THE phone-hacking scandal has been the best of times and the worst of times for both journalism and democracy. It was five years of stubborn, upright investigation by the The Guardian that exposed the vicious, grubby tactics of the News of the World. Now Britain, shamed by the exposure of many of its leaders as craven and corrupted, has vowed to restore the integrity of its political system.
But for Rupert Murdoch there has been nothing but trouble as he tried to stare down what might turn out, in hindsight, to be his Citizen Kane moment — the point when his dreams turn to ashes.
It has been a long time coming.
The British establishment donned the bovver boots with grace, with MPs this week turning on a brilliant show of rhetoric over highfalutin principles that few publicly gave a toss about a week before. But beneath it all flowed a long-dammed torrent of venom towards the Australian interloper they call “the Dirty Digger”.
Murdoch is being likened in the broadsheet press — the parts of it he doesn’t own — to the Arab dictators being overthrown because of abuse of power. Labour peer David Puttnam said Murdoch papers were like the Stasi. Andreas Whittam Smith, founder of The Independent, suggested Murdoch had begun to pose a threat to British society something like the Mafia in Italy. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee said the push to take on Murdoch broke Britain’s “omerta” (the Mafia code of silence).
How did the boy from Oz earn such fear and loathing? His critics say it is because he abused his power as a media baron to manipulate the political process and intimidate those within it.
Some analysts pinpoint the start of it all to 1992. Labour had been expected to win an election led by Neil Kinnock. Murdoch papers campaigned against him, with The Sun saying on election day: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” When he lost, the paper declared: “It’s The Sun wot won it.”
An alarmed Labour Party sought to disarm its new enemy and the Conservatives were not far behind. The links between the empire and politicians on both sides have been strong. Former prime minister Gordon Brown, this week so scathing of The Sun’s treatment of the news of his baby son’s cystic fibrosis, was among those currying favour — and his wife Sarah reportedly helped organise the 40th birthday party of Rebekah Brooks, the head of News International who resigned yesterday. Former prime minister Tony Blair is reported to have had regular private meetings and phone calls with Murdoch. It has been claimed Murdoch rang Blair encouraging him to join the invasion of Iraq.
Writes Marina Hyde of The Guardian, who describes herself as “a recovering Murdoch employee”: “Rupert Murdoch was the only figure powerful enough to be able to state explicitly, without consequence, that he was backing war on Iraq to bring down the price of oil. So his ‘free press’ all cheer-led for said war . . .
“The whitewashing report into the death of a scientist who questioned the basis for that war was mysteriously linked to Murdoch’s papers . . . while others in his pay hacked the phones and emails of those casualties of war being repatriated in body bags, to be monetised as stories all over again . . . This is a land where a change in prime ministers constitutes the mere shuffling of Rupert’s junior personnel.”
It is claimed that those who refused to play the game or who fell into disfavour were often punished. An MP who declined to back a NoTW campaign initiated by Brooks to name and shame paedophiles was then targeted by one of the paper’s private detectives who searched for him on a police database, The Guardian reports. He was one of a string of Labour leaders and MPs allegedly campaigned against.
Last month Cameron and Opposition Leader Ed Miliband attended Murdoch’s annual summer party in London. Cameron is also reported to have visited Murdoch in his yacht off the coast of Greece in 2008. Before the scandal broke, he was friends with Brooks and with Andy Coulson, the editor who presided over the News of the World during its phone-hacking phase, but whom Cameron nevertheless hired as his media adviser.
“Politicians were too busy feeding bananas to the tabloid gorilla to notice it was crapping on the carpet,” wrote Michael White in The Guardian.
Now the leaders are channelling Pontius Pilate, washing the suddenly visible Murdoch taint from their hands and trying to work out whose “execution” would best fit their purpose. The political row has been presented as a grand defence of democracy but it is also a Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest. It’s just that since the news broke about phone-hacking of bereaved families, enraging the public, the political definition of “fittest” has been transformed.
For his wit in perceiving where that might lead, the points are with Miliband, who took a bold risk that forced Cameron into a humiliating series of back-steps. But every move by each of them has been made in self-interest as they sniffed the changing wind. Democracy? Or hypocrisy? Perhaps both.
Even when he was at risk of bankruptcy in the 1990s, Rupert Murdoch was never so besieged. His bid for cable-TV station BSkyB is withdrawn, maybe forever. He and his son and Brooks have been summonsed by the House of Commons to give evidence. His company faces investigations on both sides of the Atlantic. The succession of James is now problematic. Some investors have called for the Murdoch family to relinquish its dominance of News Corp.
And a call from Citizen Murdoch will never again be received in quite the same way.First published in The Age.