The Media Today

The Dominion-Fox trial, and the legacy of the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal

April 11, 2023
Rupert Murdoch in 2019. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

A little over ten years ago, a long-awaited report, authored by Lord Justice Leveson, examined the incestuous relations between powerful media figures and leading politicians in the UK. It outlined egregiously intrusive and otherwise unethical tabloid reporting practices. And it recommended the establishment of a new regulator—independent of the government, but underpinned by the force of law—with the teeth to curb such abuses.

Leveson reached broad conclusions, but the judicial inquiry that led to his report was triggered by one abuse, in particular: the accusation that the News of the World had accessed the phone of Milly Dowler, a missing teenager who was later found murdered, in search of scoops in her messages. The paper was owned by Rupert Murdoch, who, as British media figures go, is the most powerful, and whose relations with politicians have been the most incestuous. The Guardian, which broke the Dowler story, had previously reported on other allegations of phone-hacking. The News of the World said that the practice was confined to a pair of bad apples, and Britain’s old press regulator essentially agreed. But hacking, it turned out, was widespread. Among the hundreds of alleged victims of the practice were the actor Hugh Grant, Princes William and Harry, and survivors of the 7/7 London subway bombing.

The phone-hacking scandal subsequently ballooned beyond the Murdoch press, in ways that have recently been back in the headlines; Harry and other famous plaintiffs are currently suing Associated Newspapers, the owner of the Daily Mail, alleging that they were illegally targeted. The scandal has also reappeared in recent stories on the other side of the Atlantic—in which Murdoch has been front and center. After Murdoch was (privately) deposed in the defamation case that Dominion Voting Systems is bringing against Fox News, NPR compared his testimony to the time he was called to answer questions about phone-hacking in Britain’s Parliament (though this time, he didn’t take a foam pie to the face). The New York Times characterized behind-the-scenes revelations stemming from the Dominion case as the “most damning to rattle the Murdoch media empire” since phone-hacking. The LA Times called Dominion’s suit “the biggest threat” to Murdoch’s company since then. The headline asked: “Murdoch has survived scandal after scandal. Will Dominion-Fox News lawsuit be different?”

The details of the phone-hacking scandal and the Dominion lawsuit, and their respective fallout and potential remedies, are very different: one (to a significant extent) was about privacy, and triggered a political process; the other is about election denialism and defamation, and has led to a civil trial, which is scheduled to start next week. But recent coverage of the Dominion case has got me thinking again about the phone-hacking scandal. If Murdoch did “survive” it, then how, and why? And what, if anything, does the episode tell us about his survival prospects this time?

The phone-hacking scandal did have consequences for Murdoch and his media empire, at least in the immediate sense of the term. Top Murdoch lieutenants faced criminal prosecution: Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor (who went on to work as a government spin doctor), went to jail; Rebekah Brooks, who ran Murdoch’s British businesses, went to trial, but was acquitted. Amid the initial tidal wave of public anger, Murdoch shuttered the News of the World, which until that point had been Britain’s best-selling tabloid. The scandal also derailed Murdoch’s bid to take full control of BSkyB, a major British news and pay-TV company.

Despite reviving the bid years later, Murdoch would never win control of Sky; in 2018, he sold his stake to Comcast. But the void left by the closure of the News of the World would soon be filled by the launch of a Sunday edition of The Sun, which remains widely read. And in 2015, Murdoch’s British businesses appointed a new chief executive: Rebekah Brooks. She remains in post to this day; Tina Brown recently described her as an “unknown force” in Murdoch’s global empire.

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Meanwhile, Leveson’s ambitions for a deeper structural overhaul of the British print-media landscape—with Murdoch titles at its core—were also largely thwarted. Speaking on a 2021 panel discussion about Leveson’s legacy, Alan Rusbridger, who edited The Guardian at the time, said that the immediate aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal felt like an “Arab Spring” moment for the British press, but that the feeling quickly faded; speaking on the same panel, Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who broke open the story, said he felt that his reporting achieved “nothing significant.” Davies had anticipated that Leveson’s report might lead to a “decent regulator.” In the end, the principal regulator that emerged post-Leveson was not backed by law, after the bulk of major British outlets balked at what they called a slippery slope for government intervention in the press; most of them signed on to a new independent body, while others, including The Guardian, decided to essentially regulate themselves. A law aimed at incentivizing titles to sign up for an officially-approved regulator by threatening them with higher legal costs was never enforced, and is now in the process of being formally repealed. Egregious tabloid violations of privacy continue.

The phone-hacking scandal did have some important downstream consequences. At the 2021 event, Rusbridger and Davies agreed that, to the extent knowable, it stamped out overtly criminal newsgathering practices in the British press, and that it at least reset broader cultural (and legal) norms toward a greater expectation of privacy. While the main regulator that emerged post-Leveson has many critics, it is at least an improvement on the body that came before; meanwhile, a second regulator, called Impress, is Leveson-compliant and oversees more than a hundred publishers. But these are much smaller than the big beasts of British journalism. And as Davies noted, Murdoch, personally, has retained outsize political influence.

Sweeping regulatory reform is not on the table in the Dominion-Fox case, for reasons ranging from the relatively narrow claims that are legally at issue, to the US First Amendment. But it is proving damaging for Fox and Murdoch, including in ways that recall the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal in the UK. Firstly, as with the Leveson process, it has opened a rare window into behind-the-scenes machinations at a Murdoch property, via the disclosure of messages showing that various figures at Fox, including Murdoch himself, knew that Trump’s election claims were false but were scared of losing viewers. (Fox says Dominion took this evidence out of context.) In both cases, Murdoch himself has been forced to answer questions about his news operations. A recent ruling in the Dominion case makes it likelier that he will have to do so again at trial. (Fox says Murdoch isn’t relevant to the claims at issue.)

Then there’s the financial side. More than a decade later, Murdoch’s empire is still having to put money aside to settle phone-hacking lawsuitsincluding against The Sun, even though that paper has never conceded any liability. Dominion, for its part, is seeking 1.6 billion dollars in its suit against Fox; Smartmatic, a different elections firm, is demanding even more as part of its own defamation suit, which has moved forward even as media attention has largely fixated on the Dominion case. Murdoch is notoriously obsessed with his bottom line.

It’s still unclear, though, whether Fox will have to pay more than legal fees in the Dominion and Smartmatic cases, and if so, how much. Whatever the verdict, it is, clearly, inconceivable that Murdoch would shutter Fox, as he did the News of the World. And Tucker Carlson’s recent January 6 coverage, to cite one example, does not offer hope for a change of tone.

For all their differences, neither the phone-hacking nor the Dominion case were ever likely to be unsurvivable for Murdoch because of the degree of financial and political power that he has been allowed to accumulate, in both the US and the UK. This was a key reason that Leveson did not prove a watershed moment in changing the power dynamics of the British press. And why Dominion may not fundamentally restructure the American media landscape either.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.