Press Box

Rupert Murdoch, Paper Tiger

The phone-hacking scandal undoes the media mogul.

Don’t fear Rupert Murdoch

Blaming “the press” for the phone-hacking scandal, as Prime Minister David Cameron did Friday in a press conference, and calling for a new regulatory apparatus to govern the press, which he also did, ignores the obvious: It has been the press—make that the Guardian —that uncovered the phone-hacking scandal, payments by the press to the police, the various cover-ups by the police and Rupert Murdoch’s enterprises, the possible destruction of crime evidence, and the obstruction of justice. The press— not the police or a government inquest.

The belief that the U.K. press will magically improve if the government appoints new regulators to replace the current self-regulators who man the Press Complaints Commission * is made laughable by the fact that Cameron personally hired journalist Andy Coulson as his director of communications in 2007, just six months after he resigned as News of the World editor in the wake of the first phone-hacking scandal.

Coulson, as you may have read today, was arrested Friday morning by police investigating illegal payments to police in the phone-hacking affair. He has repeatedly claimed that he knew nothing of the unscrupulous and illegal practices of his editor—who went to jail for his phone-hacking offenses—or of the private detective who helped the paper plunder the voicemail boxes of celebrities. He was forced to leave Cameron’s service this past January as news of the phone-hacking scandal made him a political liability.

The revolving door between Rupert Murdoch’s house of crime and 10 Downing Street tells us all we need to know about giving the government additional oversight of the press. Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, has proved himself eager to snuggle with Rupert in return for future political support. So if it’s the press that’s gone corrupt in the U.K., whose fault is it? Murdoch’s or that of his allies, Blair and Cameron?

If the blame falls on both Murdoch and his political allies (that’s my view), then the remedy can’t be additional government “guidance” of the press. If a firmer regulatory apparatus were already in place in the U.K., what do you suppose would have happened to the Guardian’s current investigation as it began to implicate police officers, an adviser to the prime minister, and executives at Murdoch’s News Corp. in criminal activity? It would have been spiked, of course.

I’ve never understood the idea that Rupert Murdoch’s support was essential to a stable British government. The notion got started in the Margaret Thatcher era and has informed every election since. Oh, Murdoch’s papers have always been capable of causing trouble for politicians who got in their way, but the true source of his power, if you want to call it that, has been his superb political timing. He knew precisely when to withdraw his support from the Conservative Party and mount the Labour Party’s Tony Blair and then have his way with Tory leader David Cameron (sexual innuendo intended, thanks!). I can demonstrate similar clout by pointing to the east in the morning and commanding the sun to rise.

That’s not the way they see it in the U.K., even now. They ascribe to him superhuman powers, as Peter Oborne writes in the Telegraphtoday:

The bitter truth is that no major figure in British public life was prepared to take on and expose the Murdoch newspaper empire. Rival proprietors were silent. Senior public figures did not dare to speak out for fear of exposure and attack in the Murdoch newspapers. This is why, for more than a generation, Rupert Murdoch’s empire has been a spider at the heart of an intricate web that has poisoned British public life.

This is pure illusion. I find Murdoch to be a paper tiger, all growl and no bite, beyond the occasional paper cut. The Chinese figured this out very quickly in the 1990s, as he volunteered all manner of concessions and favors to the government in return for the right to set up his satellite-TV business in China. They played him for years, and all he got for his troubles was a third wife.

But let’s agree for a moment that he was the spider at the heart of the web. Either way, his reign is over. Judging from the headlines coming out of London, the current U.K. scene is as giddy as Romania during the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu. Everybody is reviling the formerly feared genocidal tyrant. The press is speculating that his son James may be prosecuted in the United States under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for his role in containing the phone-hacking scandal; that former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, currently chief executive of News International, is so doomed even Murdoch-supplicant Cameron said today her resignation should be accepted; and that Les Hinton, now the publisher * of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal but the chairman of News International during the phone-hacking years, has now fallen into the scandal “spotlight.” Rushing into the building on fire is Rupert Murdoch himself. He’s flying to London on Saturday, according to the Financial Times (registration required).

If there are anywhere near 4,000 phone-hacking cases, as one senior detective says, Murdoch could be bleeding slowly for as long as he lives. He no longer enjoys the friendship of the people he bought and has learned the hard way that real power is constrained by the truth. Like some discredited god, all the potency once ascribed to him is evaporating. The paper tiger is on fire.


I hope this isn’t the end of Rupert. Without him, what will I write about? Send suggestions to Thanks to my Twitter followers for steering phone-hacking-scandal stories my way. (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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Corrections, July 9, 2011: The original version of this article mistakenly called the Press Complaints Commission the Public Complaints Commission. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also mistakenly stated that Les Hinton is editor of the Wall Street Journal. He is publisher. (Return to the corrected sentence.)