If you have been following the collapse of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Great Britain, then you are probably aware of the special role The Guardian newspaper played in bringing the scandal to the light of day, one which is far reaching and includes massive phone-hacking, hush payments to well-known people (once they discovered their phone had been hacked) and charges of government and police corruption. It is also a story of arrogance and indifference on the part of Rupert Murdoch, his son James and his former editor Rebekah Brooks. When the story began, in 2005, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Britain included ownership of News of the World, The Sun, The Times and the Sunday Times bundled into his United Kingdom conglomerate News International which is itself part of Murdoch’s international holding company News Corporation. At the time the scandal emerged, Murdoch had made an £ 8 billion offer to gain complete control of the highly profitable BSkyB satellite television system in Great Britain (he had partial control through a merger with his Sky satellite TV system). If that purchase had been allowed to go forward, Murdoch would have gained 80% of the television audience together with a huge fraction of newspaper readership.
In reading this masterful piece of investigative reporting, one cannot help but have a deep appreciation for the skillful, tenacious efforts done by Nick Davies of The Guardian who almost single-handedly and, at some considerable risk to his own career, pushed the story through and toppled a giant international media mogul—Rupert Murdoch. If reading this seems unfamiliar to you, it’s because we haven’t seen anything like this in America since Woodward and Bernstein toppled a sitting American President (Nixon) in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. I don’t think we have run out of Watergate stories in America, but I do think we’ve run out of reporters who can competently develop these stories and of course, most American journalists lack the time to develop a complex case, as they are under heavy pressure to make headlines rather than cover serious, complex news stories. Like the short-term investments that characterize Wall Street today, newspapers look for short-term stories that can make headlines and sell papers and advertizing. That’s why The Guardian stories that brought down the Murdoch empire are so exemplary and refreshingly similar to a time frame that long ago left the American landscape. Down-sizing, re-engineering and corporatization have in one form or another reduced reporters to less lofty aspirations. In contrast, Davies is a highly regarded reporter and documentary film-maker; he has received numerous awards and recognitions, including the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 1999. And kudos to The Guardian; I am not sure we have a newspaper left in America that would support a long-term investigation into what initially seemed like such an uphill battle and a potentially risky form of investment for any single reporter and perhaps some risk as well for the newspaper.
Despite our internal confusion on this topic in America, created by the security state established under GW Bush, in Britain, it is illegal to hack phones and Murdoch’s newspaper, News of the World (NoW) did it on a massive scale. It was all done, as Nick Davies says for the “remorseless drive for headlines.” The police didn’t really do much about phone hacking until it happened to members of the royal family, at which time it occurred to them that phone hacking royal family members was a national security issue. When NoW‘s royal editor, Clive Goodman wrote an article about Prince William’s injured knee, covering details that very few outside the family could have known about, Buckingham Palace suspected foul play and called in Scotland Yard. In August 2006 police arrested Goodman and his private investigator Glenn Mulcaire (who did the surprisingly easy task of phone hacking) and seized their computer records, notes and tapes. Something like 10,000 pages of information were recovered from Mulcaire, but the police never examined them for more leads. Both Goodman and Mulcaire eventually served prison terms beginning in 2007. In response to the arrests, Rupert Murdoch was quick to deny that phone hacking was widespread in his newspaper and claimed “that is not part of our culture anywhere in the world, least of all in Britain.” As the evidence slowly accumulated about the pervasive nature of phone hacking as part of the culture of News of the World (other tabloids also phone-hacked), Rupert Murdoch would continue to denounce the reports and claim that phone-hacking was the result of one rogue reporter, Clive Goodman and his private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and that Nick Davies and The Guardian were pushing the story beyond the facts into a new class of fiction.
Before the phone-hacking scandal took hold of British life, if you had your phone hacked and filed a complaint against News of the World, they would often settle out of court and pay you a handsome sum, provided that you were well known and promised to keep your mouth shut by signing a confidentiality agreement, which most did. For NoW, money was no obstacle for getting juicy, timely tidbit stories and headlines about famous people that would appear in print shortly after the person had uttered the words into their cell phone. News of the World hacked into thousands of phones, and while the stories got increasingly steamy as well as confrontational, it seemed like phone-hacking had become a new feature to the cultural landscape of British life with seamy tabloid headlines as part of the normal news scene. The fusion of phone-hacking and tabloid news had seamlessly penetrated British life and reading tabloid newspapers became a seemingly normal element to British society. And, while it may have seemed distasteful to some, most thought there was nothing that could be done about it: Rupert Murdoch had become too powerful and he was hobnobbing with all the right people to keep it that way. But this all came crashing down on Rupert Murdoch as a result of NoW hacking into murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s cell phone. Not only did NoW hack into her phone, but they erased her messages when her voice mail box filled up, hoping to get more news stories. This led Milly’s parents to believe that their daughter, who had suddenly disappeared, was sill alive and erasing her own messages. Milly’s phone was hacked in 2002 and it wasn’t until July 2011 that The Guardian reported the story. The Milly Dowler story, together with new allegations that the phones of Iraq war widows had also been hacked, pushed advertisers into an “abandon ship” frenzy as they rapidly fled the advertising pages of NoW. In response to these revelations and loss of advertising revenue, James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, announced that he was instructed to close News of the World, but in doing so the senior staff, which at the time of the Milly Dowler hacking, included Editor Rebekah Brooks (who has since been charged with criminal activity related to phone hacking scandal), claimed complete ignorance of any wrong doing or knowledge of phone-hacking activity.
At the time these stories came out, Rupert Murdoch realized that the single rogue reporter theory, involving Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, couldn’t cover what appeared now to be a widespread culture of phone-hacking and hush payments within NoW. It soon came to light that NoW made huge payments, as high as a million pounds to individuals whose phones had been hacked. In response to these additional stories, Murdoch exclaimed (October 2010) “We have very very strict rules…”, but a year later as more of these stories came to light, News International explained that its previous inquiries into phone-hacking were “not sufficiently robust” and issued an “unreserved apology” for the hacking episodes. But there is worker responsibility and corporate responsibility and Rupert and James Murdoch as well as Rebekah Brooks all claim they knew nothing about these phone-hacking incidents, though James Murdoch approved all the payments made to victims of phone-hacking, who made charges against the newspaper. The phone-hacking reporting in The Guardian did not focus exclusively on phone-hacking because it was now clear that the police had not followed leads properly and suspicions were raised that the Metropolitan police were participating in a coverup. Then too, reports from The Guardian raised issues about the integrity of the British government. In July 2011 Rebekah Brooks resigned from News International (the UK subsidiary of News Corporation) and in that same month Rupert Murdoch came to London to testify, at which time he gave a face-to-face apology to Milly Dowler’s parents. The News International ran full page ads on July 16, 2011, beginning with “We Are Sorry…” An investigation by the home affairs select committee broadened the inquiry to include bribes to police officers and a scandalous lack of investigative vigor on the part of the Metropolitan police, with several police officers resigning. Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch all appeared before the select committee and denied any knowledge of phone hacking, hush payments or bribes to the police. Rebekah Brooks told the committee that the first she heard of the Milly Dowler incident was when The Guardian broke the story. It was later that she, her husband and several others were charged with criminal activity for secreting away evidence during an investigation. On 1 May 2012, another investigative committee, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee issued a report stating that Rupert Murdoch was “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.” Now the entire cast of characters is going through another probe, the Leveson Inquiry, which is trying to determine the extent to which Murdoch’s publication empire has seeped into government and helped orchestrate some of their decision making. This is risky territory for David Cameron who is already challenged by his austerity solutions for the ailing British economy.
To help steer you through the morass of testimony and evidence, The Guardian has made available a handy website, where you click on the large table of images and dates below and the related story promptly appears in text box above. Once the story appears, you have the option of reading the short version or clicking on the “read the full Guardian report” to get to the complete article. The site is updated regularly. This handy summary however only covers the Leveson Inquiry and begins on November 21, 2011. The Leveson Inquiry is also looking into bribery of police officers. The first entry of the website covers the testimony of Milly Dowler’s parents and includes input from actor Hugh Grant whose phone was hacked by The Daily Mail, while the most recent is Prime Minister David Cameron’s testimony about a deal for Rupert Murdoch’s offer to purchase BSkyB in exchange for supporting Cameron in the last election. In the face of the hacking scandal and the closure of NoW, Murdoch withdrew his offer to gain control of BSkyB and current investigations by the Leveson Inquiry have already revealed a conservative government that seemed not to care about whether expansion of the Murdoch empire had already reached a level where it no longer served the public interest, but catered exclusively to the interests of Rupert Murdoch.
From everything that has been said during the Leveson Inquiry, it does not seem that their report will be any more favorable to Rupert Murdoch than the recent report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on May 1st of this year. To go further back than the beginning of the Leveson Inquiry, The Guardian has recently published a short account of how the phone-hacking scandal was unraveled in “Phone-Hacking: How The Guardian Broke the Story” which is available on Kindle. That book covers the events from 2005 to July 2011 and much has happened since then to further weaken Murdoch’s position and other senior editors supported by his empire. This story remains highly active in the British media and open discussions are taking place about whether the public good can ever be served by having powerful media moguls in charge of newspapers and communication services. We have the same problem here in America, even though it has a slightly different flavor. A small beginning for American television would be to stop the practice that the news hour has to bring in advertising revenue rather than having the news hour as a public service component in exchange for a broadcast license. We have given too much away and need to recover some of what was lost. The British may or may not be in the middle of doing something like what they badly need to do for the sanity and integrity of their own culture, but it will take more than the efforts of a single reporter to make it stick. And since a free and open press is fundamental to democracy, what’s going on right now in Britain could well set the stage for what we do in America about a similarly serious problem–corporate control of public media.
What’s happening in Britain is a political and social scandal that is unraveling the power of a single person, Rupert Murdoch, who is trying to hold onto the deceptive image he has of his authority and power to continue his strategy of denial in the face of stark evidence to the contrary. Will he take David Cameron down with him or will he survive and come back to complete his control of BSkyB and return as a more sanitized restart media mogul? No matter what the future is for Rupert Murdoch, one thing is certain: thanks to excellent reporting by Nick Davies and others at The Guardian, Rupert Murdoch has lost complete credibility when he appears before different investigative committees. At the pinnacle of his power he had instant access to the highest levels of political authority in Great Britain beginning with Margaret Thatcher. At that point, people thought Murdoch could make or break politicians and even Murdoch himself would strut on his lofty perch of power. I recently listened to an interview with Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor who seems certain that the coverup by the Murdoch empire folks continues, but they have to deny an increasingly smaller part of the story and it now seems that everything will come out eventually. Will Rupert Murdoch or his son James face charges like those that have been made against his former editor Rebekah Brooks? It has been the persistence of reporting in The Guardian, particularly that of reporter Nick Davies that continued to bring new facts into the picture in the face of persistent criticism of The Guardian by News of the World. At least in Britain there is evidence that a single reporter, given the license to pursue what was initially regarded as wrong-doing by a single, rogue, phone-hacking reporter from News of the World, is still able to weave the facts into a compelling story that has not only crippled Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Britain, but has also shaken the foundations of the government of the country which is now going through the soul-searching task of asking where did they go wrong to allow tabloid newspapers to shape the policies of their own elected government and Scotland Yard? This is a story that has a beginning, a middle, but no end and no end in sight. At the moment, how far it will go depends entirely on newspaper reporting, because the government and the police have been too far corrupted to address the issues raised in The Guardian. Thus an aroused public must stand up and insist on changes that deeply affect their democracy. Those of us who live on the American side of the Atlantic, have some interest in this story, as we are are waiting for a similar investigation to begin and ask similar questions about the suitability of having public airwaves (Fox Television) given license to serve as a propaganda news outlet for the Republican Party. How is that compatible with democracy? Faux television would not have been granted a public broadcasting license until Ronald Reagan changed the rules of the game. We should change the rules back again. If America is ever going to have a healthy public information and media enterprise, we will have to limit corporate control by introducing regulations. Complete corporate control of our sources of news has destroyed the credibility and believability of our news sources and when we see a reporter like Nick Davies come along, we realize just how much we have lost. We downsized news in America and eliminated Nick Davies’ jobs. Could Woodward and Bernstein repeat their Watergate reporting in today’s Washington Post? Are such reporters even employed by the Washington Post?
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