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High drama, low farce: Breaking News & Murdoch’s World

It would be fair to say that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is not among the most powerful and important bodies of the British legislature. The very title ‘Culture, Media and Sport’ – the name of the British government department responsible, among other things, for media regulation – was a Blairist dream, a creation of the New Labor government, meant to aggregate all the various aspects of British cultural policy in one ‘silo’, in the ungainly term beloved of bureaucrats. But on 19 July 2011, after an extraordinary series of events almost unparalleled in the modern history of the media, the Select Committee called before it one of the most powerful men in the world. There, in scenes of high drama and low farce, Rupert Murdoch, the emblematic media mogul of the late twentieth century, was asked by British lawmakers to account for the crimes of his minions.

The atmosphere in Britain in the days leading up to the hearing bordered on hysterical. The media loves nothing better than a story about itself. This story was that, all right, but with so much more: a murdered school girl, corruption in the police force, spying on the royal family and a network of power elites that reached all the way to Number 10.

News International, the British arm of Murdoch’s News Corporation, is the publisher of newspapers, some of them tabloid. Editors and journalists at one of those tabloids, the News of the World, had been feverishly hacking mobile phones and paying police informants in return for stories. The systematic hacking and bribery was pursued on an industrial scale. But while the practice was routine in Wapping newsrooms, it was also illegal. To date, more than forty charges have been laid against News of the World staff, including those at the very top: former editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks.

It had been going on for years, perhaps decades. With the aid of private detectives, sophisticated recording equipment, fat chequebooks and some very specific knowledge of British mobile phone technology, tabloid newspaper journalists hacked and blagged their way to scoop after scoop. And for years, no-one seemed to care. Even when two key figures at the News of the World were arrested, tried and jailed, the editors and executives at News International who employed them were able to laugh off suggestions of systematic illegality. An investigation by the Metropolitan Police was so perfunctory, it did not even bother to unseal the evidence it gathered. Only dogged reporting by a couple of investigative journalists and a British MP would eventually reveal the scale of the hacking activity.

When it finally came to light, Britain was transfixed. A media empire seemed to totter. For a time it seemed as though Rupert Murdoch’s hold on his vast media conglomerate might loosen, or even that his family might be unseated. Looking ancient and disheveled, the man who had bullied and terrified presidents and prime ministers arrived before the assembled parliamentarians and press, escorted by his son, James. In the line that may in the end define his biography, the billionaire mumbled, ‘this is the most humble day of my life’. Later, a protestor tried to throw a cream pie in his face, only to be karate chopped away by Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng. (Wendi and Rupert are now divorcing.) The carnivalesque atmosphere would not have seemed all that alien to Samuel Pepys.

Murdoch’s appearance before the Select Committee has been written about hundreds of times. For many, it was the Fall of the House of Murdoch. For others, it was an ironic symbol of the way Murdoch, his family and his top lieutenants had morphed into the figures of ridicule his own tabloids specialised in pillorying.  It is no surprise, then, that both Paul Barry and David Folkenflik begin their books on Murdoch with the humiliating scenes at the height of the Milly Dowler scandal –  Barry at the Select Committee appearance, and Folkenflik with the meeting between Murdoch and the Dowler family. As a narrative hook, Murdoch’s aged and incoherent performance is irresistible. It is an almost perfect contemporary instance of a Rosebud moment, the dragging to earth of a once-powerful lord. It also illustrates the way Murdoch has become a modern fable, a myth, a real life Citizen Kane for the twenty-first century.

Over the years, as the tentacles of his empire have spread, Murdochology has become something of a cottage industry. Like the Kremlinologists of the Cold War, Murdoch whisperers are confronted with a powerful and secretive oligarchy, in which internecine conflicts and obscure hatreds are every bit as important as price-equity ratios. Such is the importance of the subject – its newsworthiness, one might say – that the Australian Financial Review retains a top-notch investigative journalist, Neil Chenoweth, whose beat seems to consist of little more than the internal machinations of News Corporation.

Beyond the news media, a whole literature has been spawned. The most comprehensive biography may well still be William Shawcross’ Murdoch: The Making of a Media Empire (1997), but Chenoweth’s Rupert Murdoch: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Media Wizard (2001) contains much of the best early business reporting of Murdoch’s quicksilver manoeuvres, while Michael Wolff’s more recent The Man Who Owns the News (2010) is the work that was allowed the best access to the Murdoch family. Of course, the hacking scandal itself, and the Leveson Inquiry it provoked, have led to a slew of recent titles. Amongst the best is Dial M for Murdoch (2012), by Independent journalist Martin Hickson and British Labour MP Tom Watson. That book, which covers much of the same territory as the two volumes reviewed here, has the advantage of the first-hand knowledge of two key participants in the scandal. It is also fuller and better written.

One of the remarkable things about these two books is how greatly they resemble each other. Both trace the rise of the energetic Australian media proprietor, from the owner of a single newspaper in bucolic Adelaide to the head of a global media empire. The arc is familiar. Both books tell of Murdoch’s family, his irascible father, Keith, and dominant mother, Elizabeth; of Keith’s ‘discovery’ of the ANZAC myth, his checkered career in business and the fortune he had largely squandered by the time he died, relatively young, while Rupert was still at Oxford. No sketch of Murdoch is complete without a reference to his modish Marxism at university, his trip back to Adelaide to attempt to save the family empire, and his subsequent meteoric rise through Australian newspapers, before he took on the anglosphere with a series of brilliant deals that tied up key media assets in London and New York.

Similarly, every Murdoch story eventually circles back to the fateful debt crisis of 1990, when, over-leveraged, it looked for a time as though the entire edifice would topple off the cliff. In a detail that few writers have missed, the entire corporate fate of News Corporation hung on the decision of an obscure officer at a small bank in Pittsburgh, who in December 1990 threatened to call in a loan. After some frantic phone calls were made to the bank’s directors, the loan was rolled over, and News Corporation was saved. The rest, as they say, is history.

While few can truly understand the nuances of Murdoch’s long-running family dramas, those who followed the Leveson inquiry or regularly read Wolff’s or Chenoweth’s articles will find little in these two books that they did not already know. At this late stage of the game, it is probably too much to expect stunning new revelations or on-the-record interviews with the protagonists. In part, this is understandable. Both books were published before the trials of Brooks and Coulson. More broadly, the tribal nature of News Corporation, and the very real power its senior executives still wield, means that openly commenting on the family saga can be career limiting, to say the least. Consequently, as Barry admits in his acknowledgments, of the ‘at least 100 people’ he interviewed while researching his book, ‘most of these have chosen to help anonymously.’

What neither book can cover are the developments that have transpired since. Of these, one point stands out: Murdoch’s survival. Despite all the opprobrium, despite the arrest and trial of key lieutenants, despite the disgrace of his son James and the closure of News of the World, Murdoch has weathered the storm. In the corporate split that he engineered in the wake of the scandal, he has emerged with control of two separate media entities. The film and television assets, no longer weighed down by the millstone of the failing newspaper divisions, have soared in value. Murdoch is now as wealthy as he has ever been.

In the years before 1956, when he wrote the book that would cement his reputation as the most influential sociologist of his time, C. Wright Mills examined the intertwined power structures of US corporate, political and military power. He was interested in the men who occupied the key positions at the top of the pyramid: ‘the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society.’ Top leaders tended to move effortlessly between all three realms. The paradigmatic example (although it occurred after Mills wrote his book) is perhaps Robert McNamara, who was the vice-president of Ford and a strategic bombing analyst for the Air Force before he was tapped by John F. Kennedy to become the US Secretary of Defence. But even in the 1950s, Mills could see that ‘on the one hand, there is the increased scale and centralization of the structure of decision; and, on the other, the increasingly narrow sorting out of men into milieu.’ By filling these key roles at the top of power structure, the elites were gifted their great power: they controlled the power resources, because they occupied the ‘strategic command posts of the social structure’.

Much of the fascination of the phone hacking scandal is what it reveals about our contemporary power elites, particularly in the English-speaking world where the power of pre-internet mass media is only just on the ebb from full tide. It is also a milieu in which top leaders move seamlessly between sectors in a horizontal crust of elite power. Perhaps the key development since the 1950s is that the industries have changed. Instead of defence and aerospace, the key players are now drawn more reliably from media and communications. The UK phone hacking scandal gives us a glimpse into the world of a new power elite, in which the top echelons of politics, media and business mix promiscuously: a world in which Tony Blair can be godfather to Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng’s daughter, and David Cameron can hire Andy Coulson to be his chief media advisor. To read about the garden parties and horse riding soirees of the now-notorious ‘Chipping Norton set’ is almost to be transported back to Edwardian England, complete with Etonian school ties and vulgar mercantilists climbing unctuously into the ranks of the upper 10 000.

The power elites of Eisenhower’s America or Lord Salisbury’s England certainly experienced the tides and rips of public opinion. The likes of Lord Northcliffe and William S. Paley were formidable characters; politicians crossed them at their peril. But the phone hacking scandal shows the malodorous flower of media power in full bloom. Because symbols are such a fungible currency in a postmodern age, symbol creators are powerful beyond the wildest dreams of the scribblers of Balzac’s petite presse. During Blair’s reign as prime minister, for instance, his chief spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, was given the title of ‘Director of Media and Strategy’. The conjunction was really a conflation: media was the strategy. In a hall of mirrors that would have pleased postmodern theorists like Jean-François Lyotard or Jean Baudrillard, winning the 24-hour news cycle was everything. Television news and the tabloid newspapers were the key levers of political influence, and the scoreboards of political success.

A party given by Elisabeth Murdoch and her husband, the millionaire publicist Matthew Freud, on  2 July 2011, just a fortnight before her father and brother appeared before the Select Committee, encapsulates the trend. As society parties go, this one really did sound like something out of Evelyn Waugh. It was held, so the Guardian’s John Harris wrote at the time, ‘at their 22-bedroom mansion in the Cotswold’s’:

Michael Gove, the education secretary, was there. So was David Cameron’s consigliere Steve Hilton, and the culture minister Ed Vaizey. The Labour figures in attendance included Peter Mandelson, the ex-work and pensions secretary James Purnell, the shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander – and his shadow cabinet colleague Tessa Jowell, who reportedly arrived with her supposedly estranged husband David Mills. They were joined by David Miliband – who, let us not forget, was supported in his quest for the Labour leadership by the entire Murdoch stable of newspapers.

Robert Peston was glimpsed in deep conversation with Will Lewis, News International’s general manager. The BBC’s director general Mark Thompson turned up, along with Alan Yentob, Jon Snow from Channel 4 News, Bear Grylls, Mariella Frostrup, Lily Allen and Patrick Kielty. And what a time they had: thanks to Nick Jones, the owner of the members-only Soho House club and husband of Desert Island Discs’ Kirsty Young, two marquees had been turned into pop-up versions of his London reaturants, Cecconi’s and Pizza East, and drinking and dancing went on until 4am.

Other guests included, inevitably, celebrities: the actor Helena Bonham-Carter and the rock singer Bono.

Although he is undoubtedly a very successful media entrepreneur, Murdoch’s contemporary dominance in the English-speaking world sometimes blinds observers to the historical precedents of media power. In every era of mass media, its owners have sought to influence politics. The ‘yellow press’ tabloid wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst have long been credited with being a key factor in the decision of the United States to go to war against Spain over Cuba in 1898. The power of Lord Northcliffe in early twentieth century Britain was such that David Lloyd-George offered him a seat in the war cabinet. When Northcliffe refused, Lloyd-George found space for two other press lords: Rothermere and Beaverbrook. As Chris Horrie, the author of the entertaining history Tabloid Nation: From the Birth of the Daily Mirror to the Death of the Tabloid  (2003), points out: ‘they all want to be Hearst. You start wars, select presidents and in the end go mad.’

The classic line about the press barons was uttered by Stanley Baldwin, echoing his cousin Rudyard Kipling: ‘What proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ It is this idea of immoral power – of power untrammelled by the responsibilities shared by the parliamentarian or executive – that frequently characterises criticism of media moguls. In many respects, of course, it is true. Roger Ailes, the dark presence at the top of Murdoch’s Fox News division, played an important role in drumming up support for the war in Iraq – a war that we now know was based on the false premise of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. But Ailes’ Fox News and the many other Murdoch organs that successfully campaigned for the war have suffered few, if any, repercussions. Neither the ballot box nor the more diffuse sanction of News Corporations’ investors have been able to hold the empire to account for the devastating effects of its warmongering.

In other industries that have the clear potential to harm ordinary citizens or broader society, the cut and thrust of democratic politics normally leads to some system of regulation by the state. Industrial polluters, pharmaceutical companies, auto manufacturers: all face a sophisticated set of regulatory imposts. The red tape is undoubtedly costly and annoying. But it prevents accidents, stops spills and saves lives.

The media is often at the forefront of public campaigns to expose and punish big business when it exploits or pollutes. But when it comes to the media itself, journalists, editors and especially proprietors often have a blind spot. The reaction to public campaigns and government inquiries examining media regulation is usually defensive, even hostile. There was an excellent case study in the media’s view of itself recently in Australia, when Labor’s Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced the Independent Media Inquiry back in 2011. In response to the British allegations, Murdoch’s loyal lieutenants (and many others in the media besides) argued, essentially, that there was no problem. Whatever the revelations of Leveson, men such as News Limited’s John Hartigan and Fairfax Media’s Greg Hywood claimed that there was no real harm done by the mass media – not to privacy, not to the lives of ordinary citizens, not to the fabric of society, nor the conduct of democracy. ‘What problem are we solving here?’ Hywood asked the Inquiry’s head, Ray Finkelstein QC. ‘What’s the issue current in the media, in the way that we’re operating, that needs a solution?’

When Finkelstein went on to write his final report, he argued that the distorted way that the Australian media covered his media inquiry was, in itself, excellent prima facie evidence for better media regulation. But by the time he released it, media reform in Australia was already dead, killed by a vicious cross-media campaign by nearly all the major media players. Lacking any kind of party room support, Stephen Conroy could not even bring his very modest proposals – watered-down versions of what Finkelstein had suggested – to a vote. In the federal election of 2013 that followed, News Corporation’s newspapers went on to mount a long series of astonishingly slanted attacks against the Labor government, culminating in a front page from Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph that featured Liberal leader Tony Abbott in front of an Australian flag. ‘AUSTRALIA NEEDS TONY,’ the headline declared.

It is worth examining, for a moment, the two central figures in the hacking scandal, Murdoch’s top British editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks. They are outwardly different. Coulson is a reasonably dour character who makes a virtue of his working class roots; Brooks is often portrayed as a modern day Becky Sharp, a ‘galaxy-class schmoozer’ utterly at home at a cocktail party or political conference. But they are united by more than simply their shared corporate history. As we now know, thanks to prosecution evidence in their hacking trial, Brooks and Coulson were lovers. They pursued an intimate relationship (the prosecution in Brooks’ trial claimed it was an affair) for nearly six years while both were married. Brooks, who clearly has charisma to burn, nonetheless saw something vulnerable and supportive in Coulson, the buttoned down, hard driving ‘Essex man’ of Thatcherite lore.

But perhaps the real quality that links Coulson and Brooks is their ambition, nurtured in a corporate environment of unusual rapacity. The New Republic and New York Times may have experienced debilitating scandals in which star journalists fabricated and lied, but in no other media organisation in the English-speaking world has media power been flaunted so openly, or has such wholesale corruption and illegality flourished. News Corporation has always been sui generis in respect of its corporate culture. Loyalty is fiercely prized and generously rewarded. Winners are certainly picked and favourites nurtured, but for all its brutality, the pecking order seems to have been unashamedly aligned with old-fashioned news values. Accuracy was important, but getting the scoop was everything.

And what scoops there were! Aided by a bevy of private detectives and no shortage of cash, the News of the World under Coulson and Brooks was able to pry into the dirty laundry of the great, the good and, especially, the celebrated. Their targets were a handy mud-map of the British public’s obsessions: the royal family, football stars, actors and musicians, paedophiles and murderers, even an occasional politician. Despite the all-caps headlines and jaunty prose, a strong scent of moral rectitude hung over the whole affair. Philanderers were ‘love-rats’. Paedophiles were ‘monsters’. Dead Argentinian sailors were ‘Argies’. The implication was that the rich and famous were no better than the ordinary man in the street. A kind of prurient conservatism battled with the egalitarianism of salacious gossip; the outcome was populist and popular.

It is no coincidence that many of the targets of the phone hacking were celebrities. Celebrities are the centre of contemporary popular culture, and the red-top tabloids were nothing if not popular. As Clive James reminds us at the beginning of Fame in the Twentieth Century (1993), media and celebrity have always been tightly interwoven. ‘Twentieth-century fame finally depends on the world’s media,’ he noted sagely. James wrote that back in the early 1990s; matters have only accelerated since then. Nowadays, there is a sophisticated academic literature about what the professors call ‘celebrity culture’. ‘The contemporary celebrity,’ Graeme Turner argues in his book Celebrity Culture (2004), ‘will usually have emerged from the sports or entertainment industries; they will be highly visible through the media; and their private lives will attract greater public interest than their professional lives.’

You could print that out and stick it in the newsroom or editing suite of any popular publication or television show. Except you wouldn’t have to: any tabloid journalist or paparazzo knows it in their bones. For Brooks or Coulson, such verities must have amounted to nothing more than the banal realities of what sells. It’s an instinct. Siena Miller cheating on Jude Law with Daniel Craig? That’s money. ‘F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with 5 hookers’? Tell me you’re not just a little bit curious. Folkenflik has a good anecdote about Brooks watching the announcement about which cities would host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup football finals. ‘I was struck by the force of her personality,’ he writes, ‘her pale skin offset by a flowing mane of fiery red hair.’ As Brooks watches the Sky News coverage of the announcement, she is consumed by the possibilities. ‘“Just imagine how many papers we could sell if London got the Cup,” Brooks said.’

The populist obsessions of the red tops help us understand how Brooks and Coulson achieved their meteoric rise. Both got their start on the celebrity rounds: Coulson alongside Piers Morgan on the notorious ‘Bizarre’ column at the Sun, Brooks (then Wade) as a young features writer for News of the World, again under Morgan. Their on-the-job training and mentorship under Morgan speaks of an organisation that understands, not just that news should be entertaining, but that entertainment is the news.

Of course, celebrity culture is bigger than News Corporation. But in perhaps no other media organisation could two figures of such surpassing moral flexibility have risen so quickly to the top. Like so many of Murdoch’s companies, News International, the British tabloid arm of Murdoch’s global conglomerate, had taken on many of its proprietor’s values. Politically, of course, these amount to a fairly stock-standard set of right-of-centre beliefs: an antipathy towards government, an abiding faith in markets and a celebration of individualism, only slightly tempered by Murdoch’s well-known grudge against the English upper classes, who mocked him so mercilessly as a young man at Oxford. You could call such views ‘neo-liberal’, as Australian academic David McKnight has. But to do so would be to give Murdoch’s politics rather too much credit. At various times Murdoch’s media assets have supported Harold Wilson’s Labor Party, the Chinese Communist Party, Gough Whitlam’s Australian Labor Party and Tony Blair’s New Labour – as well as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party, John Howard’s Liberal-National Coalition, George W. Bush’s administration and David Cameron’s Conservatives. What ties these political positions together is not any one over-arching ideology, but rather an unquenchable thirst for power.

On this analysis, what distinguishes Murdoch’s media empire from more genteel – or, for that matter, more profit-focused – operations is a kind of ruthlessness, a naked aggression, coupled with an intense loyalty to the man at the top and the values he instills. Murdoch is famous for mucking in at editorial meetings, and is only too happy to give his newspaper editors tutorials in headline placement and layout. Then there are the notorious phone calls that top editors learn to expect at any hour, in which the boss expresses his views on a particular politician or issue of the day. The future of any editor unprepared to take such hints is likely to be short. Murdoch has a well-known habit of appointing rusted-on loyalists to manage restive provinces or unruly satrapies of his empire, and these henchmen – men such as Col Allen, Robert Thomson, Les Hinton and John Hartigan – in turn come to wield huge power over their own provinces. Few are university educated; most got their start as teenage cadets at a big city Australian newspaper. Collectively, their key attributes are loyalty, and a sense of realpolitik that one observer – Eric Beecher, speaking of Robert Thomson – recently described as ‘thrusting upwards pragmatism’.

Over the decades, the corporate culture that formed under such leadership was singularly combatant and unrepentant. From the strident editorials of a newspaper such as the Australian to the high-octane super-partisanism of Fox News, News Corporation enjoys a unique coherence in its political and journalistic ethos. In the best-documented example, nearly every single Murdoch-owned newspaper supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. More diffusely, the values that championed a tough, single-minded pursuit of politically slanted newsgathering have permeated the entire corporation of News, from the multi-million dollar book advances given to favoured conservative politicians by Murdoch-owned book publisher Harper Collins, to the win-at-all-costs mentality that ruled at Wapping. The consequences for Western democracies have not, on the whole, been positive.

Throughout it all, the man at the top has wheeled and dealed, cajoled and bullied, married and divorced. Back in 2004, reviewing a previous wave of Murdochology that had washed ashore the sandy beaches of the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, following Frederic Jameson, argued that the man himself personified a kind of ‘cultural logic’ of postmodern capitalism. ‘Rupert Murdoch is not so much a man, or a cultural force, as a portrait of the modern world,’ Lanchester wrote, ‘he is the way we live now; he is the media magnate we deserve.’

Lanchester wrote that Murdoch’s singular attribute is his flexibility: a ‘flakiness’ in which ‘the all-over-the-globe nature of the News Corp empire seems to be paralleled by a personal all-over-the-placeness in Murdoch.’ Like the ‘hot money’ of the international currency markets, his energies and attentions flow unpredictably and suddenly, to wherever the opportunity lies. He understands, in the end, perhaps only one lesson: that symbols are powerful, and that in a democracy, this power can be used. One of the things that Murdoch likes to do with his media power is, of course, to make money. But he also likes to acquire more power: for instance, by gaining the ear of prime ministers. You never know when you might need a regulator to sign off on your next deal.

Just like capital, Murdoch can be channelled and regulated, stymied here and divested there. But, like some protean force of nature, he can’t really be stopped. He is too powerful for that, too wealthy, too smart. This is why the common attribution of Murdoch as a ‘media baron’ is so apt. Unlike his deputies, or the CEOs of truly globalised media corporations like Vivendi or Time Warner, Murdoch’s power derives not just from his occupation of a top ‘command post of the social structure’. Like a feudal aristocrat, he also enjoys considerable privileges and resources that attach to his person and family. As long as he keeps hold of those special voting shares in his various corporations, the Bermuda bank accounts and the key trusts and holding companies, he will retain his over-mighty stature. When he dies, of course, all bets are off. The trusts will vest and his children and ex-wives will struggle for control. But for now he is unassailable. As Wolff wrote recently, ‘2014 is going to be a good year for Rupert Murdoch.’

References

John Harris, ‘How the phone-hacking scandal unmasked the British power elite,’ Guardian (19 July 2011).
Peter Jackson and Tom de Castella, ‘Clash of the press titans,’ BBC News Magazine (14 July 2011).
Matthew Knott, ‘Creation of a Murdoch man: Robert Thomson’s rise and rise,’ Crikey (12 December 2012).