For a brief moment there last summer, Americans—or at least a small portion of them—were transfixed by the news coming out of England: A massive scandal threatened to bring down Rupert Murdoch’s seemingly unstoppable media empire. The spectacle of the enfeebled tycoon and his smarmy son pleading ignorance about widespread phone hacking and police bribery at The News Of The World was, for many left-leaning Americans, an intoxicating moment of schadenfreude. Ha! The old bastard was finally getting what he deserved!
Now, almost a year later, the elder Murdoch remains very much in power, but the ripple effects from the scandal continue to be felt: Last month, James Murdoch resigned from his post, and just last week, former News International head Rebekah Brooks was arrested for the second time. In tonight’s Frontline, “Murdoch’s Scandal,” correspondent Lowell Bergman interviews those affected by—and implicated in—News Corp.’s misdeeds.
While the report doesn’t contain any new bombshell revelations, it does a thorough job fleshing out the timeline of the scandal. What emerges is an exacting history of the incestuous relationship between politicians, the tabloid press, and the police in the U.K. The report suggests that, long before Fleet Street editors ever thought of deleting dead girl’s voicemail messages, Murdoch was operating with impunity.
Bergman traces the scandal all the way back to the early ‘80s, when Margaret Thatcher allowed Murdoch to circumvent monopoly rules with the proviso that he stay out of editorial decisions; he openly flouted the agreement. Later, the police were instrumental in helping Murdoch crack down on union print workers, and a symbiotic relationship was formed. Soon enough, cops were writing for News Corp. papers, and Murdoch’s editors were leaving to become flacks for Scotland Yard (here in the U.S., we just have Congressional members who become lobbyists). The collusion and deal-making continued through Tony Blair’s tenure, right up to June of last year when, on the eve of News Corp.’s acquisition of BSkyB, news broke that journalists at Murdoch’s papers had hacked into the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old murder victim.
Whether or not Murdoch actually knew about the widespread hacking at NOTW—for what it’s worth, no one in tonight’s Frontline seems to believe his claims of ignorance—it’s clear that there was a culture of corruption at News Corp. that went well beyond any single person. In this way, it’s no different from the scandals that have rocked other powerful institutions, like sex abuse in the Catholic Church or at Penn State University, or the torture at Abu Ghraib. Because of Murdoch’s inordinate power over the British media landscape, and his attendant ability to swing elections, it took almost a decade for the journalistic abuses at News Of The World to become front page news.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about “Murdoch’s Scandal” is the sheer amount of effort—not to mention a few serendipitous events—it took to bring the hacking to light. The first hint of impropriety emerged in 2003, when Rebekah Brooks, then editor of The Sun, admitted in a Parliamentary hearing that “we have paid the police for information in the past.” When Labour MP Chris Bryant pushed the matter, the committee chairman adjourned the hearing. If it hadn’t been for the work of Guardian reporter Nick Davies and lawyer Mark Lewis, not to mention the support of The New York Times, a massive strategic blunder by James Murdoch, and public outrage over Milly Dowler, The News Of The World would probably still be open today.
Bergman interviews a number of former News Corp. editors, none of whom express any remorse over what went on at their papers. Former News Of The World editor Paul McMullan sneers that, unlike his publication, The Guardian “sells a couple hundred thousand papers to a bunch of bearded lesbians who already have their minds made up.” Then there’s Kelvin Mackenzie, former editor of The Sun, who, sounding like the minion of a 15-year-old mean girl, suggests that Rupert Murdoch’s detractors are just jealous of his success. One wonders if current News Corp. employees would at least pretend to be more contrite but, as we learn in a postscript, no one from the company would agree to speak to Frontline.
However, the missing ingredient in “Murdoch’s Scandal” is a broader analysis of tabloid culture in the U.K. After all, Murdoch wouldn't be so powerful if he didn't know how to sell millions of papers. While Bergman explains the tabloid tactic of “monstering”—the targeted victimization of celebrities, politicians, and various perceived enemies—there isn’t much in “Murdoch’s Scandal” about the seemingly bottomless appetite for this kind of content among the British populace. Just why do these trashy papers appeal to so many “Little Englanders”? What’s the role of the tabloid—and print culture more broadly—in British society? Just why are his papers so influential? (Of course, you'd be right to ask the same questions about America and Fox News.) These are big questions, certainly, and Bergman would probably need at least another hour to completely address them, but just a trace more cultural context would perhaps help explain Murdoch’s particular brand of evil genius.