Posted: 2011 July 13, Wednesday 16:40
By George Merlis
Scott Osborne, a TV journalist with whom I’ve worked sent me this e-mail: “Can’t wait for your take on Murdoch’s Watergate. I mean it. Seriously. Take the pencil out of those clenched teeth and let him have it!”
Okay, this one’s for you, Scott. By the way, if I had my druthers, I would not write it in pencil, I’d write it with a razor blade dipped in vitriol. But those implements are unavailable to me, so I’ll just use my iMac.
Scott was echoing Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter who, with partner Bob Woodward, broke most of the Watergate scandal’s big stories. In Newsweek, Bernstein called the unfolding phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom Murdoch’s Watergate.
I have been following the scandal with near religious devotion since it broke -- largely from British soruces online -- and much as I hate to disagree with Bernstein and Osborne, I think the comparison falls short: Murdochgate is worse than Watergate.
For one thing, Watergate was a failure. As a power grab it was pretty pitiful -- and totally unnecessary since Nixon was, after all, already the president. Murdochgate, on the other hand was a monumental success until a couple of weeks ago.
On a circulation basis, Murdoch controlled more of the news that Brits read and saw than anyone else. His tabloids The News of the World and The Sun had successfully instituted a reign of informational terror over successive British governments and Murdoch was coining money while setting the national agenda. For example in three private phone conversations he personally pressured then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to join President Bush in the Iraq war.
When confronted by the industrial scale corruption, extortion, ethical lapses and influence mongering of Murdochgate, Watergate was, indeed, as President Nixon characterized it, “a second-rate burglary.”
Through systematic bribery, Murdoch’s minions have reduced vaunted Scotland Yard to a status on a par with the New Orleans Police Department. Detectives became the Murdoch empire’s errand boys. Bought-and-paid for cops turned over records and phone numbers and aborted any serious investigation of the earliest charges against Murdoch’s snoops. Corrupt cops even supplied story subjects’ exact locations to Murdoch reporters by doing unauthorized cell phone triangulation. Some cops compromised the security of the queen and royal family by turning over to Murdoch's hacks the Green Book -- the British equivalent of the Secret Service’s guidebook for protection of the President and his family.
And if that were not enough, the Murdoch’s journothugs -- the only word I can think of for them -- interfered with police investigations, including the search for a 13-year-old kidnap victim who was murdered by her abductor. Over a decade, Murdoch’s morally challenged newshounds are suspected of hacking into the voicemails of as many as 4,000 British subject, including survivors of the London transport terrorism attacks and families of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So pervasive and powerful was Murdoch that David Cameron, the current prime minister, appointed a Murdoch toady as his press secretary despite having been warned that as editor of News of the World, the toady had used the services of an ex-con private eye who was suspected of an axe murder! Cameron recently -- and unconvincingly -- claimed he hadn’t been told about that unsavory detail whereupon the Guardian -- which has been playing The Washington Post to Murdoch’s Nixon in this drama -- cited book, chapter and verse of the many approaches its editors had made to the newly-elected Cameron to warn him off the appointment.
Web site of The Guardian -- playing The Washington Post to Murdoch's Nixon.
Like the exploits of the Mafia, some of what went on in Murdochworld was abhorrent and some of it was downright funny:
First the abhorrent: Meet Rebekah Brooks, a Murdoch loyalist of the first order. She worked on News of the World and was editor of The Sun and now she heads Murdoch’s diminished print properties in the UK. (Murdoch's son, James, who runs the UK empire for his father, killed News of the World, the country’s largest circulation newspaper, doubtless thinking that the stink of scandal would be interred with the vile rag. That misjudgment cost 200 people their jobs.)
Gone, but not forgotten. The Sunday scandal sheet News of the World was deep sixed by the Murdochs in hopes of quelling the expanding phone hacking and police bribery scandal.
When Brooks ran The Sun, the paper somehow (likely illegally) obtained the medical records of the infant son of then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. Brooks phoned Brown herself and told him the paper was going to break the story, turning a private family tragedy into a public spectacle. Brown and his wife were heartbroken, but decided they wanted to control their family's story, so they beat the Sun to the punch and released news of their son’s illness to all the media. Losing the questionably-obtained scoop infuriated The Sun and it mounted a consistent campaign of hacking into Brown’s bank, insurance, real estate and tax records. Mafiosi say revenge is a dish best served cold. In the Murdoch mob, revenge is served cold and repeatedly. (I may have maligned the Mafia by comparing it to the Murdoch gang. Traditionally, the Mafia exempts wives and children from its depredations. The disregard for families and the innocent among the Murdoch minions is more Taliban than Mafia.)
Now for the funny: News of the World private investigators spied on the chief detective investigating the axe murder charges against the News of the World’s ex-con private eye. Their goal was to prove that the cop was having an affair with a prominent woman TV anchor and use that information to intimidate or discredit him. But they neglected the first rule of journalism: ask the subject and check the public records. Had they done that they would have learned that the detective was, indeed, sleeping with the woman. He was MARRIED to her.
The Mafia analogy is limited. Murdoch is more like a character out of Dickens or Trollope than out of Mario Puzo. Even the name is Dickensian -- the first four letters are the same as the first four letters in “murder” and, in England, an accused murderer is tried in “the dock.” In the novel “The Way We Live Now,” Trollope recounts a Bernie Madoff-calibre Ponzi scheme abetted by the politically ambitious, fact-bending editor of a rag called “The Evening Pulpit.” Of the paper itself, Trollope wrote: “A newspaper that wishes to make its fortune should never waste its columns and weary its readers by praising anything.” He goes on with a description of the Pulpit that fits Murdoch's tabloids with its “air of wonderful omniscience... with an ignorance hardly surpassed by its arrogance. But the writing was clever, the facts, if not true, were well invented; the arguments, if not logical, were seductive.”
In the novels of Dickens and Trollope villains come to grief. The news that Murdoch has dropped his multi-billion dollar bid to take over full control of BSkyB, Britain’s largest satellite broadcaster, is grievous and financially costly to him. It is also likely the first of many chickens that will come home to roost. It’s a safe bet that people -- perhaps Murdoch’s son, James, among them -- will be jailed in the UK for bribery, perjury and other felonies and that companies will be fined. In a case of collateral damage, other British media may pay a price for Murdoch’s casual ethics; there is a danger that press freedom may be legislatively curtailed. The UK has no First Amendment, as we do, so Murdoch's lasting legacy may be censorship and/or government oversight of the British media.
There could be criminal charges on this side of the pond, too. On the face of it, bribing government officials (the Metropolitan Police) looks like a violation of the 1977 U.S. Corrupt Practices Act. The U.S. political sphere has been as spineless so far as David Cameron. As of this writing (July 13) in a sublime irony, the great grandson of one of America’s original robber barons, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, is the only national politician who has called for a probe to see if Murdoch’s U.S. properties are guilty of similar high crimes and low ethics.
Much the way U.S.-owned vessels fly “flags of convenience” by registering in Panama or Liberia, the Australian-born Murdoch adopted U.S. citizenship for business reasons: only a citizen could hold the licenses of the Fox network’s owned and operated broadcast TV stations. If he were convicted of a felony here, could he -- like mobster Lucky Luciano -- be stripped of his citizenship and deported? Legally, yes. Practically, not very likely.
The Murdoch-controlled media reaction is interesting. In Britain, the police charge that his journals are leaking facts of the investigation to other outlets in order to undermine the probe. In the U.S. Murdoch’s influence has contributed to the polarization of our political dialog but has not given him anywhere near the power he enjoyed in the UK, despite the fact that a good half dozen active politicians are on his payroll -- some of them for seven-figure consulting fees others as performers on Fox News. Among his outlets here, there has been a pattern of avoidance regarding the U.K. scandal. Fox News and the New York Post have treated the story as a business yarn, granting it minimal coverage in out-of-the-way spots.
The very first edition of The Wall Street Journal, now the jewel in Murdoch’s newspaper crown. He bought the family-owned paper in 2007 for $5 billion.
The Wall Street Journal's considerable journalistic credibility is at stake in its coverage of this story. The set-up is not promising: the WSJ’s publisher is a former underboss of Murdoch's British media mob. In fact, he was once publisher of the notorious News of the World. When Murdoch bought the Journal, he complained that the stories were too long. Well, they remain long and he may think that’s a good thing now because it enables the paper to bury the fact that News of the World is owned by Murdoch three paragraphs up from the end of a twenty-paragraph story, where it will likely go unread. As the muck got deeper, a Journal editorial page columnist wrote a piece that tried to evade corporate responsibility for the scandal: “The tabloid excess on display here, we dare to suggest, is the British public's, for its acceptance of the tabloid proposition that movie stars, politicians and anybody deemed a celebrity has no rights—only supposed "real" people have rights.... Of course, as with all truly interesting phenomena, pundits now are trying to banalize the scandal by reducing it to one man, one company, one hobby- horse. Don't buy it.” Note that the one man and the one company are not even named! On another count, this is a classic dodge, like blaming a robbery victim for having had the bad judgment to buy jewelry.
The ultimate question is not what Murdoch knew and when did he know it. The buck stops at Murdoch’s desk whether he knew the nitty gritty details or just the broad strokes. And it is inconceivable he did not have at hand the broad strokes at very least; there is no way that the corruption was confined to the lower levels of the corporation. Anyone who has ever worked on a newspaper or for a TV news operation knows that low level people can’t spend the sort of money the journothugs were dispensing without getting a green light from the powers-that-be.
Case in point: Years ago I worked on an afternoon newspaper in New York where it was mandatory to get permission from the city editor to take a cab instead of a subway or bus to a story. In Murdoch's UK tabloid world, multiple private detectives were on six-figure yearly retainers and cops were being handed big payoffs to compromise investigations and reveal private details about the royals and civilians. Reporters and middle management don’t, can’t and won’t independently authorize expenditures like those.
The single best source for full details of this scandal is the Guardian newspaper, www.guardian.co.uk. Its coverage, especially that of reporter Nick Davies who has dug into the story for years, is Pulitzer-worthy, although that won’t happen because the Pulitzers are given only to American publications.
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