“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.”
Shakespeare. Julius Caesar.
Cassius’s aggrieved complaint against the overweening power of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome, pretty well expresses the sentiments of awe-stricken fear and subservience that until last week gripped so many members of today’s political establishment when confronted by the apparently impregnable power and reach of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Whether or not the present scandal turns out to be quite the stuff of a world-shattering Hubris/Nemesis cataclysm, remains to be seen. But there is no doubting the seriousness of the crisis facing the Godfather and his filial lieutenants. Something unimaginable just a few weeks ago is now just foreseeable: could this possibly be the beginning of the end for News Corporation, Murdoch’s multi-billion dollar media empire?
The pace of developments in the last week or so has been astonishing. On July 10, the News of the World, the tabloid Sunday newspaper at the heart of the hacking scandal, with a circulation of 2.6 million, was closed down by News International. This was probably done in an attempt to take the heat off Rebekah Brooks who had edited the paper in 2002 when a particularly egregious hacking case occurred. A week ago (July 8) it was still assumed that Murdoch’s bid to take over the 61% of BSkyB that he doesn’t already own would be successful. He has now been compelled to withdraw the bid and, given the deepening crisis arising from the hacking scandal in Britain, it is almost impossible to see how it can be revived in the foreseeable future, if at all. The fall-out from the scandal has now reached the United States, with the possibility of an FBI investigation which could turn up evidence of News International journalists attempting to hack into the cell-phones of 9/11 victims. On July 14 summonses were issued compelling Rupert and James Murdoch to attend a session of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, to answer questions under oath about criminal activities perpetrated by News International journalists, and about attempts to cover up such activities. Rebekah Brooks, who is a UK citizen and was until yesterday chief executive officer of News Corp, will also attend the session. She has just resigned as CEO.
The scale of the hacking scandal at the News of the World has shocked even those inured to the cynical amorality of tabloid journalism. In pursuit of salacious gossip and sensationalism to boost market share, “public interest” is interpreted simply to mean whatever interests readers of the News of the World and the Sun. As layer after layer of subterfuge and concealment has been stripped away in what at last looks like a serious police investigation, the stench of rot emerging from the Murdoch stables has become overpowering. The illegal phone hacking of celebrities and even members of the royal family should come as no surprise; but hacking the cell phone of an abducted child who had already been murdered, and the deletion of messages to enable the hacker to eaves-drop on the messages left by distraught parents and friends, plumbed unimaginable depths of depravity. The same practice was employed against the bereaved relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. It is revelations such as these that finally projected the hacking scandal to the forefront of media attention and turned it from the largely ignored concern of one or two “quality” broadsheets into a national and international sensation.
While it is still too early to be sure, there is reason to believe that this story is unlikely to be wound up quickly, which would enable the lid to be put back on the murky practices that have been revealed. This is because the crisis rocking Murdoch’s media empire does not stop there. It also engulfs the Metropolitan Police and, to an extent, members of the political establishment including the prime minister, David Cameron. Every prime minister since Margaret Thatcher has, to one degree or another, been beholden to Murdoch. Leaders of the Tory and Labour parties, whether in power or in opposition, have deferred to him, sought his endorsement and feared the withdrawal of his favor. His influence over the political establishment has been malign and a serious affront to democracy. The same goes for the relationship between the Murdoch press and the Metropolitan Police. Here, the lid is now being lifted on a rotten brew of corruption. From what has emerged already it is clear that a range of malpractices including bribery on a colossal scale, systematic cover-ups of criminal practices, huge cash payments to buy the silence of victims of phone hacking, collusion in the commission of crimes and deliberate withholding of evidence from the victims of crimes and serious misdemeanors. An earlier police enquiry into allegations of phone-hacking failed to reveal evidence that it was endemic at the News of the World, and simply corroborated the paper’s lies claiming that it was a case of one “rotten apple”. Now things are changing. The sheer volume of evidence and the growing numbers of victims emerging, have compelled the Met to re-open the enquiry. In the process it has become clear that collusion between the police and the News of the World went right to the top, involving high-ranking officers who have gone straight from the police service into jobs as journalists and consultants with News International. And still this is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.
The same cozy relationship has existed between the government and luminaries of News International. Andy Coulson, was editor of News of the World between 2003 and 2007. He resigned when a journalist was convicted for hacking into the phones of members of the royal family. Coulson claimed, implausibly, that he knew nothing about it. Actually the practice was rampant and obviously encouraged, if not prescribed from above. Yet Coulson was subsequently engaged by Cameron as his director of communications, a post he continued to hold after Cameron became prime minister in 2010. Anyone with any sense at all could see that Coulson must not only have known about the phone hacking which was rampant under his editorship, but must also have approved it. Yet the prime minister continued to defend him long after it became clear that the man was a duplicitous mediocrity unfit to hold any respectable office. Under the increasing weight of evidence he was forced to resign in January of this year. Cameron defended him to the bitter end and has continued to claim him as a friend even after his arrest last week. To say that this raises serious questions about Cameron’s judgment is something of an understatement. Coulson was arrested last week.
Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of the News of the World in 2002 at the time of the hacking scandal involving the murdered child, Milly Dowler, (about which she claims to have known nothing) was subsequently elevated by Murdoch to CEO of News Corp. Although described by her defenders Rupert and James Murdoch, as “an outstanding journalist of her generation”, she might be more accurately described as someone closely resembling her colleague Andy Coulson - an ambitious, duplicitous mediocrity. But then, it is people such as these that rise to the top of the pile in the Godfather’s media empire. The characteristics they must possess if they are to succeed have nothing to do with serious journalism. They are ruthless ambition, single-minded pursuit of wealth and power, cavalier disregard for the truth and unquestioning belief in their ability to manipulate public opinion to accept whatever is in the interests the corporate powers they serve. They call it good public relations.
On the 19th July – alas, too late for this column – Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks will be questioned by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee. They are availing themselves of the most expensive legal advice designed to limit the enormous damage that has already been done to the Godfather’s global interests by the NoW hacking scandal. Whatever the outcome, the big story is Murdoch’s pulling out of the BSkyB bid. This is a major reverse for him and could mark the beginning of a global melt-down. Last week it became clear that if the bid had been allowed to go to the media regulator, Ofcom, News Corp would not have been considered a “fit and proper” company to control BSkyB. Now, there are moves afoot to strip News Corp of the 31% of BSkyB Murdoch already owns. The Godfather has reason to be very worried.
In this situation the prime minister has been caught off-balance due to his close association with Coulson, Brooks and Murdoch. This has enabled Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour opposition to seize the initiative. To his credit, he has done so with alacrity and skill, thereby invigorating his leadership of the party and setting the agenda for what appears to be an extraordinary all-party united-front in opposition to Murdoch and News Corp’s ambitions in Britain.
But in most media coverage of a story that has dominated the headlines of the broadsheets and TV channels for the past two weeks, one important element has been largely missing. The hacking scandal would not have come to light had it not been for the diligent, genuinely investigative journalism of the liberal newspaper, The Guardian, which, incidentally is the only daily British newspaper to be owned by a trust (The Scott Trust). Most of the media world is dominated by global companies and billionaires. It is hardly surprising that The Guardian, along with the BBC, is a regular target of the right-wing press in Britain. One of the main reasons that so few of the other newspapers showed any interest in the revelations carried by The Guardian is that so many of them dredge their dirt from the same gutter as the NoW and The Sun. It is obviously too much to hope that the scandal now engulfing Murdoch will put an end to the practices that his media have perfected. This is the only way the tabloid press knows how to operate. The claim upon which their modus operandi is based, namely that they give the public what it wants, is as valid as drug dealers who could claim that they are simply meeting the needs of addicts.
This, of course, is Murdoch’s justification for the style and political content of his pride and joy in the U.S. - Fox News. Referring to the Godfather’s political agenda on that paragon of unbiased communication, liberal columnist Will Hutton writes in The Observer (17. July) “Mr Murdoch is apologizing this weekend for the behaviour of his papers over phone-hacking. That, as western economies totter on the precipice, is not all for which he has to apologise.”