There is an Australian legend about the young Rupert Murdoch, his local newspaper, and a politician who displeased him. “Whaddaya want?” Rupert asked him. “A bouquet of roses every day, or a bucket of shit every day?” Apocryphal or not, the story was called to mind by his cheerful admission to the parliamentary committee investigating what now appears to be the systemic and illegal pattern of phone hacking at Murdoch’s now shuttered News of the World. At the hearing, Murdoch noted that British Prime Minister David Cameron had invited him to Downing Street to thank him for his papers’ propaganda bouquets at the last election. The gratitude was clandestine—Cameron arranged for him to enter through the back door, so the public would not know how politicians repaid their debts to media moguls.
Kowtowing to Rupert has been the political norm on three continents, but most excruciatingly in Britain. His tabloids are believed to be capable of delivering the working-class vote more effectively than trade unions are. It has taken a massive fit of moral outrage at the obscene actions of News Corp. contractors to bring Murdoch to some form of accountability. So there he was, with son James, eating slices of humble pie before a parliamentary committee.
It must be said that the Murdochs were fortunate in their interrogators—M.P.s “selected” only by the fact that they have not amounted to much. They let Rupert get away with his claim to have known, seen, and heard no evil at News of the World for the past decade, although everyone in the business knows how he routinely calls up his editors to gossip (which he loves) and to check that their expenditure on stories has given him value for his money.
He was also fortunate in being the victim of a moronic protester who threw a shaving-cream pie and diverted attention from the credibility of his “total ignorance” defense. But as the scene of Wendi Deng Murdoch springing to action was endlessly replayed, News Corp. investors might have noticed that Rupert was the only man in the room who did not react. He did not seem to know what was going on. This supported his defense—but also showed that he is much too doddery to run a major corporation.
As the Murdochs tell it—and the tactic was for James to do the telling, in management-speak generalizations, at great length and in an accent reminiscent of Donald Duck—they knew nothing of how their profits, derived from stories about celebrities’ sex lives, had been purchased from corrupt policemen or came from illegal phone hacks commissioned from criminals. Rupert’s avidity to hear of scandals before they are published never caused him to ask about their sources, or inquire about the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid illegally for them. He did not tell the committee the identity of the executives who approved these payments. “I was betrayed by people I trusted and perhaps by people they trusted.” Everyone in the frame had, by amazing coincidence, left News Corp. over the previous week.
Only one question hit home—but it hit hard. The really obscene phone hacks for which the Murdochs had so volubly apologized were done by Glenn Mulcaire. Had News Corp. paid Mr. Mulcaire’s legal fees? Was it still paying them? Panic crossed the faces of Murdoch and son—yes, they had only just discovered that indeed it was.
Although the day after the hearing News Corp. said it would terminate paying his legal fees, the fact that it was still funding Mulcaire proves that the Murdochs’ apologies for his actions are insincere. So are their claims that they want transparency and truth. The only way to achieve that: to insist that he come clean—in public—about his 4,000 hacking targets and the identity of the people at News of the World who commissioned and paid for his dirty work.
It is now being alleged—by NotW’s last editor and its lawyer—that James lied to the committee by claiming he had not been shown a document evidencing the hacking. The Murdochs did not testify under oath, so they cannot be prosecuted for perjury, but lying to Parliament carries in the U.K. the stigma of dishonor. It means the Murdochs will fail the “fit and proper person” test for taking over BSkyB, if they should resume their effort to do so, and their company may be required to divest itself of its existing 39 percent ownership.
U.S. law enforcement can place no reliance on Scotland Yard intelligence, which turns out to be a contradiction in terms. Another parliamentary panel reported on the incompetence of the original hacking inquiry, run by police who ignored Mulcaire’s victims and were wined and dined by Murdoch henchpeople. “Operation Weeting”—the new inquiry—seems little better. It foolishly arrested Rebekah Brooks, before instead of after her testimony (thus giving her a ready-made excuse to dodge difficult questions because of her “right to silence”), and its best prosecution witness (the showbiz editor of NotW who squealed on her to The New York Times) was found dead the next day. “No suspicious circumstances,” say the police, but nobody believes them any longer.
Where will it end? There is a “twilight of the gods” atmosphere in Britain as the Murdochs tremble and Scotland Yard’s top cops fall on their swords prior to the prosecution and imprisonment of detectives. A nasty form of institutional corruption—the “revolving door” through which Murdoch men moved from their desks at News of the World to Scotland Yard’s press office—has been exposed. There will be a judicial inquiry and more scandals to come.
But hey! It’s the British summer—and Parliament has just closed for its slothful three-month recess. When it returns in mid-October, much of the righteous anger against the Murdochs will have dissipated. Had Rupert told the truth to the second-rate politicians (whom he really despises), he would have pointed out that News of the World had 4 million readers because he catered to the tastes of a prurient society, addicted to its Sunday-morning snigger at the sex lives of others. All the bribery and corruption and illegality brought forth no story of any genuine public importance. Come October, the British will be missing the paper they fondly call “the Screws of the World.” So come back then, Rupert, when all will be forgiven. We will remember only your humility, and Wendi’s killer punch.
Robertson heads the U.K.’s largest human-rights law practice.