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