UPDATE: I wrote this and posted it, only to find that Murdoch has already made a move – closing down the News of the World! As usual tho, this seems like a manoeuvre – the Sun is to go to seven days instead. The question now is will Government block BSkyB deal and force change the rules on media ‘plurality’ so that no one company can own more than, say, 20% of UK media?
The News of the World has been a cess-pit of corrupt practices – Murdoch and Cameron ought clean it up, now, or face the consequences for their respective futures.
Let us be clear, Rupert Murdoch has done good things. I enjoy my Sky box and multiple channels as much as the next person. Not all his empire is sleazy. The Times and Sunday Times remain relatively good newspapers, though not as radical as the ST was back its heyday when the Insight Team were exposing Thalidomide or Bloody Sunday. If anyone doubts this, reading the chapter in Peter Riddell’s excellent new book* on the media is a sober reminder that things are not all black and white, even when the ‘Dirty Digger’ is involved.
But there is a strand within the Murdoch empire that is thoroughly odious. The facts speak for themselves:
– hacking the phones of parents, relatives and friends of children who have gone missing or been murdered
– hacking the phone of relatives of service personnel killed on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan
– bribing police officers for information
– lying about all of the above on an industrial scale
Let’s be clear, in Britain this has been limited to the News of the World. The Times, Sunday Times and even the Sun are not implicated. The first two almost certainly never will be, but the latter might. We shall see.
For several years the News of the World (NoW) and News International maintained that what phone hacking did take place was by a lone rogue reporter and the former NoW Editor, Andy Coulson, has sworn on oath that they did not bribe police officers (although his boss, Rebekah Brooks, told the House of Commons committee that they did).
If it wasn’t for the heroic efforts of some of Fleet Streets real finest – on the Guardian – and few backbench MPs, we would still be in the realms of rumour, allegation and denial, instead of the torrent of revelations now seeing the light of day.
The new line of defence will almost certainly be that the cancer was limited to the News of the World and specifically Andy Coulson. Ms Brooks has let it be known that she was (conveniently) on holiday when the NoW ran stories based on hacking the phones of Millie Dowler and relatives of the Soham school girls. That means Coulson, as deputy editor, was in charge. At the same time News International let be known they had handed over to the police emails that implicated Coulson in signing off payments to police officers.
You can almost see the new Marginot Line being dug, with the unfortunate Coulson on the wrong side of it. But the truth is that NI have already shelled out hundreds of thousands of pounds in payments to phone-hacked victims as long as the keep quiet about it. Does that sound like the actions of an honest organisation?
The ‘scape-goat Coulson’ strategy has unfortunate consequences for David Cameron, he employed Coulson despite being warned privately, as Peter Oborne points out in today’s Telegraph. But as Oborne adds, Cameron has openly embraced the ‘Chipping Norton’ set around News International, including Rebekah Brooks.
Of course, the New Labour leadership also courted News International and are just as culpable. But jus as the mud of the MPs expenses scandal stuck disproportionately to Gordon Brown because he was in power at the time, so the fall out of the hacking/bribery scandal will stick to David Cameron.
His only option is to follow Ed Miliband’s lead and break decisively with the Murdoch empire. That means encouraging a ferocious and forensic inquiry into hacking and police corruption and not just blocking Murdoch’s expansion but rolling back the frontiers of his empire in the UK. As Peter Oborne points out, this is risky because Cameron has become so close to Brooks she probably knows where some of his bodies are buried. His opportunistic instincts will probably be to take advantage of Labour’s attack on Murdoch to ensure continued support. But that would be a huge tactical mistake given the depth of public revulsion and anger at what the NoW has been up to.
As for the Murdoch empire, I suggest Mr M takes a close look at Arthur Andersen. Who? Exactly. The once mighty audit and accountancy firm is no more, utterly destroyed by allowing its name to be contaminated beyond redemption by its association with Enron a decade ago. It is a salutary reminder that even the biggest business empires can fall and perish utterly if they allow trust in their name to become so tarnished no-one will do business with them.
I heard an executive from Mitsubishi the other morning who was clearly seething with rage and disgust that the News of the World could have done anything so base as to hack Millie Dowlers phone. They are one of the firms to withdraw their advertising, and in their case donate some of the money to Child Line. That is the sort of sentiment that destroyed Arthur Andersen. Mr Murdoh ought to cut his losses and clean out NoW and News international, before the damage becomes too great.
* In Defence of Politicians, In Spite of Themselves, Biteback – see Chapter 7