In February 2008, two newspapermen debated on Today, the BBC radio program that starts the day and sometimes sets the political agenda. One was Nick Davies, a Guardian reporter of the good old-fashioned kind who diligently ferrets out stories, the latest of which was “phone hacking,” by journalists and others. There had been rumors of tabloid reporters clandestinely accessing voicemails on the mobile telephones of public figures well before something happened to the cell phones of the young princes William and Harry in late 2005. Numerous messages on their cell phones and those of several royal aides were mysteriously saved as if they had been listened to, before the owners of the phones had heard them. And stories about the princes that could only have been based on those messages had appeared in the Sunday News of the World, and also in the daily Sun, the two papers that Rupert Murdoch had acquired, in 1968 and 1969, at the start of his astonishing career as a British press magnate.
When the police were informed, they said the cell phones should continue to be used as normal while they traced the hacking callers, who proved to be Clive Goodman, a News of the World reporter, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator. In January 2007 they were given prison sentences, and Andy Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World. He had edited the paper since 2003 when he took over from Rebekah Wade, who herself had been made editor in 2000 aged only thirty-two, and then went on to edit the Sun; in 2009 she would be raised higher still to become chief executive of News International, Murdoch’s company that controls his London papers. (Since her marriage that year she has called herself Rebekah Brooks.) But Coulson was not out of work for long: only months later, in July, he was appointed director of communications, or what we used to call a press officer, to David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party.
This hacking scandal was among the subjects Davies had discussed in his book Flat Earth News (2008), an indictment of the present-day media ranging from the tendency to treat publicity handouts as hard news to the shameful credulity of much of the press about the way we were taken into the Iraq war. He had come on the radio to discuss his book with Stuart Kuttner, managing editor of the News of the World. Since the scandal erupted, Kuttner’s paper, and News International as a whole, had stuck to a line: Clive Goodman had been a lone miscreant, a “rogue reporter” whose activities were in no way characteristic of the paper. Kuttner contemptuously dismissed Davies and his “sour and gloomy” book, insisted that the British press was “the finest in the world,” and reiterated that hacking had “happened once”: the offender had been sacked and jailed, and that was the end of the matter.
Later that morning, as if in a thriller, Davies received a call from a stranger. He was someone very well placed within News International who had heard the program and been outraged by Kuttner’s arrogance. What Kuttner had said was completely false, the caller told Davies: not only had Goodman himself hacked cell phones on a vast scale, the practice was rife throughout the News of the World. Stimulated by the call, Davies renewed his sleuthing. The “rogue reporter” defense had never seemed very plausible, but it now began to unravel—and News International was fighting a desperate rearguard action in a way that contradicted its protestations of innocence.
As more people learned they had been victims of hacking they began to sue, and were privately offered compensation. Only months after Kuttner’s bluster, Gordon Taylor, head of the soccer players’ union, accepted a payment of £450,000, and £250,000 in legal costs, on condition of confidentiality, and the silence of other victims was also bought. That was all very well but if there were scores of victims, then buying them off at that rate would be ruinous for News International—or for News Corporation, Murdoch’s American parent company, whose investors had never shared his love of the London newspapers.
A parliamentary committee was investigating the question and began to suspect that it had been misled, suspicions not stilled by Coulson’s repeating in 2009 that he had “no recollection” of hacking while he was editor. Davies continued to dig away, encouraged by the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger, who had joined the paper on the same day as Davies in 1979 and had edited it since 1995.
Then Rusbridger adroitly opened an offensive on another front by urging Bill Keller, his opposite number at The New York Times, to look into the hacking story. In Dial M for Murdoch, a useful account, albeit written in a tabloid style that seems ironically to be infectious, by Tom Watson, a Labour MP, and Martin Hickman, a reporter on the Independent, the authors artlessly say that this was “a strong story for a liberal American paper” because of “the Manhattanite Rupert Murdoch.” They don’t mention the fact that Murdoch had acquired The Wall Street Journal in 2007 and set it in direct competition with the Times. That looked like another healthy motive for Keller to pursue the story, just as the Guardian’s zeal would naturally have been increased by its rivalry with Murdoch’s London Times, and why not?
A long piece, “Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond,” appeared in The New York Times Magazine in September 2010, and sent shock waves across the Atlantic with its details of how widespread hacking had been. The damning evidence included an e-mail from Ross Hindley, a News of the World journalist, to Neville Thurlbeck, the paper’s chief reporter, containing “the transcript of hacked messages that had been sent by a reporter at the paper.” This was clear evidence that earlier News International denials of innocence or ignorance were false. Four months earlier, in May 2010, the British general election had left David Cameron and the Conservatives with the largest number of seats in Parliament but short of a majority. Cameron became prime minister after forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats—and brought Coulson with him to Number 10. Coulson left Downing Street only in January 2011, months before the great explosion.
On June 15, 2011, Rupert Murdoch gave his usual lavish summer party where the many senior political guests included Cameron and Ed Miliband, the Labour leader. Three weeks later, on July 5, the Guardian published its most devastating story to date. Milly Dowler was a thirteen-year-old girl who had been abducted in March 2002, when Rebekah Brooks was editor of the News of the World. As it tragically proved, Milly had been murdered; but while her fate was unknown and the police were trying to find her, News of the World reporters had hacked her cell phone. More than that, Davies claimed that “deleted voicemails gave family false hope”: learning that her voicemails had been deleted, presumably by Milly herself, led her family to believe that she might still be alive. In fact the report of this “false hope” proved to be wrong, something that the Guardian could have been quicker to admit, since it was an error in good faith.
But that did it. Murdoch thought that only a melodramatic gesture could staunch the wound. Two days later came the startling announcement that the News of the World was being folded after 168 years, and more than four decades of Murdoch’s ownership. Brooks said that she was staying put, but others demurred. Although Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Alsaud is scarcely a name to conjure with in Fleet Street or Westminster, the Saudi prince happens to be the second-largest investor in News Corp. He told the BBC that Brooks should resign from News International, and so she did the next day, while Cameron announced that an inquiry into the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal would be held under Lord Justice Leveson, examining “the culture, practice and ethics of the media.”
All this came at a very bad moment for Murdoch. With his usual commercial acuity he had early grasped the possibilities of satellite television, which had proved immensely profitable, a contrast indeed to his newspapers nowadays. Murdoch owns 39 percent of the BSkyB broadcasting company and wanted to acquire it outright, to which end much private pressure was exerted: James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, admitted that he had a “tiny side conversation,” presumably about BSkyB, with Cameron at Rebekah Brooks’s house on December 23, 2010. But the public outrage of last summer meant that Murdoch had to drop his pursuit of BSkyB, for the time being at least.
Meantime the parliamentary committee summoned Rupert Murdoch and his son James. Rupert said that it was “the most humble day of my life,” while Tom Watson, a member of the committee—and later the coauthor of Dial M for Murdoch—called James a mafia boss to his face. This spring the committee produced a damning report on News International, saying that Murdoch was not “fit” to run the company. Then on May 11, Brooks appeared before the Leveson inquiry, and was strikingly composed, while giving evidence that Cameron cannot have enjoyed. Five days later came the electrifying news that Brooks and her husband and four former colleagues were being charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by removing materials pertinent to police investigations. This is a much more grave offense than phone hacking.
By now the affair could scarcely be more serious. One police unit investigating phone hacking has made twenty-two arrests, another investigating computer hacking has made three arrests, a third investigating illegal payments to public officials has made twenty arrests. It looks as though one more investigation will be needed, into the interpenetration of News International and the Metropolitan Police itself. This relationship, and the alleged payments to officials, have sent shivers down some spines at News Corp, since such behavior would appear to be just what Congress had in mind when it passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
And yet, however lurid and squalid all this is, most frightening of all is what we have learned about the almost symbiotically intimate relationship between Murdoch and successive British governments.
But perhaps the story begins in 1915. Turkey had entered the Great War on the German side and, in an unlikely attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front, British and Australian troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula west of Constantinople. One of the landings was at Anzac Cove, from “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,” and Australia still marks Anzac Day as its national day of remembrance. The disastrous enterprise ended the following January, leaving behind 46,000 Allied dead, among them 8,700 Australians. A young Australian journalist named Keith Murdoch had visited Anzac Cove and come away with a story of gross military incompetence by the British high command, which shook the London government; his son Rupert cited “Gallipoli” with pride, as if it were his last talisman of honor, when facing the parliamentary committee.
Sir Keith, as he became, went on to a successful career in newspapers, and ended by owning the Adelaide News. Rupert was born in 1931 and brought up in Australia, although he finished his education at Oxford, where he kept a bust of Lenin in his room. He was only twenty-one when his father died and he took over the paper rather like the youthful Charles Foster Kane took over the Inquirer. Soon displaying a business flair of his own, Murdoch rapidly expanded to acquire more papers across Australia. Then London hove into view. In 1968 Murdoch pinched what Dwight Macdonald had once called “that malformed colossus of the British press, The News of the World” from under the nose of the shady and sinister Robert Maxwell, and then the next year outwitted him again to buy the Sun.
This was the relic of the Daily Herald, a paper that had originally belonged to the Labour Party and the unions. For a time in the 1930s the Herald engaged in a vigorous circulation war with the Daily Express and Daily Mail and sold more than two million copies a day, but it was a shadow of itself by 1964, when it was downmarketed again and relaunched as the Sun, without success. So Murdoch bought it, promising that it would continue to support Labour, although later remarking that “I am constantly amazed at the ease with which I entered British newspapers.” One of the best sources for this story is the biography of Murdoch by William Shawcross originally published in 1992. A sometime scourge of the abuse of power by Nixon and Kissinger, Shawcross seems to have become infatuated by Murdoch, and now, for reasons best known to himself, defends him tirelessly.1
And yet the curious thing about his admiring biography, apart from the fact that it is better written than Dial M for Murdoch, is that if you read it attentively you learn the truth about a seemingly endless catalog of broken promises and undertakings. The Sun became shriller and more vulgar, introducing the topless “Page Three girls,” and by 1979 it shouted “VOTE TORY THIS TIME.” That election was won by Mrs. Thatcher and her party, and from then on she and Murdoch sang in harmony. In 1981, Murdoch acquired the Times and Sunday Times. The sale should have been referred to the body regulating monopolies, but this was waived on a legal fiction by the responsible minister, the late John Biffen, who was on the whole one of the more likable and decent Tories of his time. Only recently have we learned that Murdoch privately lunched with Mrs. Thatcher before Biffen issued his waiver.
In the following year the Falklands war allowed the Sun to display a character not seen before in British journalism. The sinking of an Argentine warship with heavy loss of life produced the headline “GOTCHA,” and the BBC’s objective reporting was denounced with the words, “There are traitors in our midst.”
Murdoch’s own attitude toward journalistic standards and factual accuracy was highlighted by the farcical episode of the forged “Hitler diaries” in 1983. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, by now Lord Dacre, had remained a director of Times Newspapers, although he deplored Murdoch. He was instructed to examine the “diaries” and, in a foolish moment he ever after regretted, pronounced them authentic. He had second thoughts and said so to the editor of the Sunday Times just as it was going to press with the “diaries.” When the scholar’s misgivings were relayed to the proprietor, Murdoch immortally replied, “Fuck Dacre. Publish.” He was impenitent when the grotesque imposture was exposed: “We are in the entertainment business,” he said.
So far this may sound like a conventional bill of indictment against Murdoch, but there is more to it. In 1986 came the Wapping putsch. For years the Fleet Street printers had run a kind of protection racket, which had made rational and profitable newspaper production impossible. After fruitless attempts to find compromise ended in a strike, Murdoch’s papers were moved bodily at dead of night to a new plant at Wapping (a hideous building erected after the Thatcher government had, with characteristic philistinism, given permission for the demolition of handsome Georgian warehouses on the site) and they were produced there without unionized printers. We have just been told by Andrew Neil, who was then editor of the Sunday Times, that Thatcher privately promised Murdoch sufficient police protection to keep the papers coming out in the face of sometimes violent picketing, which helped ensure Murdoch a total victory.
At the time I worked daily, and amicably, with the printers at the Evening Standard. I thought then and think now that Murdoch was right. So did others. The London correspondent of The New York Times was then Joseph Lelyveld, later editor. He gave an evenhanded account, saying that Murdoch had acted with extreme ruthlessness but correctly reported the prevailing opinion that the printers had it coming. And the effects of Wapping were beneficial for the whole London press, freed from antiquated production methods and gross overmanning. What newspapers did with their new freedom was another matter.
The Sun went on its way, with front-page headlines such as “UP YOURS DELORS” (Jacques Delors was then president of the European Commission). General elections brought out something special. On election day in 1983, the Sun had published a photograph of Michael Foot, the Labour leader, and the headline “Do You Really Want This Old Fool To Run Britain?” Nine years later the Labour leader was Neil Kinnock, and the Sun’s election day headline in 1992 read: “If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Out the Lights.”
When Murdoch gave evidence to the Leveson hearing in April, he said that he had been delighted by that Kinnock headline, but enraged by another front page heading shortly afterward: “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT.” Amid general surprise at the ease with which, during the recession of 1992, the fractious Tories led by the much-derided John Major had won a clear victory at that election, Alistair McAlpine, a genial businessman who had been a fund-raiser for Mrs. Thatcher, said off the cuff that they owed their victory to the support of the tabloids. Hence that headline, and hence Murdoch’s annoyance. If he is going to exercise the kind of influence he does, it must be discreet, and not a matter for boasting.
At least there was no bad faith in Murdoch’s connection with Thatcher, since they were on the same side: his union-busting at Wapping was a microcosm of “Thatcherism.” Tony Blair was another matter. In 1995, the year after his election as leader of a party whose very name betokens its origin as the politicized voice of organized labor, he went to address Murdoch’s corporate meeting in Australia, giving a speech that made it clear that he stood well to the right of any previous Labour leader. The Sun duly supported Blair through three general elections, and the Times became a veritable mouthpiece for Downing Street. Alastair Campbell, formerly Blair’s communications director, has told the Leveson inquiry that no deals were ever cut between Blair and Murdoch, but then Campbell—who stage-managed Blair’s claims that Saddam Hussein had WMDs—is a man who was described many years ago by a High Court judge as “less than completely open and frank.”
To the contrary, there were quite obviously many informal deals. Not least, Blair spoke regularly before the Iraq invasion to Murdoch, who enthusiastically supported the war. Murdoch owns scores of newspapers on four different continents, all but one of which appear to have endorsed the invasion; a place of honor should always be kept for the dissenting Murdoch paper, the Post-Courier of Papua New Guinea.
Then in the summer of 2004 Blair performed a bewildering volte-face when he suddenly announced, to the horror of his supporters, that there would be a referendum on the European Constitution. This was a sop to the Europhobe Murdoch, to ensure the Sun’s continuing support at the election due the next spring. Murdoch told Leveson that he had never once asked a favor of any prime minister. Outrageous as that sounds, it might be true. As Orwell said, a dog can be trained to jump at the crack of a whip, but the really well-trained dog jumps without the whip. Murdoch did not have to beseech politicians; they came to him, desperate for his support.
So it was with Cameron. However sordid much of the hacking story has been, the single most breathtaking episode remains his appointment of Coulson after he resigned from the News of the World, following the conviction of his reporter for hacking. Cameron was encouraged in this by George Osborne, now chancellor of the exchequer, and applauded in newspapers not owned by Murdoch. “Over the past fortnight, Mr Cameron’s share price has wobbled in the markets,” wrote Matthew d’Ancona—a former editor of the Spectator, not to say a former fellow of All Souls—in the Sunday Telegraph,
but it recovered strongly on Thursday as the party announced the hiring of Andy Coulson…. This is an unalloyed coup for the Tories, as Mr Coulson is one of the most formidable journalists of his generation, combining a sharp tabloid eye with a keen political intellect.”2
Who was this “formidable journalist”? Having earlier written the Sun showbiz column “Andy Coulson’s Bizarre,” he had made a specialty of asking people, including Tony and Cherie Blair, about their sex lives, and he had just been forced to resign as editor of a semipornographic tabloid. Cameron and Osborne, conscious of their own moneyed background and expensive education, may well have thought they could use a media adviser who understood the common people; but there was a strong suspicion that they also wanted a direct liaison officer with Murdoch.
A puzzle remains. Why did the News of the World editors and the News International executives persist in a denial they knew to be false when it was obvious that, the longer they persisted, the more damaging the effect would be if the truth emerged? The answer must be that long experience had conditioned them to think that News International enjoyed special immunity, conferred by politicians and also by the police, and that they could get away with it. After all, they had got away with everything else for so long, thanks to Murdoch’s aura of invincibility and the way that successive governments had been hypnotized by him.
We have learned one truly revealing intimation of this aura and hypnotic effect. When Cameron became prime minister in May 2010, he received private warnings, from Rusbridger and from Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, about the shadows hanging over Coulson, beyond the hacking scandal, but he still brought him into Downing Street—without, we now know, having him immediately subjected to the highest level of security vetting.
And Cameron continued to treat Rebekah Brooks as a valued friend, riding with her husband, dining at their house, and frequently sending her chummy texts. Her perky evidence to Leveson was very damaging to Cameron, not least her revelation that his texts were signed “LOL” until she explained that this did not mean, as he thought, “lots of love” but “laugh out loud.” Two more of Cameron’s inner circle are William Hague, the foreign secretary, who for some time was paid, inexplicably, around £200,000 a year to write a column for the News of the World, and Michael Gove, the education secretary, who used to work for the Times, as his wife still does. As recently as February, Gove used a speech to parliamentary journalists to attack the Leveson inquiry as a “cure worse than the original disease,” which would have a “chilling” effect on journalism.
In November 2007, months after the bullying but inept Gordon Brown had taken over as prime minister, the Commons erupted with laughter when Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat MP, said that they had witnessed Brown’s “remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr. Bean.” Three years later Cable was business secretary in the coalition government but was the victim of a nasty piece of entrapment by the Daily Telegraph when female reporters posing as his constituents lured him into saying, “I have declared war on Mr Murdoch.” After that he was relieved of oversight of BSkyB, which passed to Jeremy Hunt, a Tory minister, only for Hunt’s special adviser to resign this year after he was shown to have been exchanging information with BSkyB.
Behind all this is the great awe, or plain fear, Murdoch inspires, which has shaped our national life for a generation. In her testimony to Leveson, Brooks said that she was “elected” by her readers, which is cute but silly and offensive. No one elects tabloid editors. She also said at one point, with fascinating self-importance, that “we needed to get the Welfare Bill through,” as though the News International tabloids were a branch of government—and to be sure, that is the way they have been treated. Murdoch’s own objections to the headline aside, to say that it was the Sun wot won it is almost certainly untrue.
Much academic research has confirmed my own instinct that newspapers do not in fact decide the results of elections. But politicians believe they do, and that is what empowers Murdoch. Successive party leaders and prime ministers have thought that they could be elected, and then govern, only with his consent. A former Blair aide said that they always felt at Downing Street as though Murdoch were the invisible twenty-fifth presence at the Cabinet table; and the recent conduct of Cameron, Hague, Gove, and Hunt has conveyed the strong impression that Her Majesty’s Government is a subsidiary of News International.
Quite apart from the benefits to all newspapers of the Wapping putsch, “Murdochia” is not simply a monolithic evil empire. Even Fox Television gave us the glorious achievement that is The Simpsons and Sky Sports has no more devoted, or addicted, viewer than this writer, who was only one of several hundred million people from England to Brazil to China watching the climax to the English soccer season, with Manchester City winning the pennant in the dying seconds. The admirable Times Literary Supplement remains the piano player in Murdoch’s London bordello, while The Wall Street Journal has continued its tradition of scrupulously objective reporting (on its news pages, at least) while covering the News International story, and Sky News, the British channel, has been exemplary in reporting on Leveson.
There is a final defense of Murdoch: if he has enjoyed the kind of sway he has, then the blame lies not with him but with the democratically elected leaders who have truckled to him. Now they, even Cameron and his unimpressive entourage, must realize that the game is up for this extraordinary old man. Whatever happens to Brooks and the other defendants, or however long it takes the despondent investors of News Corp to be rid of the toxic London papers, the spell is broken. Rupert Murdoch has gone from Svengali to Tar Baby, sticky and tainting to the touch. Cameron thought he was going to profit from his closeness to the great magnate; it could yet finish his prime ministership, with “laugh out loud” as his political epitaph.
—May 22, 2012