New book: ‘Wall Street Journal’ reporters stymied on News Corp. phone-hack scandal

Rupert Murdoch, Robert Thomson. ()
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During the height of News Corp.'s phone-hacking drama in 2011, journalists at the company's blue-chip American broadsheet grappled with efforts from higher-ups to muzzle their coverage of the scandal, according to a new book by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

Reporters and editors at The Wall Street Journal who were assigned to cover allegations of phone-hacking and other illegal activity at News International, News Corp's British newspaper division, "told colleagues of stories that were blocked, stripped of damning detail or context, or just held up in bureaucratic purgatory," Folkenflik reports in Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires, out Tuesday from PublicAffairs, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group.

In the most troubling instance, Robert Thomson, now the C.E.O. of News Corp., tried to prevent the publication of a damaging Journal article when he was managing editor of the paper, according to Folkenflik.

In the summer of 2011, it was revealed that journalists at the London-based News Corp. tabloid News of the World had accessed the voicemails of a 13-year-old girl, Milly Dowler, who was murdered in 2002. A team of Journal reporters was working on a scoop about discrepancies they'd discovered between different versions of a News of the World article about Dowler that was published in April of that year.

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An early version of the article included "detailed quotes from voice mail messages," Folkenflik writes, and the Journal reporters had also learned that a News of the World editor had deployed a team of nine journalists based on a voicemail obtained from Dowler's cell phone. This contradicted the company's earlier claims that the phone-hacking was limited to a single reporter (and the private detective he was working with).

Thomson initially argued that the Journal team could not confirm why the News of the World story had been changed.

"Thomson tried to kill the story several different times," Folkenflik reports. "As a fallback strategy, several reporters and editors believed, Thomson was intentionally trying to set impossible standards so the story would not see the light of day."

It was eventually published on August 20, 2011, but the revelations about the altered News of the World article were buried in paragraph nine.

"The process was so painful," one of the journalists who worked on the report told Folkenflik. "If we hadn't fought, Robert would have been happy for us not to run it at all."

A News Corp. spokesperson declined to comment.

The anecdote appears to show News Corp. brass—during a moment of existential crisis—influencing news judgment at a publication that had feared such Murdochian interventions since it was acquired by his international media conglomerate in 2007.

"He intervened in a very telling way at a very telling moment," said Folkenflik of Thomson, a veteran of Murdoch's Australian newspaper empire who was named C.E.O. of News Corp. late last year, in an interview with Capital. "There's this notion that you take care of your guys. It's a real Australian thing. Murdoch embraces that. It's him and his guys against The [New York] Times and the B.B.C. and the world. They really have this idea that they're the anti-elite."

Folkenflik, who's been covering the media industry since 2000, explores this pirate-ship mentality throughout his book, which also includes significant reportage on Murdoch's prized American tabloid, the New York Post. ("Holy shit. That's a lot of money to lose," Jesse Angelo reportedly said when he looked at the paper's books after being named publisher a little less than a year ago.)

It was the phone-hacking story, however, that spawned the idea for Murdoch's World in the first place.

Folkenflik had been covering the scandal closely for NPR. Not long after the Milly Dowler revelations and the subsequent shuttering of News of the World, he realized he had a bigger project on his hands.

He'd worked with PublicAffairs in the past, and his discussions with the publisher concluded that "this story would allow us an incredible window into the workings of a man and a corporation that has unrivaled influence in three of the great English-speaking countries in the world," said Folkenflik.

His reporting, which often dovetailed with assignments for NPR, involved several trips to Britain and Australia, where he spent two and a half weeks conducting interviews. He said the book is based on roughly 200 of them, as well as "many hundreds of documents."

One thing Folkenflik did not receive was cooperation from Murdoch or News Corp. He said there was a sense that the company and its 83-year-old chairman still felt burned by Michael Wolff's book, The Man Who Owns the News, for which the contrarian media critic was given unprecedented access six years ago. There were even times when Folkenflik was stymied through unofficial channels because Murdoch aides had told company officials not to speak with him, he said.

News Corp. declined to comment on why it would not particpate or whether the company had any concerns about the book's content.

But Folkenflik said he hadn't gotten any pre-publication pushback, as was the case with Wolff's 2008 tome.

"So far, I haven't heard back yet," he said.

Murdoch's World hits shelves as several former News Corp. executives implicated in the phone-hacking scandal are set to go on trial Oct. 28.

UPDATE: On Friday evening we received the following statement from a Journal spokesperson: "The Wall Street Journal covered phone hacking extensively and aggressively, both when Robert Thomson was editor and to this day. The very existence of scores of forceful and in-depth stories attests to the fact that editors did not stymie the assignment of coverage, investigative reporting, or publishing on this topic."