Rupert Murdoch was in London last week for his company’s annual summer party, trying, you can bet, to compartmentalize his likely-to-be-successful bid for satellite television company BSkyB—a capstone of a career that has had many capstones—and the ongoing and intensifying investigation in London that could undo his career.
These same two issues will have been on the minds of many of the center and right-of-center members of the British establishment, including most of David Cameron’s cabinet, who attended the News Corp. party in Kensington Gardens: Will Rupert succeed in truly—totally and completely—dominating British media, or will he come tumbling down? The latter is only slightly less likely than the former.
While the phone hacking scandal is omnipresent in the U.K., it is a story that continues to unfold in the U.S. as though by sporadic telegraph, and always seems to require a ritual recap for the implacably unaware American audience. In sum: It is now well-documented that employees of Murdoch’s News of the World British tabloid eavesdropped on the voice mail messages of practically anybody who was anybody in Britain for the better part of the last 10 years—the most recent revelations put Kate Middleton and Tony Blair on this list—including, undoubtedly, some of the people who went to the News Corp. party. Although this might not have seemed like much of a crime while it was being committed by myriad News Corp. reporters, and sanctioned by their bosses—just hacks being hacks—it has since transmuted into a profound breach of the civil trust. And to date, each next domino in the inquest has fallen.
The informed speculation in U.K. media and political circles is about which present and former members of the top circle of News Corp. management in London will next be frog marched in front of a tribunal. In addition to company chief Rebekah Wade Brooks (who herself appears to have been hacked by NoW reporters) and her predecessor Les Hinton, who now runs The Wall Street Journal, this might naturally include Rupert’s son, James, who approved the early settlements in the case—settlements so large they could only reasonably be hush-money payoffs.
And yet the company’s largely American shareholder base remains somehow unaware or in denial about what’s happening. News Corp. faces its greatest peril since it almost went bankrupt in the early ’90s, and yet the share price holds.
This is partly because of the Rupert effect. Shareholders invest in the company as a bet on Murdoch himself. He has been in many a tight squeeze before, and part of his value is that he gets out of them. And it is partly because the U.S. media is disinclined to pursue Murdoch or to spend much time on foreign business news (in the past, The Wall Street Journal was the one paper that might be counted on to cover such stories).
And yet this really appears to be an unstoppable thing.
First, they did it. Boy, did they do it. And then they tried to cover it up. Oh, and it turns out they documented it, too. And then there is the hard-core, bedrock, long-oppressed, anti-Murdoch faction in the U.K., suddenly armed with a mighty weapon: a scandal, into its third year, that drips out week after week. There doesn’t seem like any going back to an invulnerable Rupert.
And there is a newspaper that has committed itself to this dogged and captivating pursuit. The Guardian—also the paper of WikiLeaks—is having what can only be called its Watergate moment, and its editor, the Delphic Alan Rusbridger, his Ben Bradlee moment. The newspaper film of the summer, Page One, should not be about The New York Times puzzling over its own purpose, but about The Guardian, which has no doubt about its mission. Murdoch is its unmistakable Nixon. In that, the hacking scandal is the perfect dénouement of the Murdoch career. Hacking is not at all an aberration, or a what-were-they-thinking error of judgment and strategy, but an expression of the company’s fundamental identity: It’s not just that they did it, but, more importantly, this is what they do.
News Corp., as fierce as almost any company has ever been, has nearly always had greater staying power than any of its many antagonists. And, indeed, at many points in this scandal, it seemed like News Corp. would stonewall through. But the very nature of the story, of its myriad and prominent participants, of a Murdoch backlash long thwarted, and of The Guardian‘s near soulful stewardship of the unfolding details, has meant that the scandal comes back each time with greater and greater force.
It is, frankly, an amazing story. The indomitable patriarch who will shortly be forced to plead age and infirmity; his headstrong son whose eagerness to do what his father would have done will shortly doom him; the loyalists who will unquestionably fall on their swords; an upending of the moral landscape in which the miscreants once happily functioned; and the virtuous newspaper, perhaps the last great newspaper, with a last great editor, who, long waiting for and never believing it would get such an opportunity, now has the devil in its sights.
We in America are poorer for missing out on the telling of this tale.