I’m not saying we should all feel sorry for Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who (and what a shock this must have been for all of his readers!), now that his employees have been discovered to have broken a few laws, finds himself in a spot of trouble. But he is 81, and has been conducting his scummy business for, oh, say, some 60 years. And it has taken those same six decades for Murdoch’s political allies, targets, admirers, and paylist beneficiaries to realize that maybe some of the reporters who work on his newspapers aren’t all that noble. They discovered, in other words, that there was gambling in Casablanca, and they are shocked.
Let’s examine how difficult it was for British authorities to have learned of Murdochian methodology in the past decade. In 2002, a young British kidnapping victim turned up dead. Oddly enough, however, her cell phone messages kept getting erased even while she was dead—meaning, of course, that it wasn’t the 13-year-old victim who listened to or deleted those messages. It was someone else, and by deleting those messages that someone gave the parents of the dead teenager and the police false hope that she was still alive.
As it turned out, that someone else was a private investigator hired by Murdoch’s beloved newspaper, News of the World, a rag the Australian-born tycoon had bought originally to give himself a toehold in the UK. It took, however, four years before that errant private investigator was packed off to jail—and around nine years before it was revealed that phone hacking, bribery, and blackmail were pro forma in Murdochville.
Why did it take so long to discover the obvious? (you may ask). Well, because there weren’t many people in power in the UK whom Rupert hadn’t in some way made beholden to, and/or terrified of, Rupert. The long list includes former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who strongly believes that Murdoch’s newspaper, the Sun, somehow obtained his newborn’s medical records—whereupon the world discovered the child had cystic fibrosis. As for Brown’s lawyers: they were tricked by some conman working for the Sunday Times (also owned by Murdoch) into handing over certain details on their client. The list also includes current Prime Minister David Cameron, who went riding with the flame-haired Murdoch editor, Rebekah Brooks (under whose aegis at News of the World, as Brooks herself acknowledged, policemen were bribed). And those bribes were, as we now know, reciprocal. Cameron, in fact, went riding on a horse donated to Brooks by the London police department.
And finally the list includes former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who (along with the movie stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman) is godparent to one of Murdoch’s daughters. Except that nobody outside the Murdochs and the Blairs actually knew Tony was a godfather to the Murdoch daughter until last year, when the Murdoch scandal turned serious—and Murdoch’s third wife, Wendy, let the very old news “slip,” (as the Guardian put it) to Vogue magazine. Although, personally, I’m not too sure the Murdochs have ever let anything slip, least of all their attachments to the powerful. In fact, until Vogue went to press, anyone reading Blair’s memoirs might reasonably have been under the impression that Blair loathed Murdoch. Not so much, as it turned out.
And now let’s stop examining Murdoch whose notions of journalism are (a) by no means new and (b) have, we are told, spread to the United States.
Let’s examine instead journalism itself. It has a pretty long history of shameful episodes—examples that long predate Murdoch himself. In 1898, the explosion of the Maine battleship prompted Hearst newspapers to insist, falsely, that this was undoubtedly the work of Spain. (And those inventive Hearst headlines led to the Spanish-American war). The 19th-century journalist Nellie Bly faked insanity to report on conditions in an insane asylum—which is precisely the kind of stunt most reputable news outlets today frown on. It’s a fair bet that William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer would have promoted phone hacking and e-mail snooping had those means of information gathering been available to their employees.
So what is Murdoch, really? He’s a throwback. A ruthless Casablancan gambler who generally wins. He is, as he told Parliament last week “captain of the ship”—and that ship was crafted in his own image. He was also, as he neglected to tell Parliament, operating in the UK, where libel suits are, as the late satirist Auberon Waugh once put it, “a form of second income for the average Englishman.”
And what better way to stave off a libel suit than to have chapter and verse in your pocket, in the form of a transcripted phone message on the adulterous footballer or the licentious royal?
We don’t, in other words, have to excuse Murdoch or his doings in order to understand him. He did what he felt he had to. And his underlings did what they felt he wanted them to do. And his newspapers sold and his television outlets triumphed.
Now the slobbering prime ministers, past and present, the weak-kneed politicians, the corrupt cops—they’re a whole other story. They accepted the rules of Casablanca.
Photo Credit: Monika Flueckiger, World Economic Forum