News Corp’s future

By Felix Salmon
July 15, 2011

The abrupt departure from News Corp today of Rebekah Brooks (early) and Les Hinton (late) is yet more proof that News Corp is flailing around and incapable of getting out in front of the phone-hacking story. It’s a bit like the way in which the cost of bailing out Lehman Brothers would rise by a few billion dollars an hour at the height of the financial crisis in 2008: every day of bluster and delay just makes this crisis worse for News Corp and for Rupert Murdoch.

If the News of the World had been shut and Brooks and Hinton both defenestrated back in 2009 when the hacking allegations first surfaced, that would have been more than enough to signal that News Corp was taking them seriously, was saying that such behavior was unacceptable, and was drawing a firm line under an unfortunate and illegal episode. Now, however, such actions only serve to make News Corp look even more guilty — especially since the time gap between the resignations served to draw the story out over two news cycles and makes the whole thing look ad hoc and teetering on the back foot. There’s now a clear sense that the virus is moving up and across the News Corp org chart, from the News of the World to News International to Dow Jones, with no sign that its virulence is diminishing.

Next up: the show trial on Tuesday, where James and Rupert will be ceremonially roasted by various UK MPs. If they express only contrition for what happened, without accepting personal responsibility or admitting any culpability, the reaction will not be pleasant: Rupert, in particular, is known as an assiduous reader and manager of everything that goes on at his newspapers, and he can’t credibly plead ignorance of what they were doing. Similarly, James spent two years hand-in-hand with Les Hinton covering up the hacking and approving seven-figure payoffs to victims designed to keep them quiet. Indeed, his plan to cover up the wrongdoing rather than come clean might even have worked, were it not for the tireless reporting of Nick Davies at the Guardian and the unexpected revelation that the hacking affected not only politicians and celebrities but also the victims of personal tragedy.

On the other hand, any admission of personal responsibility will certainly result in calls for that person to resign. The loss of Brooks and Hinton is personally painful to Murdoch, but it’s not remotely sufficient, at this point, to satisfy the pitchfork-wielding mobs. As Jack Shafer says, “everybody who ever had a grudge against Murdoch for his journalistic crimes, his battles against unions, his acts of political skullduggery, and his brilliant business innovations has sharpened and fixed bayonets to oppose him.”

Which is why I suspect that the endgame will involve both James and Rupert falling on their swords, with the pragmatic technocrat Chase Carey taking over as CEO of News Corp for the time being. Rupert won’t give up his Class A shareholding, of course, and would continue to wield enormous power and influence behind the scenes. Eventually, the time will be right for Carey to give way to Elisabeth Murdoch, one of News Corp’s most expensive hires: the company paid $674 million to bring her on board by buying her company, Shine.

Neither Carey nor Elisabeth Murdoch has any particular love for newspapers; if the Dow Jones special committee starts causing nuisance, or if News International needs to be sold, they’re perfectly capable of letting that business go. Television is where the big money is, and neither of them wants to see News Corp’s global TV ambitions permanently derailed by a bunch of tabloid hacks. Murdoch’s empire might well yet be inherited by one of his children. But that empire might well be very light on newspapers. Actions like spending $5 billion to acquire Dow Jones, which never made economic sense, are now a thing of the past. Rupert’s top lieutenants — and his children, too — understand that. And Rupert himself, at this point, has very little choice but to come around to their way of thinking.

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