Murdoch’s tweets can’t save his tottering empire
On the night Queen Elizabeth scampered back from her Scottish castle to address an angry crowd outside Buckingham Palace – the crowd protesting she hadn’t paid enough respect to the memory of Princess Diana, killed in a car crash the week before – Rupert Murdoch was in the newsroom of the London Times. “There’s your headline,” he told the editor in charge. “Queen Saves Neck!” It was a perfect tabloid headline for a perfect tabloid story.
That Diana, named after the goddess of hunting, should die hounded by a pack of snap-happy paparazzi added a vein of irony to the story of her tragic life. A similar irony informs the scandal engulfing Murdoch. The biter has been bit, a fact clearly on display when Rupert and his son James, arm in arm with their flame-maned employee Rebekah Brooks, were shoved and jostled in a London street by the newshounds of Fleet Street. Hauled before a House of Commons committee, the usually unrepentant mogul looked dented when he uttered the phrase that will litter his obituaries: “This is the most humble day of my life.”
His sense of humility didn’t last long. Nothing has gone right for Murdoch since that day of shame, yet he quickly regained his old pugilistic self using a medium that perfectly suits his headline-writer’s gift, the 140 characters of Twitter. Too cocky to hide behind an amanuensis, Murdoch is back on the attack, railing against “enemies many different agendas, but worst old toffs and right wingers” and vowing revenge. “Seems every competitor and enemy piling on with lies and libels,” he tweeted. “Easy to hit back hard, which preparing.”
While Rupert fiddles on his iPad, his empire burns. Scotland Yard – which, according to the police themselves, had become a News Corp. subsidiary, leading to the resignation of the police commissioner, the head of counterterrorism and the communications chief – is conducting three parallel investigations into bribery, corruption, phone hacking, computer hacking and witness intimidation by News Corp. employees. Senior policewoman Sue Akers has uncovered “a culture of illegal payments” to police and other public servants, meaning News Corp. may technically have broken the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that deems bribing foreign officials a criminal act.
The company is paying out millions to the more than 800 victims its reporters and private detectives hacked, then humiliated, among them Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, former interior minister David Blunkett, actor Jude Law and singer Charlotte Church. So far News Corp. has paid $15.6 million to settle 54 lawsuits of the 60 filed by last October.
The scandal has enveloped Prime Minister David Cameron, who used to ride and socialize with Brooks before she became too toxic and who hired as his press chief Andy Coulson, former boss of Murdoch’s News of the World who had resigned from the paper after turning a blind eye to hacking. Coulson was driven out of his government post.
Murdoch’s hope that his children would succeed him at News Corp. now seems forlorn. His daughter Elisabeth blames Brooks for destroying the company, his son Lachlan hurriedly decamped for Australia after an unexplained incident in New York, and James had to write a groveling letter to his parliamentary inquisitors for failing to do his job. “I acknowledge that wrongdoing should have been uncovered earlier,” he wrote. “I could have asked more questions, requested more documents and taken a more challenging and sceptical view of what I was told.”
James has resigned from the boards of a whole clutch of companies – including SmithKlineBeecham and Sotheby’s – and has decided to vacate the chair of Murdoch’s satellite broadcaster BSkyB ahead of a parliamentary report likely to declare him an unfit person to run a broadcast business. Meanwhile, U.S. Justice Department prosecutors have asked for information about News Corp. journalists paying British police for information and whether News Corp. drove an advertising company Floorgraphics out of business; the BBC alleges News Corp. used illegal means to bring down a competitor in Italy.
Murdoch’s Sunday Times recently revealed that donors who gave six-figure sums to Cameron’s party could gain access to influence the prime minister. Yet Cameron secretly met with News Corp. executives 26 times in 15 months, including two trysts with Murdoch himself. Murdoch’s response? “What was Cameron thinking?” he asked the Twittersphere. “There must be a full independent inquiry … Trust must be established.” And, “Without trust, democracy, and order will go.” Just so.
PHOTO: News International Chairman James Murdoch (front L), and his father, Rupert Murdoch, appear before a parliamentary committee in London, July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters TV/Files