Last week the British public sat riveted through yet another episode in the ongoing, Hitchcock-worthy suspense thriller known as “Dial ‘M’ for Murdoch.”
Late Thursday morning, James Murdoch, the 39-year-old bespectacled heir apparent to the embattled News Corp. empire, was called for a second time to give testimony at a hearing led by backbench MPs on the House of Commons’s culture, media and sport select committee. The grilling was the latest chapter in the phone hacking saga that erupted into a full-blown scandal in July.
The catalyst then was public outrage over the revelation that 13-year-old murder victim Millie Dowler’s phone had been hacked by reporters from the now-defunct tabloid News of the World—which came after years of news of ill-gotten celebrity scoops and half-hearted police investigations into what we now know was a widespread London tabloid practice. Since then, the scandal has only snowballed. At last count, the list of potential phone hacking victims stands at around 6,000, about 2,000 more than previously thought, and the series of upcoming civil trials has not even begun. This week, the official government-sponsored inquiry spurred by the scandal kicks off. Led by Lord Justice Leveson, it is specifically tasked with examining the “culture, practice and ethics of the press,” and will probe the relationships between the country’s politicians, police and newspapers so as to “recommend on the future of press regulation and governance.”
So what does this mean in the short term? A whole lot more dirty laundry will be aired in the coming months. The future of the British media landscape and many elite reputations hang in the balance. As sagas go, this one is proving to be almost never-ending in scope and dramatic possibility.
At the centre of the story, of course, is the Murdoch empire itself, News Corp., a transatlantic powerhouse with interests including (but not limited to) the Wall Street Journal and Fox TV as well as the Times of London and a major chunk of Britain’s BSkyB broadcaster. The question at the centre of the storm is one of succession. Rupert Murdoch already sent one of his favourite lambs to slaughter earlier this year with the firing of former News of the World editor-in-chief Rebekah Brooks, who ran News International, Murdoch’s British newspaper wing. Now his son’s future as the leading successor to the throne looks less certain than ever before.
This week was the second time Murdoch Jr. was called into Parliament for a grilling, the first time being last July. Back then, he denied knowing just how widely phone hacking had permeated the News of the World, beyond the actions of “a single rogue reporter,” until the police relaunched their probe in 2010. But further testimony later revealed that Murdoch may have lied about—or at the very least exaggerated—his level of ignorance.
Former News International lawyer Tom Crone informed the select committee that he fully briefed Murdoch on the tabloid’s deeper involvement in hacking prior to the paper’s decision in 2009 to pay former British soccer union boss Gordon Taylor $1.2 million in legal costs and damages (the settlement contained a confidentiality clause) after he sued the paper for hacking into his voice mail. Murdoch, who signed off on the payment himself, said earlier this summer that he was “not aware” of an email sent by a junior reporter to a private investigator containing a transcript of Taylor’s illegally obtained voice mails. He appeared to backtrack on this assertion last week, clarifying to the committee that the email was mentioned to him “as evidence” prior to the Taylor settlement, but subsequently denied that he’d ever read or discussed its contents in detail. In short, Murdoch insisted that despite signing off on $1.2 million in hush money, he remained utterly ignorant that the evidence mentioned by Crone “might indicate wider-spread knowledge or wider-spread activities of phone hacking.”
In an exchange so coolly venomous it might have been written by Aaron Sorkin, Labour MP Tom Watson asked Murdoch if he’d ever heard of the Mafia term omertà, which loosely translates to “code of silence.” When Murdoch responded that he had not but that he found the organized crime connotations offensive, Watson remarked that Murdoch “must be the first Mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.”
While James Murdoch’s position as director of News Corp. and chairman of BSkyB seems reasonably secure for now—he was just re-elected to the News Corp. board despite 35 per cent of shareholders voting against him—the hacking scandal can only continue to hurt the family firm. Murdoch Sr. shows no sign of leaving any time soon, and his continued presence at the helm of News Corp. means that a company once known for its power to silence with the threat of exposure is now left shivering and naked under the glare of an ever-harsher media spotlight.
As Leveson embarks on his ambitious project of deciding the extent of press oversight in Britain, the moral foundation of Murdoch’s web of companies looks shakier every day. It is an empire built, in large part, on the back of Britain’s relatively relaxed media cross-ownership laws and a pernicious, scoop-driven marketplace in which the right to privacy became an afterthought. Even if James Murdoch was as ignorant of hacking as he claims to be, his position was (and is) one of wilfully blind heir to an ethically suspect corporation with too much power for its own good. Justice Leveson’s report is poised to change the landscape that nurtured a monolith like News Corp. What will happen to the empire in the meantime still remains uncertain.