Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is a company with a chip on its shoulder. His defy-the-establishment sensibility has built a print and television empire, to the despair of more traditional (and, Murdoch would say, elitist) rivals. But the phone-hacking scandal that now envelops one of Murdoch’s British publications shows how corrosive this style of anything-goes journalism can be.
It’s been known since 2006 that Murdoch’s News of the World published exposes of the British royal family based on illegally intercepted phone messages. But the paper, backed by Murdoch’s top lieutenants, has insisted that the hacking was the work of a single reporter and an outside consultant. The newspaper rebuffed demands for a wider investigation — aided, according to press reports, by police officials who feared their private lives would be exposed by News Corp. publications if they pursued the inquiry too aggressively.
This pyramid of denial is crumbling. The British public is outraged by reports that the hacking involved thousands of targets, including a 13-year-old murder victim, prominent politicians and law enforcement officials. The fallout has already begun: As the furor surrounding the scandal grew this week, News Corp. withdrew its bid for complete control of British Sky Broadcasting, of which it already owns a share. What’s more important, the police are now asking Murdoch’s lieutenants the question at the heart of any cover-up investigation: What did they know and when did they know it?
How much did Murdoch know? That will be a key question in British police and parliamentary inquiries in coming weeks. Murdoch is often described as a “detail man” who speaks with his top media executives several times a day. But that doesn’t mean he condoned illegal actions by others.
News Corp.’s resistance to investigation was on display last year in its response to a New York Times Magazine piece that appeared Sept. 1. The article detailed the failure of Scotland Yard to investigate the breadth of the hacking by News of the World, and quoted anonymous employees saying that Andy Coulson, the paper’s editor at the time, was aware of the phone snooping. The article also quoted a February 2010 Parliament report that accused News of the World officials of “deliberate obfuscation” in their denials.
The Murdoch camp’s reaction to the Times probe was telling: Rather than admitting error, Bill Akass, managing editor of News of the World, warned the Times sharply against publishing the article.
When the Times went ahead anyway, Akass sent an indignant letter arguing that the paper had attacked Murdoch’s publication because of the Times’ rivalry with the Wall Street Journal, News Corp.’s American flagship. “It seems to us that your investigation has always been tainted by a vested interest in its outcome which means it is in serious and multiple breach of your own ethical guidelines,” Akass argued. His aggressive letter, posted last year on the Times Web site, makes interesting reading now, in light of what has emerged.
This sense of victimization goes deep in News Corp. Executives have often responded to criticism with aggrieved indignation — arguing that opponents are elitist and out of touch with the masses. In a November 2010 speech to a conference of British editors, Akass defended his brand of tabloid journalism against the “snobbish elite,” saying that their complaints were “a kind of proxy for sneering at the working class.”
That line, denouncing critics as snobs, was vintage Murdoch. You hear the same theme when Fox News trumpets its right-leaning coverage as “fair and balanced,” even as the cable network’s commentary includes a roster of Republican presidential aspirants. Fox commentators argue that other, more traditional news organizations are out of touch with the real America. Murdoch himself complained about the “allegiance to the upper class, to the liberal attitude” of the Boston Globe when he bought the rival Boston Herald in 1982.
In the fair-and-balanced spirit, let me grant Murdoch one important point: He wouldn’t have been so successful if some of his venerable rivals hadn’t, in fact, been elitist, skewed to the left and sometimes just plain boring. Murdoch’s publications and television networks may have coarsened standards, but they are also entertaining. Being irreverent is not the problem. The media world could use more of that Murdochian energy, not less.
The trouble with the Murdoch empire is something that Alexander Hamilton, America’s wisest observer of the dangers of populist rhetoric, would have understood. News Corp.’s identification with the common man seems to have bred an arrogance and contempt for traditional rules. In the name of the masses, anything goes. Sadly, these qualities are characteristic, through history, of those who claim to speak in the name of the people and, buoyed by mass popularity, begin to cross the lines.