Press Box

Murdoch’s Watergate

The U.K. phone-hacking scandal will undo the media mogul.

Rupert Murdoch

Every journalist suffers from subpoenas envy. As powerful as the pen may be, reporters covet the power that courts and Congress have to command individuals and organizations to give testimony and produce evidence. So whenever the power-thresher of a prosecution or a congressional investigation rolls over a prominent person or a notable organization, journalists flock like grackles to glean whatever material they can for their stories.

Such a feeding frenzy has been loosed against Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid by a growing number of individuals, including actors Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan, a journalist, and a former member of the London police brass, who claim that the newspaper illegally “hacked” into their voice mail and have either filed suit or are seeking legal redress. Most of those identified as hackers’ victims are celebrities from entertainment, sports, and the royal orbit.

That News of the World reporters have hacked voice mail is a matter of legal fact: In 2007, a News of the World reporter and a private investigator working with him both went to jail for hacking the phones of royal family aides. Also, in 2009, News of the World paid about $1.6 million to settle cases by two public figures who claimed its reporters had hacked their phones. Coverage by Nick Davies in the Guardian in 2009 and the New York Times Magazine, which published a Sept. 5 feature story about phone-hacking at the News of the World, have further emboldened potential plaintiffs. They have a grudge against the newspaper that may have hacked them and the London Metropolitan Police, which they charge did not thoroughly investigate the hackings.

The number of potentially hacked phones runs in the scores or maybe even the thousands, and recent coverage has 1) spurred the filing of legal action by the aggrieved; 2) encouraged the U.K. press to revisit the story, which has in turn 3) stimulated a vicious—or virtuous, depending on your view—cycle of new legal actions and new stories kicking up yet more grain and worms for the press grackles. New judicial reviews of police files could unleash an estimated 3,000 potential claimants, the Guardian reports, “resulting in a torrent of litigation against” the News of the World. The Guardian’s back-of-the-envelope calculations is that the Murdoch paper could face tens of millions of pounds in damages and legal fees from the phone-hacking cases.

If you’ve been following the phone-hacking story, you know it’s not a dime-store scandal or even a tens-of-millions-of-pounds scandal. The editor of the News of the World at the time of the hacking, Andy Coulson, left the paper and went to work as communications chief for David Cameron, who recently became the country’s prime minister. In Parliamentary debate last week, a Labor member dragged the name of a top Murdoch executive into the scandal and called on Murdoch to testify. Unfortunately for Watergate enthusiasts, Labor has yet to ask what Murdoch knew and when he knew it.

Which brings me back to my Watergate theme, which I shouldn’t overplay. Temporarily, at least, both the News of the World phone-hackings and the Watergate burglaries could be made to appear like rogue operations, not sanctioned by higher-ups, as long as the right hush-money was spent. But the double-teaming of legal investigation and newspaper coverage, the one feeding the other, makes it hard for a coverup to work for long. Add the third element of legislators agitating for testimony from the principals and investigations, and the thing assumes a Watergate aroma.

Writing in the London Evening Standard today, veteran U.K. journalist Roy Greenslade surmises that Murdoch is intimate with the coverup and spinning of the scandal, if not with the scandal itself. He writes:

No newspaper owner is more knowledgeable, and therefore more exacting, than Murdoch. Every one of his editors is aware that they work under his continual scrutiny.Murdoch has the ultimate power of hire and fire. Even if he doesn’t get involved in the nuts and bolts—and he rarely does—he sets the tone. His editors can scream for ever that they are entirely independent of him, but the reality is that they know his views and would not go out of their way to displease him.

Greenslade writes elsewhere that Labor’s recent defeat makes it less fearful of the Tory-supporting Murdoch, and it will become more aggressive in seeking political capital by demanding answers to the stories raised by the Guardian. He also notes that most U.K. papers aren’t chasing the scandal—the inference being that they may have phone-hackings or other skeletons in their closets and therefore aren’t keen on boosting the scandal now.

As Murdoch settles new cases, Parliament pecks at him from Westminster, the U.K. press locates its nuts and starts to build on what the Guardian and New York Times have published, and our good friend serendipity joins the chase, new revelations about the hackings are sure to be revealed. In my journalistic weather report, I predict reversals and recognition, ingenious plot twists, Murdoch executives falling on their swords, rats singing, and maybe a scene or two out of King Lear.

It won’t happen overnight. After all, Watergate took two years to unfurl. Stock up on popcorn and Coke and watch the show unspool.


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