Parliament’s remarkable three-hour hearing on July 19, focusing on the role of Rupert Murdoch and top News International executives in the immense phone-hacking scandal, proved an epic Westminster moment. It’s now possible to see with historic clarity how a cunning press lord and a gang of enabling thugs, under a cloak of journalistic high-mindedness, managed to capture and control the three essential institutions of contemporary British life: the political system, the media, and the police. A transfixed audience of millions learned how a bullying owner of old-fashioned printing presses and satellite television networks could break Britain’s civic compact. It was absolutely riveting—and deeply depressing.
Let’s begin by acknowledging what was painfully apparent in Westminster: that Rupert Murdoch is a figure of stature, whose acumen, appetite, and fulfillment of grandiose ambitions place him head and shoulders above the Lilliputian pols and coppers he bought with such apparent ease. He had managed repeatedly to slip in and out the back door of 10 Downing Street with no one raising a peep.
Worst of all, perhaps, Murdoch and his hack handmaidens wrought their havoc with the tacit approval of tens of millions of Britons whom he understood better than the politicians, comprehending that readers of his tabloids would revel in the amusement of trash “news” while he bought up ever-more respectable journalistic properties to consolidate his power.
Yet there he was seated before the M.P.s, fumbling and halting and forgetting, perhaps sensing that he was being hoisted on his own petard. There were moments in the hearing—and in the dizzying days leading up to it—when he looked caught in the headlights of the merciless vehicle he helped to invent and worked to empower. He was a paparazzi-pursued old buck past his prime, hounded by a thousand flashcams and a horde of hacks he inspired, reduced to mumbling “I wish they’d leave me alone” to the politicians who once courted his approval and pleaded for the endorsement of his newspapers.
That he—or the institutions he bought and built and nurtured—would eventually overreach and run afoul of the law was probably inevitable. He had taken a gutter-tabloid press and sent it drilling ever deeper into an abyss, establishing in his tabloid newsrooms a reckless disregard for the essential elements of good journalism: fairness, concern for context, and a commitment to the best obtainable version of the truth.
In the United States, things have been distressingly similar. Those in Murdoch’s thrall have included too many of the nation’s most prominent editors, publishers, and media executives. Few of them had ever condemned the kind of journalism on which he built his empire, regularly hobnobbing with him just like the British pols. Many American news executives had imported to their own enterprises the same crude practices that are the stock and trade of Murdoch’s style of journalism.
It is thus fitting, and predictable, that the scandal was brought to light by elements of what remain of genuine journalism in Britain. Nick Davies of The Guardian doggedly pursued the story for five long years, along with decisive help from The New York Times in 2010. Old-fashioned journalistic hard work has exposed how deep the corruption ran within the Murdoch enterprise.
All the more galling, then, that his younger son, James, seated by Rupert’s side before the parliamentary committee, insisted the cover-up was over. There was a problem with this, however. Within days two former executives of News International contradicted his testimony, claiming that James must have been “mistaken” in some of his assurances to the M.P.s about what he knew about hacking and payments to its victims back in 2008. Even Prime Minister David Cameron, attempting to show that he’s no longer under the Murdoch family thumb, commented on the contradiction, stating that “James Murdoch has got [more] questions to answer in Parliament, and I’m sure he will do that.”
And yet there was Rupert, announcing, risibly, to Parliament and the British people on July 19 that “frankly, I'm the best person to clean this up,” with “this” referring to his own stable and what had soiled it—just as Richard Nixon, caught in the vice of his own entrapment in April 1973, proposed to undertake his own investigation of the Watergate matter. Murdoch, you see, had merely been “misled” and let down by people he’d trusted—just as Nixon dismissed Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, insisting they were “two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know.”
The lesson should be obvious by now—but apparently, for some, it still isn’t. Hugely powerful institutions can no more be trusted to investigate themselves than an individual can reliably be the judge in his own case. Left to their own devices, the organization’s principals will cover up transgressions and conceal the truth. That's why a democratic society needs a genuinely free, independent, and responsible press to dig deep—and then dig even deeper.
The alternative is a culture of frivolousness, corruption, and superficiality, all the way down.