Having spent many weeks amidst the Strauss-Kahn case listening the locals assert that America's justice is superior to France's, we're now pitchforked into the next debate: could US journalism sink to the septic depths of the scandal-ridden News of the World whose immediate closure Murdoch's News International announced Thursday, and one of whose former editors, Andrew Coulson, later prime minister Cameron's media advisor, has just been arrested over “allegations of corruption and phone hacking” during his time as News of the World editor?
What would happen if Rupert Murdoch had ever built a press empire over here?
Hold hard! One of Rupert Murdoch’s earliest ventures in America, back in the early 1970s, was to found the Star, as a weekly rival to the best selling supermarket tabloid, The National Enquirer, paddling in the shallow waters of Hollywood gossip, gothic crime.
There was one huge difference with the British tabloids. The Enquirer and the Star were never reckoned to be part of the “national press” as the News of the World has been. They had zero political clout, and inflicted no political endorsements on their readers. They sold in 7/11 stores and supermarkets to an audience that did not lay them aside to pick up the New York Times.
The respectable press ignored the Star and the Enquirer even though they broke big stories. The Star, sold by Murdoch in 1990 to the Enquirer’s parent company, was the first, in January 1992, to expose Clinton’s philandering, during his run for the presidency. He survived precisely because the scoop, about his long affair with Gennifer Flowers, was in the Star and could be deprecated as being in a mere tabloid.
The same thing happened with the Enquirer and John Edwards, encumbered with a mistress as well as a wife with terminal cancer during his run for the presidency in 2008. The Enquirer was reporting accurately on John and Rielle’s “love child” at the same moment as newspapers were giving Edwards a pass on the “tabloid tattle” rationale. Finally the Enquirer was quite properly put up for a Pulitzer, though the jurors, respectable newspaper executives and the like, made sure it didn’t win one.
Both the Star and the Enquirer were mostly run by Fleet Street veterans and there’s no particular reason to assume that these transplants were of innately superior moral caliber to Murdoch’s crew at the News of the World, or would be aghast at the notion of breaking into voicemail boxes, fostering corrupt relationships with cops and so forth.
In fact, the Enquirer had such swift, real-time inside dope on the movements of Edwards and his mistress that in retrospect I now wonder whether some investigator or in-house hacker had discharged the same duties as private investigator and hacker Glenn Mulcaire, now whining about the incessant demands of the editors at the News of the World.
The darker moral moments for America’s press came in the 1940s and 1950s. Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace in the Hole and, six years later, Alexander McKendrick’s unforgettable film, Sweet Smell of Success, with Burt Lancaster playing a character modeled on the hugely powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell, caught exactly the journalistic moral corruption that has Britain gasping in revulsion today at the Milly Dowler hacking by the News of the World.
This was the era that saw Hoover, all-powerful head of the FBI, working week by week with nationally syndicated columnists like Winchell and Hedda Hopper to destroy suspected Commies, uppity blacks, and kindred subversives. By the mid-1970s radicalism was on an ebb tide and this tactical alliance between columnists and cops less a political requirement. By the late 1970s Hollywood-based gossip became dominant, entirely fluff, on terms dictated by the Hollywood studios.
Murdoch began with the Star because the big city papers he craved for weren’t up for sale at that time. Then in 1976 he bought the New York Post, and seems to have lost interest in the Star. When he bought the Post the press treated the acquisition of Dolly Schiff’s liberal paper as a dark day for American journalism. Either Time or Newsweek or New York magazine later bought by Murdoch) had a cartoon of Murdoch on the cover as an ape shinning up the Empire State building.
As his empire grew, the zeroes in the price of his acquisitions, in his debts to the banks, in his personal fortune, predictably smoothed Murdoch’s image. But there’s nothing like competitive pressures to prompt an editor, or a publisher, to call for the knuckle-dusters. American newspapers in their profitable heyday were mostly regional monopolies. It was Murdoch’s takeover of the Wall Street Journal in 2007 and vows to knock the New York Times off its perch that prompted the Times, under its recently ousted editor Bill Keller to run last September a very long, closely reported story on the News of the World hacking scandal, which helped breathe life back into the story.
What began in Britain in 2005 as “a third-rate burglary” of voicemails, supposedly limited to a criminal invasion of privacy by a News of the World reporter and a private investigator, had flowered beautifully over six years into a Level 7 scandal threatening the careers of two of Rupert Murdoch’s top executives, not to mention the heir apparent to the News Corp. empire, James Murdoch. It even lapped at the ankles of the 80-year-old magnate, threatening the final financial triumph that was scheduled to usher him into Valhalla.
Cameron was scarcely installed in 10 Downing Street before he summoned Andy Coulson as his media adviser. It was a flagrant declaration of interest, since Coulson was a notably grimy character in the Murdoch archipelago, having served as editor of News of the World — a job akin to supervising the efficient distribution of raw sewage into the prurient hands of about three million Britons every Sunday. Cameron's hire showed him as yet one more occupant of 10 Downing St., diligent in servicing Murdoch's demands, just as Blair did. But the Coulson hire was one which will haunt Cameron as an exceptionally stupid move. After Coulson's arrest Cameron refused to apologize for hiring Coulson. He said he had accepted Coulson's assurance that he was not involved in phone-hacking while he edited the News of the World and he had no reason to disbelieve him. He said Coulson was a friend, “and still is.” So the British prime minister stands by Coulson, just as Murdoch stands by Rebekah Brooks.
Amid the first stages of the phone-hacking scandal, Coulson resigned as editor when NoW reporter Clive Goodman, who ran the royal beat, and private investigator Mulcaire were convicted of hacking into the phone messages of members of the royal family. With Goodman and Mulcaire sent to jail and Coulson stepping down, Murdoch’s senior executives no doubt hoped that a lid had been clamped down on the scandal.
The first line of defense — that Goodman and Mulcaire were unlicensed freebooters operating outside decorous guidelines — swiftly fell apart under the weight of palpable absurdity. As Nigel Horne, executive editor of the UK-based online daily The First Post, emphasizes, “The idea of rogue reporters blowing money without the knowledge of their bosses is a joke.” The paper paid Mulcaire £2,000 a week.
On January 21 of this year Coulson quit his job as Cameron’s media advisor, saying that the hacking scandal was taking up most of his time.
In 2002 the News of the World illegally broke into the voicemail of a missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler shortly after her disappearance. The news, reported by the Guardian last Monday, caused huge public outrage in Britain.
Having recorded the messages he had retrieved, Mulcaire, then deleted older messages in Milly Dowler's inbox once it was full, in order to free up space for further messages from Milly's frantic family and friends, which he also intercepted and passed back to News of the World journalists. By deleting messages illegally retrieved from Milly Dowler's mobile phone, the paper misled her family into believing she had emptied her inbox herself and was still alive, though by then she had been murdered. This gave the family hope, which was exploited by the paper in publishing optimistic interviews with them, although of course aware that the optimism was entirely unfounded.
In deleting the earlier messages, the paper also removed material evidence in a murder investigation, information that would have had a direct impact on the police investigation of Milly's disappearance.
As the grimy NoW saga lurches forward, impelled by the Guardian’s exposes, nothing looms in my memory as an American parallel more than the Watergate scandal that destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency. It really began with one of Nixon’s senior aides, John Ehrlichman, forming a “White House plumbers unit” assigned hands-on hacking duties, starting with a break-in to the office of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s shrink, to get dirt on Ellsberg. If cell phones had existed back then they’d have hacked his too.
Then came an attempted “third-rate” burglary of the offices of the Democratic National Committee to install a secret microphone. The burglars were caught and for Nixon, slowly at first, the skies began to fall in. It took two years. The investigation, pushed forward by two Congressional committees, an independent prosecutor and newspapers run by publishers hostile to Nixon, gradually pushed responsibility for hiring the hands-on hackers up the tree, into the White House, into John Ehrlichman’s office. Suspects were parlaying deals with prosecutors to avoid jail time for perjury and obstruction of justice by implicating their superiors.
The disclosures steadily became more devastating. Nixon threw Ehrlichman overboard. Finally a mid-level White House employee let drop to a Congressional committee that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded his private meetings. The tapes were subpoenaed and “a smoking gun” duly found. Nixon resigned a few days later.
“Never believe anything till it’s officially denied” was one my father Claud’s admonitions to young journalists and here we had Murdoch hastening to emphasize that NoW editor Rebekah Brooks, News International’s top executive in Britain, was on holiday in Italy at the moment weekly payments of £2,000 were being okayed by NoW executives to Mulcaire and while the Milly Dowler hacking was underway. Presumably, amid this idyll, Brooks took no phone calls or faxes or emails from London.
Barely had the Dowling outrage hit the headlines, before it emerged that on Coulson’s watch the News of the World had authorized bribes to senior police officers at Scotland Yard totaling at least £150,000. Families of British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan had also been hacked. Emails and abusive phone calls flowed into the newspaper, provoking an advertisers’ boycott.
As Murdoch sized up the crisis, his prime objective was clearly to save News Corp.’s $20 billion bid for full control of the enormously profitable BSkyB network (News Corp. holds about 40%). Cameron’s government had been set to okay the deal, arguing that scandal at the News of the World was immaterial. But the public fury after the Dowling story broke forced Cameron to take some sort of a stand. So he took refuge in that familiar stand-by, the public commission of enquiry into the practices of British journalism, as yet without a mandate, no deadline and the sole function of trying to douse a flaring scandal. Murdoch’s foes argue that in a takeover as momentous in the control of British television as the BSkyB deal, the moral character of the purchaser is obviously relevant.
On Thursday Murdoch took the logical decision stemming from the fact that the News of the World was permanently compromised, an unending source of trouble, huge damage settlements, and the likelihood that the scandal would finish off Rebekah Brooks, the Murdoch organization’s senior rep in the UK, for whom Murdoch has high regard and affection. His son James announced the News of the World would close immediately after the final edition this Sunday. Every week without the NoW will lose News International more than £2.5m. The paper — by far Britain's biggest Sunday, with a circulation of 2.66 million — was making £2m in circulation revenue and about £660,000 in advertising revenue each week. All this is a drop in the bucket in News International’s overall revenues.
The closure will probably save the BSkyB deal. After a short interval the News of the World will no doubt be replaced by a Sunday edition of the other big tabloid in Murdoch’s British stable. Maybe in the fall, welcome the Sun on Sunday. The scandal won’t die, because hacked victims are lining up for hefty settlements and there are criminal investigations prompting imminent arrests of News of the World journalists and executives. But the top tier of Murdoch’s executives will probably stay out of jail, unless Coulson, clearly being tossed over the side, decides to shop his superiors and has the documentation to do so. As British journalist, Peter Burden, a British journalist who has written extensively about News of the World, wrote on his blog a few weeks ago:
“If Andy Coulson was involved, so was Rebekah Brooks. If Rebekah Brooks was involved, so was Master James [Murdoch]. And if they were, it’s very likely that Les Hinton, CEO of [Dow Jones and Company] (the brightest bird in Rupert Murdoch’s bush), was involved, too, because he was Executive Chairman of News International at the time.”
Few corporate employees are more sensitive to the whims, preferences and overall political and moral coordinates of their commanders than journalists. Murdoch, ruthless and unprincipled his entire professional life, has cast a long, dark shadow over journalism in Australia, Britain and the US. As plumbers like to say, shit flows downhill and payday comes on Friday. From Murdoch’s closet to the furthest reaches of his empire. Small wonder that his employees carried out their grimy tasks without demur.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.