08.24.12

Elisabeth Murdoch Takes Aim at News Corp.

Speaking out publicly on phone hacking for the first time, Elisabeth Murdoch takes aim at her beleaguered brother James. By Peter Jukes. 


In the end she pulled no punches.

As Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth Murdoch got on stage at a big media shindig in Edinburgh today, many wondered whether she would deny the line attributed to her from last summer, at the height of the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed the Murdoch family, namely that “James and Rebekah [Brooks] fucked the company.”

Today’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Film and Television festival provided a clear-cut answer. Three years after her brother James laid down his vision on the same platform, Elisabeth was at pains to demolish everything he stood for.

Much of the criticism of her brother was implied. While James’s 2009 MacTaggart lecture, titled “The Absence of Trust,” was a direct attack on the BBC trust for providing “state sponsored” current affairs and “chilling” the market in news with its “Orwellian” stranglehold, Elisabeth held up a completely opposite picture. She praised the outgoing BBC director general, Mark Thompson (who is about to take a very well-paid job as CEO of The New York Times), for his vision of the future. She name-checked playwrights Alan Bennett and Dennis Potter, two of her father’s most trenchant critics, for his domination of Fleet Street. (Potter named the pancreatic cancer that would eventually kill him Rupert.)

Then the attack turned more direct. Moving into the area of news and touching on the nightmare that has descended on News Corp.’s U.K. subsidiary, News International, Elisabeth took on her brother’s argument that “the only direct and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.” “He left something out,” Elisabeth said. “Profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster.”

No need for nuance here: the phone-hacking and bribery scandal that has led to more than 50 arrests, and charges for senior new executives Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, arose from a failure of value and moral leadership, and guess who was in control at the time?

Lest the audience be left in any doubt, Elisabeth Murdoch also came out as a direct support of the universal license fee to support the BBC—something her father has adamantly opposed and that her brother James directly attacked in his techno-libertarian manifesto three years ago.

Back in 2009 James’s proposition that the BBC be radically downsized, along with the broadcast regulator Ofcom, was echoed immediately in speeches by the then-leader of the opposition, David Cameron, and his shadow culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who would later get into so much trouble over their coziness with the Murdochs. Within months, powerful News International titles like The Sun had swung behind the Conservatives, and after the 2010 election, the policy dance culminated with large cuts to the public-sector broadcaster and Ofcom. Hunt, meanwhile, became nothing short of a cheerleader for News Corp., showing enthusiastic support for its biggest-ever acquisition, the $17 billion takeover of Britain’s most lucrative broadcaster, BSkyB, which would have seen the newspaper titles and the pay-TV giant amalgamated in a dominant “media hub.”

“Profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster.”

With James, the erstwhile heir apparent, retiring from his many British directorships in the wake of the hacking scandal and the failure of the BSkyB bid, Elisabeth’s speech was seen by many observers as her own bid for the dynastic crown.

But futurism and policy stuff was almost absent from her speech. Rather, Elisabeth spoke about the past, the travails of working “from the bottom up” as a TV producer, “values and vision,” and above all her commitment to British public life. While her father had blamed “the English” for his recent troubles, Elisabeth let it be known that, even during her adolescence in New York, she considered herself a “British refugee.”

Met with rapt applause, the speech will do much to cement Elisabeth Murdoch on the media scene in Britain, where, along with her PR-supremo husband, Matthew Freud, she remains a very powerful figure.

Video screenshot

Daniel Gross and Paula Froelich talk about Murdoch family business

So far Elisabeth has managed to discreetly distance herself from the train crash at the newspapers. But some of this is just good PR. The “Rebekah fucked the company” line, along with media reports that Brooks was some kind of surrogate daughter to Rupert, flies in the face of the facts. Brooks, Freud, and Elisabeth formed a friendship in the late ’90s, and it was Freud’s bolt-hole on the Blenheim Palace estate that formed the hub of the now accursed “Chipping Norton set,” which included David Cameron.

With multiple trials of Brooks and several others certain to dominate the news in the year ahead, it is an open question whether Elisabeth can detoxify her branch of the Murdoch brand so deftly. In the end, despite the temptations to reform News Corp. with her “values,” Elisabeth’s words sounded more a like a bid for secession rather than succession.