The game is up for Rupert Murdoch. The head of News Corp has held sway over Britain’s media industry for a generation. Prime ministers have feared and feted him. He has outwitted regulators and outgunned rivals. Now, suddenly, it is all unravelling. The media mogul has lost his touch. These things happen.
News International, Mr Murdoch’s London-based company, is under criminal investigation for alleged telephone hacking and illegal payments to police officers. Scotland Yard has 50 officers on the case. Executives have been accused, under the protection of parliamentary privilege of perverting the course of justice. The allegations about the activities at the tabloid News of the World have stirred a wave of public revulsion. With advertisers threatening a boycott and the prime minister endorsing calls for a public inquiry, the company has announced the closure of the best-selling 168-year-old Sunday title. It will probably re-emerge as the Sunday Sun.
Yet from his jet-set swirl of media conferences and cocktail parties in the US, the News Corp chief has inexplicably expressed personal confidence in Rebekah Brooks, the News International chief executive at the epicentre of the controversy. He has offered a few anodyne words about “deplorable” and “unacceptable” behaviour. There was a time when the businessman who built News Corp would have gripped such a crisis at the outset.
The exquisite irony is that this was supposed to have been a good week for Mr Murdoch. David Cameron’s government had been preparing to signal approval for an £8bn-plus bid allowing News Corp to buy full control of British Sky Broadcasting. The deal has been trailed as a crowning achievement for the man who pioneered satellite television; everything would be in place for the business’s eventual transfer to his son James.
Instead, had Mr Murdoch senior tuned in to his own Sky News channel he would have seen politicians of every stripe in the House of Commons venting their rage at the alleged illegal activities of his media empire. It has been known for some time that the News of the World had hacked the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and royals. The new avalanche of disclosures, however, was of an entirely different order.
Allegations that the newspaper’s surveillance extended to interference with the telephone of a murdered schoolgirl and routine interception of the intimate messages of the families of murder and terrorist victims have shocked the nation. It seems that private investigators working for the newspaper may also have tapped into the voicemail of bereaved families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despicable, heinous and disgusting are adjectives that spring most easily to mind.
News International has also acknowledged that it paid large amounts of money to police officers in return for information. Such payments are illegal. Speaking under the protection of parliamentary privilege, MPs have charged executives with lying to cover up criminal activities. Tom Watson, a former Labour minister, has accused James Murdoch and Ms Brooks of perverting the course of justice.
Watching these politicians throw bricks has been to realise that the News Corp spell has been broken. There has always been something faintly hysterical about the charge that British politics has been held helpless hostage to the Murdoch empire. He has never been as powerful as his enemies imagined. For all that, it has been instructive to watch the fears of retribution draining away; and, with them, Mr Murdoch’s power.
Mr Cameron has looked at best distinctly uncomfortable. Like his predecessors, the prime minister has been assiduous in courting Mr Murdoch. Andy Coulson, who resigned as editor of the News of the World during an earlier stage in the scandal, was until recently the Downing Street communications director. The error of judgment on Mr Cameron’s part has been compounded by a friendship with Ms Brooks. He has been making quite a habit of getting things wrong.
This week the prime minister had no option but to accept a call from the Labour leader Ed Miliband for a public inquiry into the scandal. The talk now in Number 10 is of the need to establish visible distance between the prime minister and News Corp. Mr Murdoch, one aide has been heard to say, may still get an audience with Mr Cameron – as long as he enters by the back door.
Judicious distancing, however, is not going to be enough for Mr Cameron. If there has been a common thread through the expressions of anger and outrage this week it is that Mr Murdoch’s empire represents an unhealthy concentration of media power.
Ownership of four newspapers and Britain’s second largest broadcaster is simply too much. Some Tory MPs are backing Mr Miliband’s demand that the prime minister call a halt to the BSkyB deal at the very least until all the criminal investigations are completed and a judgment can be made on whether News International is a fit and proper proprietor for the broadcaster.
Ministers insist that they must observe the legal proprietaries in examining the bid. But there is room within them for delay. A genuinely penitent company would shelve its bid unless and until its executives are exonerated of the charges of criminal activity.
Mr Murdoch can complain that the News of the World was not alone in acting illegally in pursuit of front-page scoops. Hacking into voicemails was once widespread. Other tabloids hired dodgy private investigators. So Mr Cameron’s public inquiry will have to cast its net much wider than News International.
As always, though, News International operated with a ruthlessness and on a scale that left its rivals behind. Within the industry, the News of the World was said to be “out of control”. Mr Murdoch has bungled his response at every turn. Instead of acting decisively when a dam of new allegations burst last year, he backed a failed strategy of evasion and obfuscation. Now he has run out of time. Ms Brooks is beyond saving. So, probably, is Mr Murdoch’s last big media dream. Nemesis is fast catching up with hubris.
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