9:54 am Jul. 8, 20111
News of the sudden closure of Rupert Murdoch's most successful British paper, the Sunday tabloid News of the World, has riveted the upper end of British and American media alike. Once-obscure characters like the paper's former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson and current editor Colin Myler are splashed across the front pages of most of the British newspapers and the tops of the better American broadsheets.
These practitioners of tabloid sensationalism are now themselves sensational characters, players in one of the more gripping political-media-complex dramas in contemporary history, complete with ties to 10 Downing Street, the Metropolitan Police, a murder investigation, interference in high-profile kidnapping and terrorism cases and more.
We've seen scandals before at News Corp. properties, and in normal circumstances, the obsession with the fates of these editors would be a matter of forgetfulness. Do we not already know that top editors and executives in Rupert Murdoch's international media empire, like naughty nephews of the Caesar, need only to be assigned to a lush manor in a remote province for a time before their behavior there necessitates their return to Rome, their old sins in the capital long-forgotten?
This time, though, it isn't just about the editors. It's about Murdoch, who has always been far less concerned about being perceived as a champion of virtuous (or even merely good) journalism than he has about being perceived as a winner.
It's that reputation that is at stake here.
Already, this phone-hacking scandal is putting at risk something far more important, in business terms, than The News of the World ever was, which is Murdoch's bid for control of the BSkyB network. The $12 billion deal has to be approved by Parliament, which will now be under enormous pressure to scuttle it.
But the more telling, and profound, test of Murdoch's power may turn out to be whether he's in a position to do his usual rehabilitation routine for these loyal editors, who have sustained potentially mortal wounds in his service. If they perish professionally, it will be a sign that Murdoch's magic touch is gone.
That would be something different.
"Prediction: Colin Myler will soon be back at NYPost as No. 2 to Col Allen and Rebekah Brooks will take role at corporate in NY soon," tweeted Peter Lauria, a former media reporter for Murdoch's New York Post.
Rebekah Brooks appears not to have predicted that fate for herself yesterday afternoon, when she delivered her dramatic speech to the newsroom informing them that the company would shut down the 168-year-old institution as of this coming Sunday. Reportedly, Brooks offered her resignation to James Murdoch, the chair of News Corp.'s Europe and Asia divisions and Rupert's heir apparent, and it was refused.
This was the cause of some wonderment in Britain, where a website has even begun with the url "hasrebekahbrooksbeensackedyet," which features a giant red bar at the top asking the question, and big black letters that, as of this morning, read "No."
"Murdoch, it seems, will do almost anything to save Rebekah Brooks," wrote Peter Wilby, former editor of broadsheet rivals The Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman, reasoning that it was "because he likes employees who owe almost everything to him and who also remain unquestioningly loyal."
Brooks was reportedly escorted out of Murdoch's new headquarters building by security after her announcement, at the request of Myler, who will lose his job as editor of the now-moribund paper.
In fact, Brooks may be beyond saving even by the Murdochs.
Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters earlier that he'd understood Brooks had offered her resignation, and believed James Murdoch ought to have accepted it. To understand how remarkable that is, you must understand that Brooks, who began her life in the Murdoch universe as a secretary at News of the World and was the paper's top editor 11 years later, is intimate friends with the Camerons and was the chief liaison between Murdoch and the current Conservative government. Cozy weekends at Chequers and exciting ones on boats are the stuff of British media legend nowadays. The code for Cameron's public excoriation of Brooks, and of his impertinent advice to the Murdochs, isn't hard to break: It's over for you here.
That elements of the British parliament and of 10 Downing Street are in Murdoch's pocket is one of those bromides that seems as far-fetched as it is widespread. But evidence in the evolving scandal that is portrayed as stunning—for instance, that the newspaper paid bribes worth 100,000 British pounds to as many as five British police officers—is also old news given new vigor by the new anti-Murdochian mood sweeping Britain now. (It's worth noting that Brooks admitted to a Parliamentary committee back in March 2003 that the paper had paid off police, but it was brushed aside rather quickly.)
No, it was the news that the paper, under Brooks' editorship, had hacked the voicemail of kidnap and murder victim Milly Dowler, even erasing messages to create more room for more sad pleas from the family the paper could record, that woke Britain up; subsequently the news that the phones of family members of victims of Britain's 7/7 terrorist attacks and casualties in the armed services in Iraq and Afghanistan set the stage for Britain's revolt against Murdoch.
By yesterday, Conservative minister Zac Goldsmith was taking advantage of the new popular resentment of the tabloid and angling himself to a more general excoriation of the power Britain had allowed Murdoch. Murdoch, he said, had been guilty of "systemic abuse of almost unprecedented power."
“There is nothing noble in what these newspapers have been doing,” he said. “Rupert Murdoch is clearly a very, very talented businessman—he’s possibly even a genius—but his organization has grown too powerful and has abused that power. It has systematically corrupted the police and in my view has gelded this Parliament, to our shame.”
ON STRICTLY LEGAL GROUNDS, THOSE HACKINGS are possibly among the less significant charges Rupert Murdoch may have to face down in Britain. But they are the ones that threaten to unravel his power there.
There is a poetic justice in that. These voicemail raids were undertaken largely to deliver exclusives on precisely the kinds of human-interest stories that are supposed to bind the nation together in sympathy. It was aggressive coverage of pedophiles and abductions and serial murders after all that was a News of the World calling card under Brooks. The paper was hardly unsympathetic from an editorial point of view to fallen soldiers or civilian casualties of terrorist plots. But exposed here was the paper's willingness to directly harm its own sympathetic story subjects in order to win the fealty of its millions of other subjects: Its British readership, the power-base of Murdoch's British fourth estate.
This perversion of intention is of the sort that always rots a newspaper not from the bottom up but from the top down.
It was the aggressive agenda set forth by Howell Raines that led directly to the W.M.D. reporting scandal at The New York Times, but ultimately it was the insignificant fabrications of the young reporter Jayson Blair that showed how far a reporter might go if administered the whip by top management, followed by a wink. And ultimately it was that small cancer that ended Raines' editorship of the paper.
What, precisely, is this cancer? The neat formulation in journalism is that reporters and editors are seekers after truth. The professional code says that the best journalists get scoops, though: They serve their readers by competing to bring the news home first. In the service of that competition, the professional code also lays out standards for how the game is won, and where the moral limits of repertorial energy in the pursuit of exclusives lie.
When a paper rots, it is because instead of placing ethical limits on the energetic pursuit of a story, a practical one is put down, if only implicitly. Whatever it takes to get a story should be done unless it's likely to damage the credibility of the paper. It's a self-referential code, in which journalists, editors, and top management can begin to believe that short of being caught out, anything goes.
Credibility here is not a byproduct of getting the goods while following the rules; it's a show. That is, if people are still believing what you say, you're still credible, even if you're lying, cheating and manufacturing the truth. And so the more one's methods of reaching "the truth" break the rules and threaten credibility, the harder one has to work in the margins of journalism. The harder your editor or chief executive must lobby Parliament, must put ministers in their pockets, must pay off cops, must run the editorial board like its own massive special-interest group. It's a process that bids itself upward until it goes bankrupt, every time.
UNDERSTANDING THAT PERVERTED NOTION OF CREDIBILITY is, I think, important for understanding what will become of Rebekah Brooks. The hundreds of News of the World employees who will lose their jobs as a result of the closure of the title are not, after all, the hacking scandal's first sacrificial victims at the paper. This morning, Andy Coulson, editor of News of the World during several of the phone-hacking scandals that have been established by police, was arrested. But he'd already left his position as editor when revelations about phone hacking made him too controversial back in 2007. Brooks' longtime deputy at News of the World had taken over the paper just four years earlier.
What especially entrances Britain is the fact that Coulson went to work back then for the Conservative Party as its chief press guy. When David Cameron became Prime Minister he was, for a time, head flack at 10 Downing Street, before he had to leave that position as yet more revelations about the behavior of employees of News of the World during his tenure there came to light.
Back then, not even the phone hacking scandals that caused him to leave his position with Murdoch had damaged his credibility enough to bar him from being the voice of the prime minister to the press and the public. Coulson's was a fast course of rehabilitation, but it didn't take.
Most rehabilitations of senior Murdoch soldiers work better than his did, though. And for evidence, you don't have to look much further than Colin Myler.