axis, Ellison talks to Blair’s former deputy prime minister, John Prescott here about News Corp. executive Rebekah Brooks, who used to be editor of News of the World:

Prescott needs no encouragement to think ill of Rebekah Brooks. He is convinced that she ingratiated herself with British politicians, then used her position to pit them against one another. “When I was trying to keep the balance between Brown and Blair, who didn’t always get on, Blair would complain that Brown had said something, and I would say, ‘Where did you find that out?’ ‘Well, Rebekah Wade told me.’ Then the other one would have dinner with Rebekah Wade and tell Brown about Blair.” He looks scornfully into the distance. “I said, ‘This bloody woman is playing the two of you off each other—will you bloody dump her, for Christ’s sake!’”

I have a hard time imagining Obama and Biden giving, say, Katharine Weymouth—as powerful as she is—similar access.

And of course, the new prime minister David Cameron hired News of the World editor Andy Coulson to be his flack despite Coulson’s having presided over his newsroom’s crimes, which journalists there say he had to have known about.

But this scandal has shown the extent to which Murdoch’s influence extends to ostensibly non-political realms, specifically the Metropolitan Police. He had Scotland Yard covering up his paper’s crimes out of fear or deference to him. Here’s how Bland, The Independent’s foreign editor, puts it in our story in the new issue of CJR:

Later, it would be revealed that the Met held information that suggested other reporters were involved, but, possibly fearing retribution from an organization that Brooks had once told a parliamentary committee had paid police officers for information, failed to act on it. (Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who led the widely-criticized operation, later left the police to work for Murdoch’s Times as a columnist.)

To put it another way, the guy who led the pathetic hacking inquiry for Scotland Yard got a plum job as a Murdoch columnist.

The press-corruption angle is what this scandal was originally about, obviously, with reporters breaking the law and paying people to break the law to violate people’s privacy. But the corruption is broader than that. Bland:

British newspaper proprietors have enjoyed a longstanding tradition of covering each other’s travails as minimally as possible, lest wounded rivals take revenge. Seven of the people I spoke to in the reporting of this story used some variation on the phrase “dog doesn’t eat dog.”

According to reporters across Fleet Street, it is clear that there can be negative professional consequences for those who report this kind of story—though there is never a need to make that fact explicit.

Bland also gets this incredible quote from the editor executive editor of Murdoch’s Times of London:

“With this whole story I just hear the shrill shriek of axes being ground,” said Roger Alton, executive editor at The Times. As editor of The Independent in 2009—after ten years at The Observer, which he left acrimoniously—he felt the story was old news. “Everyone has an agenda. The New York Times certainly has an agenda, after Murdoch’s very forceful attempt to rival them with The Wall Street Journal.” There was no way to condone what had happened, Alton added, but that doesn’t mean the story merits coverage today. “For me this is stuff that happened a long time ago. People have gone to prison. Coulson’s resigned twice. It’s not as if any perceived wrongdoing hasn’t been sufficiently addressed. For me it’s roughly on a par with parking in a residents’ parking bay in terms of interest.”

This is either insane or craven. I’ll go with the latter. Police coverups. Corporate coverups. Celebrities and royals hacked. Hundreds of millions of dollars. Billionaire Rupert Murdoch. Press hypocrisy. Payoffs to keep quiet. Possible perjury by the prime minister’s top aide. Stonewalling executives who now run The Wall Street Journal. And it’s far from over. This story is a journalist’s dream. Speaking of craven, here’s where we re-run that Stuart Varney interview of Murdoch—just for kicks:

That “interview” ran about the same time as this from Ellison’s piece:

By the fall of 2010, for the first time, top executives in New York were paying attention. As Murdoch saw it, media coverage of phone hacking was just an example of his competitors using their news pages to attack his commercial interests—intolerable when done by others.

This is interesting because it shows Murdoch projecting his own worldview (remarkably similar to Michael Wolff”s) onto other papers. That’s not to say that newspapers don’t use stories to pursue agendas, but Murdoch is the king of this sort of thing—far more likely to do so far more frequently than the two papers he’s talking about here, The Guardian and The New York Times.

I suppose it’s not unlikely that Murdoch thought he was so powerful that he could contain this story, but I have something of a hard time buying that it’s really true that Murdoch only started really paying attention to this scandal last fall (which would have been after that great New York Times story came out).

This guy, of all people, would surely know how tantalizing and damaging this story could be.

If somehow he didn’t know then, he sure knows now.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,