Two years to the day after news broke that his bestselling tabloid, News of the World, had hacked the cellphone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, Rupert Murdoch himself has been caught on tape making a series of explosive statements about his company’s cooperation with the police and his attitude toward the last two years of the hacking scandal.
Murdoch was recorded this March in London during a meeting to reassure 20 or so of his senior staff, many of them among the 100 or so journalists and informants already arrested over allegations of illegal payments to police. According to Exaro News, which exclusively published the transcript and redacted recordings Wednesday, more than one of the journalists was covertly recording the conversation.
Two years ago, called to appear in Parliament over the mounting hacking scandal that shuttered News of the World, Murdoch appeared apologetic and said it was “the most humble day of my life.”
To his staff at The Sun three months ago, he said they’d been “picked on” by a mixture of the “old right-wing establishment” and, “even worse, the left-wing get-even crowd.” He claimed the police were both “incompetent” and “out of control.” When told by Sun deputy editor Geoff Webster that “it would be nice to hit back,” Murdoch replied: “We will, we will.”
Two years ago in Parliament, Murdoch testified that paying police for stories was “wrong.” To his staff in March, he said, “It was the culture of Fleet Street.” Challenged by a Sun journalist who had arrived at the paper only 10 years previously and had been told to make payments to police, Murdoch conceded that this was an “inherited” practice for more than 40 years since he took over the paper. “We’re talking about payments for news tips from cops,” he said. “That’s been going on 100 years, absolutely.”
Two years ago one of Britain’s most senior law officers, the former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald, who was heavily criticized for failing to investigate the scale of phone hacking during the initial inquiries in 2005 and 2006, was called to Parliament to testify about how he was hired by Murdoch after retiring from government to review internal emails. When he explained to them the evident level of corruption, Macdonald said the News Corp. board was “shocked” and “stunned.”
But in March this year, Murdoch claimed that Lord Macdonald knew bribery was endemic. “Now there was a law passed against this in 1906,” Murdoch told his staff. “That’s when it was first recognized as a problem. The previous chief of public prosecution ... [Lord] Macdonald ... said he knew that on Fleet Street there were payments made, and he decided not to go after it because it was all too petty—and too complicated.”
Two years ago, largely under pressure from a Department of Justice investigation for alleged breaches of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Murdoch set up a lawyer-led Management and Standards Committee to trawl through more than 300 million emails for evidence of illegal payments. At the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, Murdoch said, “I am glad we did it.” “We are now a new company,” he said under oath. “We have new rules, have new compliance officers, and I think we’re showing in The Sun that you can still produce the best newspaper.”
In March this year, Murdoch said the MSC, like the closure of News of the World, was a “mistake” and a decision taken in “panic.” “The police were about to invade this building and take all the computers out ... and just put us out of business totally,” he told the assembled journalists. He complained that “the press were screaming and yelling,” and he acknowledged, “We might have gone too far in protecting ourselves” and that “the lawyers just got rich going through millions of emails.” However, he maintained that the MSC hadn’t given the police “anything for months.” “All I can say is for the last several months,” he explained to his staff, “the MSC has told the police, has said, ‘No, no, no—get a court order. Deal with that.’”
When The Sun’s agony aunt, Deidre Sanders, read out a letter from the wife of a News International employee whose life had been devastated by arrest and who felt betrayed, Murdoch concluded: “That’s very moving ... I’ll go and shove it down the throat of the company lawyers.”
In a statement released Wednesday, News Corp. responded to the release of the Murdoch tapes: “Mr. Murdoch never knew of payments made by Sun staff to police before News Corporation disclosed that to UK Authorities. Furthermore, he never said he knew of payments. It’s absolutely false to suggest otherwise.”
However, in a statement Wednesday night, senior Labour M.P. Tom Watson has demanded that the police interview Murdoch about the recent comments. Two years ago Watson was criticized for comparing James Murdoch to “a Mafia boss” during a parliamentary select committee. Watson, who resigned from his Labour leadership post Thursday to focus on campaigning, has also sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller urging the “UK and US to ensure that their investigations into News Corporation are not inhibited in going to the very top.”
Whatever happens in terms of the legal proceedings, the fact that the owner of the second biggest media conglomerate in the world has been recorded by at least one of his most trusted staff means the age of Fleet Street’s famous “omerta” is now over.