When a committee of Parliament condemned Rupert Murdoch
today Tuesday as “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company,” it was a statement as obvious as it was astonishing.
Astonishing because, even though Murdoch’s aura of invincibility has been heavily damaged by the hacking scandal, this is the British Parliament saying that a man who “along with Margaret Thatcher arguably the most important public figure in Britain since Churchill,” in the words of The Guardian’s Martin Kettle, should be forced out of his company. It took the murder of a 13 year old girl ten years ago and his newspaper’s abuse of her privacy and the law to get to this point.
Murdoch, a foreigner who controlled some forty percent of the UK’s newspaper circulation, was this close to snagging full control of the country’s biggest private TV provider last July, and extending his domination of the country’s public life. While it’s far from likely, it’s now possible at least to imagine Murdoch’s exit from the UK.
Or perhaps even from News Corp. itself. One of the most interesting aspects of the select committee’s report is how it finds Rupert Murdoch’s conduct to be, at best, “wilful blindness”—a phrase that looks like a message to US prosecutors. Willful blindness is a U.S. legal term for what you might calls implausible deniability, like when a CEO or, say, a mafia boss has underlings do all the dirty work to keep his own hands clean.
You can operate like that and still have plausible deniability, of course. It becomes implausible when it was clear long ago that there were serious problems that Murdoch, if he had wanted to, would have cleaned up.
Instead, Murdoch cultivated a culture of obfuscation and coverup—one that hubristically, but not unrealistically, assumed that his power would be enough to ride out the turbulence.
The scary thing is how close their bet on coverup came to winning. News Corp.’s extensive corruption of the British police system would have buried the scandal but for the heroic work of a small handful of folks like The Guardian’s Nick Davies, MP Tom Watson, and victims’ attorney Mark Lewis.
Despite all that has changed in the balance of power post-Milly Dowler, Murdoch’s reaction to the select committee’s report shows how much the tone at the top hasn’t changed. News Corp.’s strategy is still containment, the Nixonian limited hangout.
The most important line in Murdoch’s letter to News Corp. employees is about his Management Standards Committee’s internal investigation of The Sun and The Times of London, which he says “found no evidence of illegal conduct other than a single incident reported months ago, which led to the discipline of the relevant employee.” Murdoch’s myriad integrity panels and internal investigations have about as much credibility as the “independent” editorial integrity panels he sets up to give the owners of serious papers like The Times and The Wall Street Journal cover to sell out to someone like him.
Murdoch knows the only way he won’t survive is if problems at non-News of the World papers and News Corp. companies prove that the mothership’s culture is the the problem. This ludicrous statement about one crime shows him still trying to put a firewall around the controversy.
It’s not going to work. The committee, which includes Tom Watson, is playing chess here, anticipating that line: “Throughout this affair, senior News of the World and News International executives have tried to have it both ways. They have been quick to point to ‘investigations’ which supposedly cleared the newspaper of wider wrongdoing, but have also distanced themselves from the detail when it suited them.”
Worse for Murdoch, the Metropolitan Police, News Corp.’s one-time partners-in-crime (literally), have already arrested ten Sun editors and reporters for “a culture at The Sun of illegal payments.”
Murdoch himself effectively admitted two months ago that The Sun did indeed have a culture of bribery. Today, he would have us believe that this was a culture of one.
Nobody’s buying it, and it doesn’t help News Corp. to attack some of the report’s conclusions as “unjustified and highly partisan” (the tripartisan vote for the report was 7-3). If the culture of any company is set from the top, as they almost all are, it’s News Corporation’s. As I wrote last summer, “its entire reason for being is to reflect, imitate, and amplify Murdoch himself.” Harold Evans put it better three decades ago when he called Murdoch a Sun King, someone who rules a company “where policy derives from how the leader is perceived by others rather than by instructions or traditions.”
The glib denials that have served him so well for so many years aren’t working anymore—not with all we now know. This is someone who testified last week that “I’ve never asked a prime minister for anything.” This is someone who puts forward the idea that his company’s own internal investigation is legit and pretends that he doesn’t have a well documented history of manipulating these puppet panels.
The denials and obfuscations would be pathological if they weren’t so transparently the result of conscious decisions. Rupert Murdoch is in survivor mode, and with defenses like these, he’s in more trouble than we thought. And more is yet to come.