Press Box

Rupert Murdoch Meets His Ahab

Nick Davies and the Guardian spear the media mogul.

If Rupert Murdoch could be slain by a mere scandal, he would have been embalmed and entombed long ago. The genocidal tyrant has successfully swept away every scandal—major and minor—he has ever faced because of his special skill at normalizing his malefactions. He sacked Times of London editor Harold Evans after guaranteeing the paper “independence.” He deployed his reporters to unearth dirt on business rivals. He purchased the forged Hitler diaries. He repeatedly and cravenly kowtowed to the Chinese. He approved the acquisition of O.J. Simpson’s book, If I Did It, and more.

We expect the worst from Murdoch, and he lives up to our expectations. In 2007, the “royal” editor of Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid and a private investigator employed by the newspaper went to jail for hacking into the voicemails of phones belonging to the staff of the “royal” family. Although other phones were alleged to have been hacked, the Murdoch enterprise was able to make the scandal vanish from the headlines.

The scandal resurfaced in 2009, when Guardian reporter Nick Davies showed how extensive News of the World hacking had been, targeting politicians, professional athletes, actors, and assorted celebrities. Lawsuits were filed, and financial settlements were paid to some of the hacked, but nobody was bowled over—even after Davies gave evidence to members of the House of Commons that Murdoch’s company, News Corp., was covering up the scandal. For its part, News Corp. dismissed allegations of any systemic wrongdoing by its News of the World journalists or private investigators in this now-laughable August 2009 statement.

Although Davies continued his pursuit of the phone-hacking story in 2010, and the New York Times followed it that year with an exposé of its own, Murdoch and News Corp. weathered this public crisis as they had others. But yesterday, Davies—who makes Captain Ahab and Inspector Javert look like quitters—co-bylined a Guardian scoop that could possibly send News Corp. executives to jail.

In their story, Davies and Amelia Hill report that evidence exists that News of the World journalists hacked into the voicemail messages of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who went missing in March 2002 and whose body was found in September. Just days after Dowler went missing, the Guardian reports, it appears that News of the World reporters deleted some of the messages from her voicemail box to “free up space for more messages,” presumably  to gather more information about her to publish. These deletions gave Dowler’s family false hope that Milly was still using her phone and therefore still alive. The deletions may have destroyed valuable evidence.

This is quite low, even for a Murdoch operation. But it goes lower. Davies and Hill report:

The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper’s own intervention. Sally Dowler told the paper: “If Milly walked through the door, I don’t think we’d be able to speak. We’d just weep tears of joy and give her a great big hug.”

Davies, who is better known in the United States for talking Julian Assange into giving his WikiLeaks documents to the Guardian, likes to say that he finds some of his best stories in the newspaper. Short news stories about the arrest of Bradley Manning spurred him to locate Assange and persuade him to share the sensational files.

In his 2008 book, Flat Earth News, Davies writes extensively about the British press’s routine law-breaking—phone-hacking, bribery, and illegal invasion of privacy as well as the outsourcing of the dirtiest of dirty work to third parties. What has kept Fleet Street’s dodgy methods safe, Davies writes, is a sort of honor among thieves. Because most newspapers have depended on these dubious methods, none dared accuse the others of misconduct.

The Davies exposé has the U.K. press corps screaming for blood. Of the deletion of Dowler’s voicemails, the Telegraph’s Damian Thompson writes, “If this is true, someone should be shot at dawn.” Ian Burrell goes after Rebekah Brooks—the editor of the News of the World during the Dowler investigation and now chief executive of Murdoch’s News International—in the Independent: “She has some explaining to do now.” In his Guardian blog, Roy Greenslade calls for, among other things, a boycott of the News of the World, for reader pressure on the newspaper’s advertisers to pull their ads, and a public inquiry. Ford has suspended its advertising, the Telegraphreports.

Brooks emailed her employees today stating it was “inconceivable” that she knew of or approved the hacking of Dowler’s phone, which doesn’t exactly sound like a denial. Either way, she is in trouble. As hacking victim Hugh Grant put it on BBC Radio 4 today, Brooks and Andy Coulson—who resigned the editorship of the News of the World after the scandal first broke in 2007—are “the worst editors in the history of journalism—or liars.” (See this Reuters “Who’s Who” for a guide to the phone-hacking scandal.)

I can’t think of any jam that Murdoch has gotten into that’s tighter than this one. As long as the victims of the phone-hacking were rich people and big shots, Murdoch didn’t have to worry too much about public opinion dragging him and his newspapers down. But Dowler’s parents are neither rich nor big shots.

And Murdoch’s world of trouble seems to be growing. As I write, Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison is reporting that Coulson authorized News of the World payments to Scotland Yard; the Guardian is reporting that police are investigating “every high-profile case involving the murder, abduction or attack on any child since 2001” in response to the Dowler revelations; and the Telegraphis reporting that Scotland Yard is investigating whether the phones of the families of the victims of the July 7 subway and bus bombings were hacked. The Telegraph story, which is notably slim on specifics, includes this titillating quotation from a “senior police source” that said, “Basically every major crime story, every major news event, there was some sort of hacking involved. … It was systematic.”

Murdoch’s instinct, of course, will be to sacrifice Brooks, but I doubt that the mob that is gathering will be satisfied with one body. They’ll want strong, tough, old meat, too. Something that’s fit for grilling on the barbie.


I hope we hear from Murdoch soon. He has a great way with a phrase. Send recipes for grilled Murdoch to and monitor my Twitter feed for a prayer for Rupert’s soul. (Email may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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