Murdoch bestrode the media world, bullying politicians and the police alike, but while his wife saved him in the Commons last week, she can only protect him for so long. Who will fall with him?
IT was The Crash of the Titan. Rupert laid bare; the Murdochs in the dock. Westminster had the air of Cairo’s Tahrir Square as Rupert Murdoch was hauled before MPs to account for the culture of depravity in The News of the World — the dictator had fallen, the oppression of fear had lifted.
But emboldened British lawmakers were still wary, unsure whether this was a Mubarak moment from which the dictator would never recover, or a Gaddafi set-back, leaving him wounded but able to regroup and counter attack?
How different from a few weeks earlier when the supposed great and good of British society had danced attendance on The Sun King at his annual summer party — Prime Minister David Cameron was among those fawning on the lawns of Kensington Palace, while Labour leader Ed Miliband sipped champagne in the Orangery.
Murdoch was feted like a Roman emperor bestriding the globe — no one dared mention hacking, and the politically prostrate prime minister was about to wave through News Corps’s $12bn bid for control of BSkyB.
Then, suddenly, at just after 9pm, a thunderstorm broke across the palace grounds — the party was over. It was a fitting portent of the storm that would shake the empire, each lightning strike illuminating the sordid network of secret interactions between the political elite, Scotland Yard and News International. The defilement of the memory of a murdered child would soon bring that hidden, frenzied network of connections into ugly focus.
With Murdoch as owner, Rebekah Brooks as editor and Andy Coulson as her deputy, News of the Screws was paying private detective Glenn Mulcaire to intercept the voice messages of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler, erasing some to make room for future messages and to eavesdrop for stories.
Taking cynicism into the realm of cruelty, the paper ran an interview with Milly’s parents revealing they had renewed hope as messages had been deleted from Milly’s phone and this could mean she was alive.
It was to be an agonising wait of six months before Milly’s body was found. Murdoch, Brooks and Coulson claim they didn’t know anything about anything. But we know that for all their protestations of “disgust” and “abhorrence”, Mulcaire’s legal costs were being met by News International right up until Murdoch’s appearance at the Commons.
We know News International tried to cover up the hacking scandal, paid monies to corrupt Scotland Yard officers, misled parliament, and threatened to “monster” any politician who dared get in its way. We also know that even the previously obsequious Cameron is demanding James Murdoch return to parliament to explain evidence from Tuesday now contradicted by senior staff at NotW, who insist he was not as ignorant about events as he would like us to believe — and if it’s proved he lied to parliament, he faces jail. And we know Cameron is squirming and unable to adequately explain why he decided not to subject Coulson to the usual top-level vetting for the Downing Street press secretary post he occupied until just a few months ago. If the PM was found to have deliberately turned a blind eye, then he’ll soon be history, along with The News of the World.
Despite its seriousness, at times the scandal has become so surreal it has resembled a cartoon, and clearly no show fits it more than The Simpsons.
Rupert could not look more like nefarious tycoon Montgomery Burns unless he painted himself yellow and opened a nuclear power plant at Wapping.
His son, James, who looks like he is about to burst into tears whenever he is on TV, is clearly Smithers, devoted yet down-trodden and out of his depth.
While Brooks, her flurry of pre-Raphaelite red hair entering a room several minutes before she does, could easily be played in the animated version by Sideshow Bob. But Brooks, the ultimate networker, the driven, hands-on editor, was never the sideshow. She was always front and centre — which is why she should have accepted responsibility and resigned as soon as the gruesome Dowler revelations broke.
Instead, she issued a nonsensical statement that it was “inconceivable” that she knew what was happening.
But the truth is she presided over the culture of depravity that was allowed to fester at the paper, and she should have resigned for that reason alone. James Murdoch admitted misleading the Commons and blamed the lawyers for letting him sign the massive “closure” cheques — dubbed by some the “hush money” cheques.
But trying to shift responsibility to the lawyers does not have a great precedent. That was the excuse Robert Maxwell fell back on just before he fell off the back of his yacht while he was almost certainly on his way to jail.
Jail is exactly where Telegraph mogul Conrad Black did end up, and now the police are sniffing around the Murdoch Empire — which, at least, makes a change from Scotland Yard having their snouts in the News International trough.
What is it with Fleet Street press barons and the police?
Murdoch’s multi-national is now under scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic, with Democrats, for so long tormented by the twisted agenda of Fox News, gleefully invoking the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans US companies from being involved in bribery abroad — a chilling prospect for the tycoon once dubbed the Dirty Digger, given the shocking levels of payments alleged to have been made by News International to Scotland Yard officers.
And for a man who has dominated mass communication for more than 30 years, the unravelling scandal has exposed Murdoch as unable to communicate anything other than detachment and self-delusion.
From the moment he arrived in London to “take charge” of the situation, everything he did was wrong. He swaggered out of a swanky Mayfair restaurant, insisting that protecting Brooks was his overriding concern — not the Dowler family, not the 4,000 other victims of hacking, not the families of the war dead who also had their privacy and grief corrupted, but Brooks.
Murdoch then saw the contagion spreading to New York and hastily rang his flagship American paper, The Wall Street Journal, telling them he was “tired and angry” — poor Rupert — and that the company had handled the situation “extremely well” with only “minor mistakes” made. At one point in the interview, he seems to instruct the journalist how to write the story.
Anyone else might hope to get their point of view across by, perhaps, writing a letter to the Wall Street Journal — Murdoch, a titan of the age, writes the front page of The Wall Street Journal.
That’s why he’s so dangerous, that’s why he’s in so much trouble, that’s why so many people are gunning for him.
And that’s why even Wendi Deng’s right hook won’t be enough to save him this time.