07.19.11

Piers Morgan’s Murdoch Apologia

The CNN host and former News of the World editor says on his show that ex-boss Rupert Murdoch is victim of a witch hunt. Lloyd Grove on Morgan’s effort to humanize the media mogul.

Not since Eliot Spitzer found himself awkwardly anchoring a segment on Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sexting has a CNN host been so compromised and conflicted.

But that didn’t stop former News of the World editor Piers Morgan—who until now has kept eerily silent concerning the phone-hacking and police-bribery scandal that has rocked the British body politic—from giving a full-throated defense of Fleet Street and his embattled former boss, Rupert Murdoch, on Monday’s installment of Piers Morgan Tonight.

Watching the grim-faced talk-show host defend his erstwhile benefactor against all comers, it was even possible to believe that chutzpah is a Britishism.

The 80-year-old Murdoch, Morgan maintained, is the victim of “this huge witch hunt going on to bring him down personally.” Morgan added: “I don’t accept that he himself would be party to illegal activity.”

Referring to his own editorship of Murdoch’s biggest-circulation Sunday tabloid in 1994 and 1995 and then of the Daily Mirror, a non-Murdoch tabloid, from 1995 to 2004, Morgan declared: “For the record, I do not believe that any story that we published in either title was ever gained in an unlawful manner.” (Not that Morgan’s hands are spotless; Tuesday’s Telegraph reports that members of Parliament want to grill the CNN host about his years at The Daily Mirror, when, by his own admission, a form of hacking might have been involved in one of his biggest scoops.)

Morgan did his darnedest to humanize the hard-nosed media mogul. In the second of two pre-taped segments, Morgan’s guest, former New York Post features editor Vicky Ward, disclosed that she had just received a well-timed phone call from Rupert Murdoch himself.

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“Piers, I just got a call an hour ago, and Rupert wanted to tell me personally that he’s not OK,” Ward said, her voice trembling. “Ever since he met with Milly Dowler the murdered girl’s parents, he hasn’t felt the same. His voice has been cracking. The people around him are very concerned. His children are very concerned. And this is a man who is more devastated than he has ever been in his entire 80 years. And he is appalled at what’s gone on on his watch and I think he’s as anxious to get top the bottom of it as we all are.”

Morgan chimed in: “Having been one of his editors, I know that whenever we tripped up over what are, by these standards, relatively minor indiscretions, in terms of breaching the Press Complaints Commission Code or whatever, he was always incredibly quick to be publicly censorious of me or whoever the editor was … and remind us forcefully, personally, ‘You’ve got to abide by the rules of the game.’”

Morgan’s on-camera testimony deviated significantly from his account of Murdoch’s attitude in The Insider, Morgan’s memoir of life on Fleet Street—in which Murdoch is portrayed as privately dismissive of all such rules. “I’m sorry about all that press complaining thingamajig,” Morgan quotes Murdoch as apologizing after publicly taking him to task, in one instance of misbehavior, for appearance’s’ sake. “He doesn’t really give a toss about it.”

After Ward waxed sentimental about Murdoch’s mushy love for his children, Morgan cautioned: “I wouldn’t want this to become a valedictory ‘he’s perfect’ kind of segment because the reality is, of course, he’s not. He’s a ruthless, tough businessman.”

Uh-huh.

Pointedly missing from Morgan’s recitation were ‘fair’ and ‘accurate.’

Sparring with another guest, New Yorker magazine media critic Ken Auletta, Morgan said Murdoch “wanted his editors to be tough, to be ruthless, to be aggressive—all the things you’d expect from a tabloid newspaper—but always to operate within the law.”  (Pointedly missing from Morgan’s recitation were “fair” and “accurate.”) “And I find it impossible personally, knowing the man, to believe that he would have known about lawbreaking on his newspapers, let alone that he would condone it,” Morgan went on, noting that he edited the News of the World “five or six years before this phone hacking began.”

Auletta retorted: “It’s not just a question of what you knew, but whether you should have known.”

On July 10, after The Guardian revealed that a private investigator working for the News of the World hacked the cell phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler—potentially hampering a police investigation and sparking widespread public outrage and a political firestorm—Murdoch and his son James, chairman of News Corp.’s British newspaper group, abruptly shut down the 168-year-old Sunday tabloid in a failed attempt at damage control.

At the time, Morgan refused all interview requests—“Sorry mate, not commenting on this one—on or off record,” he emailed a Daily Beast reporter—and instead restricted himself to a series of sarcastic posts on his Twitter account. Among them:

“PREDICTION: The British public will show their outrage over the News of the World’s behaviour by buying twice as many copies as usual.”

And: “Must be a great comfort to #NewsOfTheWorld readers that they will still be able to buy #TheGuardian after this weekend.”

On Monday’s show, Morgan managed to avoid mentioning 43-year-old Rebekah Brooks, his close friend and protégée at News of the World who rose from lowly secretary to become chief executive of News International, Murdoch’s British newspaper division, only to be forced out and to submit to police questioning over the weekend on suspicion of phone hacking and corruption.

In an apparent attack on The Guardian and The New York Times—the newspapers that have been leading the coverage of the News of the World’s lawbreaking in the service of titillation—Morgan seemed to argue that the disturbing revelations were more damaging than the heinous conduct.

“Unfortunately, this series of exposés of the News of the World and what they’re up to, in terms of Milly Dowler and so on, has merely, I would suspect, reaffirmed to people their worst fears,” he said. “I think it’s not as simple as that. You’ve got bad apples here. They’ve simply gone way too far. That is not indicative, from my time on Fleet Street, as to how most of those journalists behave.”

In the first of two segments devoted to the scandal—which so far has resulted in the resignations of Scotland Yard’s top two cops, the departure of two of Murdoch’s most trusted executives, 10 arrests of editors and reporters, and an FBI investigation of News Corp. operations in the United States—Morgan suggested that Murdoch, as chief executive of a $32 billion corporation, “cannot be expected to micromanage the methodology of every single part of his company. Would you expect him to?”

“No, I would not,” Auletta replied. “I would expect he might have asked [his editors] the question, ‘How are we getting all this wonderful stuff?’ ”

Addressing another guest, Columbia University law professor John Coffee, Morgan asked hopefully if Murdoch “has been primarily a force for good or a force for not so good in the media?”

“I think he’s probably led a race to the bottom,” Coffee answered bluntly.