07.12.09

Murdoch's Crazy Gang

His tabs are accused of wiretapping major celebs and the editor who presided over two of his papers has just been promoted to run his entire British newspaper group. But Andrew Neil says no one seems to care.

When Rupert Murdoch, squirreled away with the rest of the U.S. media elite at their annual gathering in Sun Valley, Idaho, was contacted by Bloomberg about the astonishing claims being made back in London about the bizarre behavior of his two British tabloids, the Sun and the News of the World, he replied that he knew nothing about it.

Since the story involved the tabloids paying a $1.6 million out-of-court settlement to keep embarrassing information secret—“That couldn’t happen without me knowing,” averred Mr. Murdoch—only two conclusions were possible: Either he was being economical with the truth or the old man had finally lost control of his wayward tabloid offspring. When tackled about it on his own Fox News, he had stopped the denials—he just refused to talk about it (the interviewer, not surprisingly, didn’t push him).

The famous names who think they’ve had their privacy violated are being encouraged to bring what in America would be called a class-action suit against the Murdoch papers.

“Maybe the lunatics really have taken over the asylum,” one former Murdoch tabloid editor mused to me. Perhaps so. Certainly lunatic things have been happening, especially in the newsroom of the News of the World, a raunchy Sunday tabloid which sells more copies—more than 3 million every week—than any other newspaper in Britain.

Last week the Guardian, the country’s leading liberal-left newspaper and therefore an old enemy of the Murdoch press, claimed that the News of the Screws (as it is known in Fleet Street because of its penchant for revealing sexual misdemeanors) had been systematically using private investigators to invade the privacy of celebrities and other famous folks to gather dirt on them.

Everybody knew something along these lines had been happening because two years ago the paper’s royal correspondent had been jailed for hacking into the mobile-phone voicemails of the royal family, along with the PI who’d done the hacking for him. At the time, however, Murdoch’s London executives and editors dismissed this as the unauthorized work of a rogue journalist and a rogue PI. They even testified to that effect in front of a parliamentary investigation.

In direct contradiction of that testimony, the Guardian claims that, far from that being an exception, the News of the World has resorted to the use of potentially criminal invasions of privacy on an industrial scale to gather stories. Up to 3,000 celebrities and other famous folk had been targeted, from the former deputy prime minister (John Prescott) to Elle Macpherson to Gwyneth Paltrow to London Mayor Boris Johnson to Posh Spice and David Beckham.

The modus operandi was to attempt to access messages on their voicemail, which is easier than you might think since most people apparently don’t change the factory default setting of 1234 or 0000. So we’re not talking James Bond here; but it is, nevertheless, illegal. A separate report by Britain’s official information commissioner had revealed that some of the country’s newspapers—the News of the World is not in this alone—had used PIs to access, illegally, ex-director's phone numbers, addresses, driver’s license details and even health records. In other words, British newspapers were awash in an epidemic of illegality—with the News of the World in particular out of control.

At the heart of the Guardian’s claims are two pillars of Murdoch’s British Establishment: Rebekah Wade, flame-haired editor of the News of the World and then the Sun, when illegality was supposedly rampant in both newsrooms; and Andy Coulson, her deputy at the News of the World and the man who succeeded her when she left to take over the Sun.

Wade is said to be the apple of Murdoch’s eye: He has just promoted her to be chief executive of all his British newspaper operations and she has become a leading figure in London’s incestuous social-political scene. The guest list at her recent wedding to a racehorse trainer in the lush Cotswolds—London’s version of the Hamptons—read like a who’s who of British power: Both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, attended, along with much of the inner Murdoch family (including the old man himself), rival editors, TV personalities, and even Madonna’s ex, Guy Ritchie.

The 41-year-old Wade is now the most powerful woman in the British media. Her social life is flamboyant—she once apparently thumped her previous lover, a famous British soap star, and thinks nothing of flying to Morocco or Venice for dinner with her new beau, according to the social magazine Tatler. Since Murdoch has previously hated this kind of publicity for his editors and had no time for the sort of country toff she has just married, he must really like her.

Coulson is much lower key. He resigned as editor of the News of the World when his royal correspondent was jailed, saying he knew nothing about how he got his stories but took responsibility for what happened on his watch. The Guardian’s allegations have been given a political twist since Coulson is now David Cameron’s spin-doctor-in-chief. Coulson is sticking to his “I knew nothing” line, but since there are reports that almost 30 of his newsroom staff were at one time using the services of PIs, many have concluded that he must either have been complicit—or incompetent. Labour politicians, battered by scandals of their own, are enthusiastically calling for his scalp.

The spotlight now falls on a new parliamentary inquisition. This week it has called Coulson to testify, along with Les Hinton, who ran Murdoch’s newspapers in London—now his big cheese at The Wall Street Journal—who originally told parliament it was all the work of a couple of rogues. All of London is waiting for this show trial but don’t hold your breath—British parliamentary committees have neither the power nor the skills of congressional committees.

Wade has led the Murdoch counterattack, claiming that the Guardian has not been able to prove that illegality was widespread and insisting that it was all the work of a few bad apples. The Guardian has yet to prove that the problem was endemic. But if it wasn’t, why did the Murdoch papers pay so much to keep the information in its out-of-court settlement secret?

In America, such a story would create a crisis for journalism. In Britain, nobody seems to care very much. The weekend papers gave it little coverage, perhaps because they’ve all used PIs, with varying degrees of justification.

But the media might not be the final arbiter on its own behavior. The famous names who think they’ve had their privacy violated are being encouraged to bring what in America would be called a class-action suit against the Murdoch papers. In Britain it’s known as a consolidated claim and it could unseal what Murdoch has paid $1.6m to bury. It could result in a multimillion dollar lawsuit, which even Murdoch could struggle to afford.

Andrew Neil is a publisher and broadcaster working out of London, New York, Dubai, and the south of France. He is chairman and editor in chief of Press Holdings Media Group, publishers of The Spectator, Spectator Business, and Apollo.