The phone-hacking scandal which has brought News International to the attention of British media regulators will surprise no one who has followed the career of Rupert Murdoch. What is new is the sudden absence of the political fear which Murdoch has relied on in previous dealings with British and American politicians. This unexpected shift in the balance of power has left him vulnerable to potentially catastrophic developments. For despite public apologies, the timely departure of the egregious Rebekah Brooks, and the withdrawal of its takeover bid for the British Sky Broadcasting Group, the British company’s corporate parent, News Corporation, remains perilously close to an investigation by American regulators who have been warned that the phones of 9/11 victims may also have been hacked.
This scandal has taken more than five years to ripen, mainly because its first victims were celebrities. Tabloids like The News of the World used to be careful about whom they targeted and for decades they were granted unseemly latitude by the British public. In the UK hardly a week passes without some new “revelation” about the private life of a public figure, usually accompanied by breathless confessions from the target’s mistress, drug dealer, or partner in crime. This fondness for yellow journalism has become so entrenched over the years that it is practically inseparable from British culture. As a recent edition of the Economist observes: “Britons know their newspapers are rude, excessive, and unreliable. But they want them to draw blood from politicians and misbehaving celebrities.” Although Murdoch played to this weakness for gutter journalism, he can hardly be blamed for it. In fact, although their leading rival has finally received its long-awaited comeuppance the UK’s non-Murdoch tabloids have been suspiciously quiet about the whole affair. This has done little to reassure an anxious public that the outrageous practices at The News of the World are not continuing elsewhere.
More concerning is the toothlessness of British media regulators. While various phone-hacking lawsuits made their way through the courts, two official investigations utterly failed to grasp the seriousness of the matter. Last year, a report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee could only refer to the “collective amnesia” of senior staff at the News of the World, and fulminate impotently at Rebekah Broooks’ outright refusal to meet with the committee. Without pressure from other media – such as Channel 4, the New York Times and the Guardian – the regulatory responsibilities abdicated by these watchdog committees would never have been fulfilled.
Every time their low estimate of regulators and politicians was confirmed by a lack of prosecution for the excesses of chequebook journalism, Britain’s tabloids grew a little bolder. In time they became so confident that they succeeded, with almost complete impunity, in targeting members of the Royal family, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, publicists, soldiers, celebrities, as well as murder victims and other members of an unsuspecting public. This could not have happened in a political culture less obsessed with ‘controlling’ the news cycle, nor with a reading public that cared less for celebrity journalism and more for what used to be considered ‘serious’ news.
Much has been made of David Cameron’s mea culpa about politicians courting the tabloid press, but his lack of judgment in these matters is hardly unique. In his mischievous diaries of life as a Fleet Street editor, the former Daily Mail editor Piers Morgan has several accounts of the repeated efforts that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made to keep him onside during key moments in their political careers. (Having left the Daily Mail to become a talent show judge, winner of the Celebrity Apprentice, and replacement for Larry King at CNN, Morgan is now a leading authority on the power struggles of modern infotainment.) Across the pond, the situation is no better and occasionally the culture seems even more susceptible to the flattery of celebrity culture. Roger Ailes has built Fox News into the most watched cable news television network and until the Obama campaign, in a brief fit of pique, declined to grant Fox interviews, the network’s power to shape political conversation has been as significant as that of any British tabloid.
If the UK scandals do eventually affect the American wing of Murdoch’s media empire, the ensuing trouble could reshape the US media landscape for a generation. This is what senior executives at News Corporation fear most, and what they will undoubtedly try to prevent with strategic resignations and closures. Murdoch is an American citizen and has much more at stake there, not least his ambition to unsettle the New York Times as the current newspaper of record. In his Prologue to The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch Michael Wolff describes Murdoch’s joy in taking over The Wall Street Journal like this: “He’d acquired one of the two best papers in the world – which every journalist who didn’t work for him assumed he would ruin – in order to destroy the other. It was a kind of personal revenge as well as, possibly, a viable business strategy.” If US regulators find the courage to take on the most feared media tycoon of our times, they will deny Murdoch this revenge and may well leave him needing a new business strategy.