Catastrophic ‘News of the World’: Some salvage jobs are impossible, even for Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch gets the Rupert Murdoch treatment in the press. ()
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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.

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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.

Myler is, in the British press, a sympathetic figure today, the sacrificial lamb in the saga of News of the World's closing, though his fate is unclear. That he, like much of his staff, is on 90-days notice does not mean that News Corp. might not yet find a place for him at The New York Post, as Lauria suggested, for instance. It's happened before.

In 2001, Myler was the editor of England's Sunday Mirror, a Labor-left "red-top" newspaper not owned by Murdoch. He got in trouble when the paper conducted an intevriew with the father of a man who, police charged, had been beaten by two Leeds United footballers. The interview caused a mistrial of the footballers. Myler resigned, and came to New York to work for Murdoch. (Is it too much to suspect that Col Allan, the Post editor who brought him in, thought that Myler's behavior in the Leeds episode was rather more a recommendation of his repertorial energy than a black mark?)

To the British press, this period in Myler's history, working for Allan, is hazy. But at least two significant scandals—by American standards at least, and credibility is relative to the environment, right?—happened under his watch.

There was the smallish "OK" scandal, in which the Post, covering the corporate-corruption case of former Tyco executives in 2004, published a cover story naming one of the jurors in the case. They called the juror, Ruth Jordan, a "batty blueblood," and ran a front-page courtroom sketch of Jordan making an "OK" sign toward the defendants—something which the sketch artist who drew the picture, Andrea Shepherd, said she had not seen happen. She said she was beeped by Post editors and told to "render it."

"As a result of the publicity, the juror received what sources say was a 'coercive' note and phone call," the gleeful rival Daily News reported. "When the judge learned of the note, he declared a mistrial.

More complicated was a scandal in which the now-former Post gossip reporter Jared Paul Stern was accused by billionaire Ron Burkle of extortion. Burkle had taped a conversation with Stern in which he seemed to offer protection from the paper's gossips in exchange for money. (No charges were ever brought by anyone against Stern in the episode.) That fracas happened on Myler's watch, too.

This is the man who was moved into News of the World after Coulson's departure, as the clean-up guy.

Political editor David Wooding, interviewed by the BBC yesterday, said: "All this happened five-plus years ago by a team under different editors, under different staff, different news editors; everybody was different." He said there were three editorial staffers still on the paper who were there when most of the alleged phone hacking took place—though the discovery more recently that the phone-hacking practices preceded even Andy Coulson's regime make it questionable whether changing horses there really means changing courses.

And what's more, whatever Myler might have done to curb bad behavior going forward, much of the paper's problem now is in their systematic obfuscation of the scandal, and their continuing extralegal efforts to keep it under wraps. What, really, does it mean to clean up the place? Does it only mean to remove the "credibility problem," or does it mean to find and expose the facts?

The most recent investigation into the hacking scandal was led in part by Myler, and has been shown to have been lackluster. He told the British Press Complaints Commission in August 2009, "Our internal enquiries have found no evidence of involvement by News of the World staff other than Clive Goodman in phone message interception beyond the e-mail transcript which emerged in April 2008 during the Gordon Taylor litigation and which has since been revealed in the original Guardian report."

He said that Guardian reports that police found evidence the paper had paid private investigators to find PINs for thousands of mobile phones were "not just unsubstantiated and irresponsible" but "wholly false."

And Britain seems to have forgotten, in the giddiness that has followed these new and highly outrageous charges, that Myler's ethics have been questioned (on admittedly less explosive grounds) before.

In late 2007, "[Myler] told the Society of Editors conference on November 5 that his paper would run fewer sex-and-drugs celebrity stings in future. He had, he said, explained his decision to his investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood," Roy Greenslade, a former Sun editor, wrote shortly after the news of the end of the News of the World was annoucned. He is a frequent critic of his former employee, Mahmood, who you may remember as the "Fake Sheikh" sent to target government officials and celebrities, arguably entrapping them into dalliances with prostitutes or the taking of drugs; more seriously, Mahmood was referred to the Metropolitan Police after George Galloway, Labour M.P. and antiwar activist, claimed Mahmood had attempted to bring him into an illegal political funding scheme and attempted to get him to agree to anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denialist views on tape.

Greenslade noted that only 13 days after Myler's November pledge, Mahmood conducted a sting on English model and reality-TV personality Sophie Anderton.

Myler also defended an investigation conducted by his paper in which Formula One president Max Mosely, the son of British fascist Oswald Mosely, was recorded by a prostitute at the paper's bidding, resulting in the article titled "F1 Boss has Sick Nazi Orgy with Five Hookers."

"Taking part in depraved and brutal S&M orgies on a regular basis does not in our opinion, constitute the fit and proper behaviour to be expected of someone in his hugely influential position," Myler said in a statement, after a mixed verdict in the High Court had the ridiculous result of pointing out that the paper had not proven the orgy had had a Nazi theme.

Myler also stated that while there had been a breach of privacy, Mosely had been at least in part the "author of his own misfortune."

(Mosely has taken to interviewers coming to him to gloat over the demise of the paper.)

Whether the current leadership of News of the World bears responsibility in the phone-hacking scandal is still an open question. This morning the Guardian reported that police are investigating the deletion of a terabyte of emails between editors at News of the World sent during 2005; but the deletions happened, according to the paper, in January of this year. The paper calls the suspect a "News International executive."

Clean-up job, indeed.

(It was announced two days ago that former assistant U.S. attorney general and New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who left the public sector to head the "education division" of News Corp., had been tapped to provide "oversight and guidance" to executives responding to police inquiries; the company had been warned against conducting its own. But today Brooks announced that she would have nothing to do with the compliance efforts, and that everyone working with the police would report directly to Klein. It's a great public-relations move, but one wonders whether an ostensibly credible internal-investigator such as Klein would ever have been named if an existential crisis hadn't forced Murdoch's hand. Or, actually, one doesn't.)

The question whether some of these editors can recover would at one point have been academic. The pull of amnesia about these figures, unelected officials of Murdoch's international fourth estate, is strong. And credibility, again, is relative: These editors are credible if readers in the towns and countries where they work give them credit.

If the phone-hacking scandal has really brought about the end of the old News Corp. culture, then we won't be seeing Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson or Colin Myler or any of the News of the World management here in the states, or in Sydney or Melbourne or at The Wall Street Journal (where former News International officials have landed, in fact!) again anytime soon. And if we do, it will be a sign that this scandal has turned out to be like the others: a routine cost of the business of being Rupert Murdoch, to be dealt with and gotten past.

It's looking less and less likely, as this story unfolds, that this mess will turn out to be routine.

The current bid by News Corp. to take control of the remaining 60 percent of British satellite broadcaster BSkyB awaits approval from government regulators. Those regulators point out that there is nothing in the scandal at this News Corp. newspaper that affects the company's standing to purchase the shares from a strictly regulatory point of view. But as the invective in Parliament gets harsher, more and more people are pointing to three words in the regulatory agency's guidelines: The buyer of a media corporation can be disqualified if they are not found to be "fit and proper" buyers.

The question now is not whether the News of the World scandal has so damaged Murdoch's reputation that he could lose out on the BSkyB deal. Murdoch's shame on behalf of his favorite sons and daughters who have gotten into trouble does not last long, at least not longer than his readers' memories. (How many who read The New York Post, do you suppose, know who Col Allan is? Certainly fewer than know who their own senators, state legislators or city councilmembers, right?) Credibility with readers is relative, and transient.

The real question is whether the British government is about to declare Murdoch unfit and improper and deny him his TV network, and whether his reputation for always winning these tough battles with the government is about to go down in flames. That is a shame Murdoch's empire would have a hard time living down.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article has been corrected to reflect the fact that no charges of any kind were brought against Jared Paul Stern in the Ron Burkle episode.

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