What started as a damage-limitation fire-fight for Rupert on his News of the World (NOTW) tabloid, has in two short weeks turned British politicians into a frenzied attack pack, shot the two top policemen at Scotland Yard, scythed his closest lieutenants, split his family and tarnished his legacy.
It all crumbled suddenly. Rupert looked worn, out-of-touch and isolated – to await the modern equivalent of a very British beheading. The last British monarch tried and axed by Parliament was Charles I in 1649 – accused of treason for warring Parliament to pursue personal interest above the good of England. There is déjà vu in the current drama for uncrowned King Rupert. His tabloids goosed British Royalty too.
The charge against Charles I read in part the “wicked designs and evil practices of him, the said Charles Stuart, have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation”.
In his imperious initial response, Rupert told Parliament he was too busy to attend their hearing till August! But the previously cowed politicians having lost their terror of Murdoch, dispatched the Serjeant-at-Arms to deliver the summons at his Wapping HQ. His diary found space for Parliament.
Up till the 7th of July, Rupert Murdoch was the man believed to have the power to make and unmake governments in the UK and Australia. He could call on and trade favours with prime ministers, presidents and politicians across the globe. He was never shy to leverage undue influence. He answered to no one. He was above and beyond politicians and parliaments.
In America, his Fox News network polarised politics, championed the Iraq war and amplified extreme right wing agendas. It played fast and loose with the lie that Barack Obama was a Muslim and born outside the United States – the latter, if true, could disqualify him from the presidency.
Stonewalling throughout, but contrite
The televised British Parliamentary hearing of three hours yielded no admission of prior knowledge, approval or complicity in phone-hacking and payments to the police. A grim faced Rupert declared it as the “humblest day of my life”. He was not responsible for what happened at the NOTW. He was betrayed by people he trusted.
James rested the company’s passivity on the closed police inquiry of assistant commissioner John Yates (resigned this week), clearance from the toothless Press Complaints Commission (declared by the PM to be soon replaced) and News Corp’s own internal inquiry of 2007 led by Les Hinton and Rebekah Wade (both resigned this week), which concluded that a rogue reporter was at fault.
Geoffrey Robertson QC, who in 2009 called for editors to quit the PCC said, “The PCC is a confidence trick that has ceased to inspire confidence – other countries which respect free speech have statutory ‘press ombudspersons’ who adjudicate public complaints, direct retractions and compensation, enforce rights of reply and monitor ethical standards.”
Asleep at the wheel?
When the captain of the ship, first and second officers, all declare they were unaware of phone-hacking and payments to the police, one wonders who then was on the bridge? Who made the rules, who defined the parameters, who called the shots? All three pleaded ignorance and absolved themselves of responsibility.
News Corporation is a tight ship. It monitors revenues, profits and losses across all business units, on a weekly basis like clockwork. Rupert speaks to his principal CEOs at least once a week. Any threat to the organisation would have been flagged up immediately for guidance from The Boss.
The plea of ignorance just does not wash. Rupert is the last man on whom the label ‘lax’ can be pinned. At the hearing he even sought to pose as an ethical and upright media leader, who believed phone-hacking and payments to police to be “wrong”, thumping the table repeatedly for emphasis.
Suddenly, Rupert flags the Singapore model
Out of the blue and out of context, he commented on the salaries paid to ministers in the Singapore government as the reason it remains the most corruption-free State globally. It was not clear whether he was implying that salaries of British MPs or Metropolitan police (or both) should be reviewed to prevent them falling prey to expenses fiddling and tabloid back-handers.
The salaries, bonuses and pay-revisions PAP ministers accorded themselves was a moot point in the recent elections which left significant sections of its society unimpressed and displeased. Some wondered if the once noble aspiration to serve society has been debased by crass commercial rewards. Many asked why ministerial failures did not result in dismissal as they would in business.
By any measure of leadership accountability, Rupert and James should be up for summary dismissal by News Corporation for gross negligence and dereliction of duty if nothing else.
News Corporation, even with the ‘Murdoch Discount’, is valued at US$41billion. A corporation so large, in the business of news and spanning the globe, cannot be left in the clutch of such ineptitude at the very top. The News Corporation board itself seems to be a creature of Rupert, unable and unwilling so far to act decisively. Nell Minnow, of Governance-Metrics International describes it as the “ultimate crony board”.
Too high up, too many people, don’t know how it happened
One is reminded of the pathetic performance of BP CEO Tony Hayward at the US Senate hearings on the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster. BP employed 90,000 staff globally. Tony Hayward denied awareness of the cost-cutting obsessions which compromised safety standards across the company. He did not know who approved such dangerous compromises and how such risky operations at sea were supervised. Perhaps he too was betrayed by the people he trusted?
Two high profile CEOs of high profile global corporations, both clueless when internal malpractice explodes into world news? Such lame excuses are unacceptable from corporate chiefs and political leaders. They are given too much power over people, resources and policy to be allowed to slither away.
How did daily news conferences at NOTW consider which stories to pursue and which to make the front page? Did the private detectives employed report to the editor? If such authority was delegated, who then authorised the phone-hacking? Who passed payments to police contacts? Who signed off?
The hearing was no wiser after three hours of the Murdochs.
Champion of free press without principles
While he held forth at public forums about “independence of the press”, Murdoch dictated editorial policy when it mattered to servant-editors at all his newspaper and broadcast properties. He paid well for unquestioning loyalty and got it. The Wall Street Journal this week dashed out an unseemly editorial accusing ‘commercial interests’ of rival media in the UK and the US for lambasting News Corporation. He is dumbing down the WSJ like he dumbed down The Times.
Murdoch espoused no particular political ideology. Some might call it a lack of principles. If anything was consistent in his media philosophy, it was profitable opportunism. If that meant pandering to the public appetite for ritual sacrifice of the rich and famous, so be it. If that meant offering a megaphone to Christian fanatics of America’s Bible belt and the kooky Tea Party wing of the Republicans, he would oblige. If bare breasts and titillation will outsell rival tabloids, fine.
Murdoch stakes out and dominates spaces squeamish publishers avoid. Did he have anything in common with the politics and politicians his media championed? Or empathy for the lives and reputations of individuals and families his tabloid press destroyed? No. It’s just business. Nothing personal.
It was all about astute market positioning with Fox News in America and unbridled tabloid terrorism in the UK. Other publishers just did not have the stomach for this level of sustained crudity.
The pressure to meet a daily strike rate on scandals and denouements made his UK tabloid editors slide beyond legality into allegedly criminal practices now being more thoroughly investigated by the Met and Parliament. NOTW or The Sun were not alone in this. Phone-hacking and payoffs to police are alleged to be widely practiced by all the tabloids.
Saving society from rogue media
All of this raises existential questions about the un-wisdom of allowing such media ownership concentration and the urgent need to: quarantine media from politicians, government and Big Business; protect citizens from intrusive paparazzi and privacy invasion; establish a press ombudsman with real statutory powers, and hold editors accountable for sins of commission and omission.
(Cyril Pereira is Co-Chairman, Asian Publishing Convention.)