07.10.11

Murdoch’s Dark Arts

News of the World shuttered, consigliere Les Hinton and the BSkyB deal over—can Rupert still prevail as he always has in the past?

The great cliffhanger of the Rupert Murdoch phone-hacking/bribery affair is whether this time, as always in the past, the man can once more come out a winner, however tarnished. Will the revolt to dislodge his power turn out like Egypt, where Mubarak fell, or Libya, where the tyrant has turned out to be far harder to dispatch? Is Murdoch still the Great and Powerful Oz, or just the Aussie behind the curtain?

The photographs of his arrival in London on Saturday—his gnarled, thoughtful face under a Panama hat, headed to take over crisis management from his beleaguered son James (described to me by an executive who knows him well as “always decisive, often wrong”)—will have struck fear into the hearts of students of Rupert’s dark arts. They know that he has what his critics and opponents never seem to have: a ruthless focus on the endgame—in this case, full control of British Sky Broadcasting, the lucrative satellite-TV service. He has already cauterized the wounds of the News of the World debacle with an instant shutdown, nimbly positioning himself to rebrand his weekday cash cow, The Sun, as a lean, mean seven-day tab.

We learned Sunday that Murdoch’s most trusted consigliere—Les Hinton, 67, who ran News International during the NotW editorships of flame-haired Rebekah Brooks and sudden jailbird Andy Coulson—will likely be called to an inquiry announced by Prime Minister David Cameron, according to Reuters. Hinton, who now very effectively heads up the Dow Jones & Company for Murdoch in New York, may have to explain his assurances to Parliament in 2007 that News International’s conscientious internal inquiry had shown the phone hacking was the work of one rogue royal journalist. And he may have to explain why he authorized a payment to that same supposed rogue while he was cooling his heels inside. People close to News International are now pointing out to the Financial Times that James Murdoch, who took over the U.K. company after Hinton left, now has to clean up problems that occurred on Hinton’s watch. Daddy’s back in charge, guys. Blood is thicker than water. Bye-bye, Les.

In the past the non-Murdoch 63 percent of the British press has always been too lazy, fearful, or overawed to mount a sustained attack. This time, thanks to the charge led by The Guardian, the muscular opposition of Labour leader Ed Miliband, who intends to force a Commons vote, and the sheer volume of dislodged hacking and bribery sleaze, it feels different.

Who’s Who: News of the World Scandal
phone-hacking-underhill
British Prime Minister David Cameron, top right, has resisted calls for an investigation into the practices of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, where reporters accessed the voicemail of missing British teenager Milly Dowler in 2002. Rebekah Brooks, lower right, was editor of News of the World at the time. (Clockwise from left: Getty Images, AP Photo (2))

But is it? We will now see Murdoch deploy his special combination of intimidation, charm, and eye for character weakness—and his understanding of the ADD of the press and the public—in a last-ditch chance to finesse his hoped-for takeover of BSkyB and thereby reconsolidate his power.

It doesn't look good for Murdoch. He may decide to push the pause button on his bid and regroup. But those who are betting he will be found unfit to take sole control of such an important segment of British media in addition to all of his other powerful holdings should not forget how he acquired his current stake in BSkyB after he suffered a reverse. He was one of seven bidders for the license from the government in 1990. He lost because the law said no national newspaper could own more than 20 percent of a TV network. Did he give up? Uh, no. He started beaming TV into British homes from his own Luxembourg-based pan-European satellite service. Did the government act? Uh, no. Murdoch had a nice private chat with Margaret Thatcher. Two days later, the hapless home secretary, David Waddington, got up in the House of Commons to say that while, yes, Murdoch might have technically broken the law, that was OK because it was a commercial matter unworthy of official concern.

For David Waddington in 1990, read Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary in David Cameron’s government. Hunt has already given a nod when he might properly have referred the takeover to the government commission charged with ensuring that competition prevails in the British media. Perhaps the 156,000 submissions and a collective protest of another 100,000 signatures he has since received from an outraged public will change his mind.

Murdoch is endlessly fascinating to watch because his talents and brilliance are equaled only by his amorality.

In the past, politicians have always rolled over for Murdoch in the end. One of the great disappointments of Tony Blair was how, despite sweeping to power with a majority of 179 seats in 1997, he cozied up to Murdoch at every opportunity. In a 2006 Guardian article, Lance Price wrote that when he worked as Blair’s media adviser at Downing Street between 1988 and 2001, Murdoch seemed like a “24th member of the cabinet”; no big decision could be made without first sussing out his reaction. According to Downing Street phone records, Blair found it necessary to call Murdoch three times in the weeks leading up to the Iraq War in March 2003. Now the Telegraph reports that in the year before the last U.K. election, when the Labour MP Tom Watson was leading a campaign to expose News of the World’s phone hacking, Blair urged his prime ministerial successor, Gordon Brown, to persuade Watson to back off. According to friends of Brown, Brown refused. On Friday, David Cameron made noises at a news conference about the too "cozy" relationship between media, politicians, and the police. When the dust settles, will his call for new regulatory controls really end Rupert's sway? Controls have never got in his way in the past.

Murdoch is endlessly fascinating to watch because his talents and brilliance are equaled only by his amorality. His enthrallment of media culture persists because he is so good at what he does. His rivals disgrace themselves by trying to emulate him, but his newspapers have more brio, more edge, more connective excitement than theirs do—and therefore more readers. His Fox News Channel is a shark-toothed star machine leaving its cable competitors in the dust. He takes big risks, makes big bets on big visions, then waits for the result like a poker player, prepared to stay at the table losing money until his bet pays off.

Imagine if that vision were allied to journalistic ethics. Murdoch would be a god. But the maggot-infested underside of News of the World is a metaphor for what his whole tabloid operation has wrought. He could have been Dumbledore crossed with Harry Potter. But he’s Voldemort, and he’s not vanquished yet.

Author’s note: Tina Brown’s husband, Harold Evans, was editor of The Times of London under Rupert Murdoch from 1981 to 1982. He resigned and wrote a book about his tenure there, Good Times, Bad Times (1984).