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The Truth About Murdoch

Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
Rupert Murdoch, 1988

Along with the other media he has mastered, from tabloids to satellite television, Rupert Murdoch has recently taken to Twitter. On February 15, he tweeted, “To hell with politicians! When are we going to find some to tell the truth in any country? Don’t hold your breath.” His words remind us yet again that Murdoch is a man of iron nerve, not say brass neck, though they might also suggest a degree of delusion. Throughout his career, every time he has come near calamity, that gambler’s strong nerve has always somehow managed to rescue him. But the concatenation of scandal and disaster that has now engulfed his News International group—which owns the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World as well as the London Times and other papers—is of a different order. The first stories about phone-hacking have proved to be merely the start, and every time Murdoch has appeared to regain the upper hand, new revelations have only deepened the crisis.

On Sunday, February 26, Murdoch tweeted, “Miracles do happen! Sun shining in London,” and beamed as he picked from the press the first copies of the Sun on Sunday, his “new” tabloid. The very next day, the gravest accusation yet against News International was heard at the Leveson Inquiry, the public investigation into media standards set up by the British government last summer: that the Murdoch group had made regular payments to a “corrupted” network of public officials.

Then on Monday March 12, Murdoch attended the funeral on Long Island of Marie Colvin, the heroic and much-loved correspondent of his Sunday Times who was killed reporting from Syria, and he may have even felt a little reflected glory. But the very next day came the arrests of Rebekah Brooks—a news executive so prized by Murdoch that he treated her like a surrogate daughter—together with her husband and four News International staff. Brooks, who had been successively editor of the News of the World and the Sun and then Chief Executive Officer of News International, was held on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. She and her husband and three of the four others were later released on bail, in an episode acutely embarrassing for David Cameron, the prime minister, who knows Brooks personally, as well as for Murdoch.

Ever since the discovery that journalists on the News of the World had been hacking cell phone messages, desperate defensive measures have been taken by News International, from millions of dollars of payments (at first in confidence) to victims of hacking to the melodramatic closure of the News of the World last July to Murdoch’s “humble” appearance before a parliamentary inquiry. As one more gesture, the company set up a so-called Management and Standards Committee, which has been co-operating with the police to the extent of handing over hundreds of millions of staff emails.

In late January and early February ten senior Sun journalists were arrested, including the executive editor and the joint deputy editor. This provoked an internal revolt, with the company publicly denounced by Kelvin MacKenzie, who was editor of the Sun from 1981 to 1994, Richard Littlejohn, a former Sun columnist, and Trevor Kavanagh, who was political editor of the Sun for more than twenty years. All have complained bitterly in print about the “witch hunt” within what Kavanagh calls the “the News International ‘family.’”

And yet those bleats were heard amid still graver charges. It was Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, a senior officer at the Metropolitan Police, who told the Leveson panel that News International has built a “network of corrupted officials,” not only in the police but in the military and government service, suborned by payments that had been “regular, frequent, and sometimes involved significant sums of money.” Two days after she spoke, James Murdoch, Rupert’s inadequate son, resigned as head of News International; he returned to News Corp, the central Murdoch business in New York, although not to a warm welcome. Every single American who works for, or invests in, News Corp, beginning with its president, Chase Carey, would love to be divested of the London papers, which provided a tiny fraction of profits and a huge amount of grief—even before the latest excruciating developments.

Even as the scandal becomes ever more lurid, Murdoch, his papers, and his journalists still have defenders beyond that “family.” Charles Moore, the former editor of the Tory Daily Telegraph, tells us that “I like and admire” Kavanagh, and Simon Jenkins (a sometime Murdoch editor) says in the Guardian that “It would be sad if the Sun, which for over a third of a century has mischievously challenged the older-established press, were to go.” We can come back to what that “mischief” actually means.

It’s now more than four decades since Murdoch’s explosive arrival in London, when he acquired the News of the World. A year later, in 1969, he pinched the Sun from under the nose of Robert Maxwell, promising the existing owners that it would be a “straightforward, honest newspaper” which would continue the paper’s traditional support for Labour. With Murdoch’s flair for forgetting promises, the Sun quickly set new standards in stridency, salacity, mendacity, vulgarity and plain cruelty, while switching gleefully to supporting the Tories and Margaret Thatcher. It stuck with the Tories until John Major’s star fell and Tony Blair’s rose, with Blair ready to go to any lengths to gain Murdoch’s support, a pattern Cameron has followed.

In private, Murdoch can be charming and generous. The radical journalist Bruce Page, himself Australian, reminds us of personal acts of kindness, and says that there is much to be said for Murdoch the man (adding that there is nothing to be said for Murdoch the proprietor). I happen to know about an editor on one Murdoch paper in London, a gifted and popular writer, who was stricken with an incurable wasting disease from which he has since died. When told of his condition, the Murdochs insisted that he be given the best possible treatment without regard to cost.

But the question is not whether Murdoch is a courteous and kindly private man, or a brilliantly innovative entrepreneur, or someone who has debased the media and public life. He may be all of those things. And even those who have disliked Murdoch’s papers for decades past hadn’t realized how the prevailing culture inside News International—do anything you like to get a story, and no questions asked—could lead to downright criminality.

So what of the Sun, which remains Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, and of those who make that charge of a “witch hunt”? MacKenzie was editor at the time of the Falklands war in 1982, when the paper celebrated the sinking of an Argentine cruiser with heavy loss of life under the headline GOTCHA, and of the 1983 general election, when the Sun published on its front page a photograph of Michael Foot, the leader of the Labour party, and the headline “Do You Really Want This Old Fool To Run Britain?” And in the Sun twenty years later it was Littlejohn who beat the loudest drum for the Iraq war.

Nor did the Sun’s hysterical support for Blair end there. Apart from his illegal, needless, and mendacious invasion of Iraq, Blair waged another relentless war, on individual freedom, due process, and the rule of law. This reached a climax in late 2005 with his demand for powers to detain “terrorist suspects” for ninety days without trial, an entirely gratuitous proposal abhorred by serious jurists as well as civil-liberty advocates. On November 9, Parliament recovered a little pride and independence, when forty-nine Labour MPs joined the Opposition and voted down the ninety-day proposal.

This was how the “likable and admirable” Trevor Kavanagh “mischievously” reported the parliamentary vote on the front page of the Sun the next morning , under the headline “TRAITORS”: “TREACHEROUS MPs betrayed the British people last night by rejecting new laws to combat terror.” Why should anyone regret the passing of such a paper?

Beyond the arrests in London now lurk the specters of an FBI investigation and possible prosecution of News Corp in the United States under the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act. It would be interesting to know whether the names of Murdoch and News International crop up at the latest meetings between David Cameron and Barack Obama—or the name Raisa. The whole affair has been hugely damaging for Cameron, who shared Blair’s infatuation with Murdoch and his papers to the point that hired as his media advisor Andy Coulson, another former News of the World editor who has—needless to say—also since been arrested.

While he could see the scandal erupting last July, Cameron attended the News International summer party. He had previously attended the wedding of Rebekah Wade, as she was, to Charlie Brooks, who has been a friend of Cameron’s since they were at Eton. Cameron is a country neighbor of Charlie and Rebekah Brooks in Oxfordshire and has dined at their house. And they’ve also enjoyed riding together. At the end of their careers, London police horses are farmed out to horse lovers, and in the case of one mare called Raisa it was none other than Rebekah Brooks who provided her with a home. When Cameron was hoping to talk about the European crisis at the recent Brussels summit, he found himself instead facing questions about a horse and, after repeated evasive answers, finally admitted that he had indeed ridden Raisa.

Sadly Raisa is no longer with us, but she leaves a shadow. Cameron may not be one of those “corrupted officials,” but even as he flies with the president in Air Force One and tries once more to play the statesman, a horse reminds us of his intimate connection with News International, not to say that Raisa provides an ironic reflection on Murdoch’s tweeted question about politicians: “When are we going to find someone to tell the truth?”

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