Sunday, 10 July 2011

Rupert Murdoch: The evil empire, British politics, phone hacking and a murdered teenager

, With a net worth of $6.2 billion,
Murdoch is the117th-richest person in the world
On Sunday 10 July 2011 News of The World went on sale for the last time, bringing it's 168 year history to an end. It was 42 years since Rupert Murdoch took control of the paper at a shareholder's meeting in January 1969 beating Robert Maxwell in a bitter year long battle over the acquisition.

Murdoch had begun his life as a newspaper baron at an early age, inheriting his father's Australian News Limited newspaper group in 1953 at the age of 22. After fifteen years of buying up newspapers across Australia and New Zealand he returned to the UK (where he had studied at Oxford University before his father's death) and within a year had beaten Maxwell to get his hands on News of the World.

In the aftermath Maxwell famously described Murdoch as a "cynical maneuverer" that "plays by the laws of the jungle", damning criticism from a man that went on to pilfer the pension schemes of his employees in order to maintain his life of luxury, allegedly worked as a double agent for the Israeli and British secret services and ended his life "falling off" his luxury yacht off the coast of the Canary Islands in 1991 shortly after the pensions scandal broke.

Later in 1969 Murdoch acquired his second British newspaper taking control of the mid-market daily broadsheet The Sun and immediately re-releasing it as the salacious sex filled tabloid it has remained until the present day. As the Sun and News of the World raced to the bottom of the British news market and Murdoch ruthlessly forced out anyone that got in the way of his agenda, it soon became clear that Maxwell's warnings about Murdoch had been right, causing many amongst the British establishment elite to regard him as an immoral impostor.


The British establishment turned their backs on Murdoch
after the NOTW published sordid details about
John Profumo's affair with Christine Keeler
Murdoch showed his ruthlessness by going back on his word that he would run News of the World alongside former owner Sir William Carr by forcing him out within three months of the takeover. He then outraged the British establishment by publishing the memoirs of the model Christine Keeler in the News of the World. She had played a large part in bringing down the Harold MacMillan government when her affair with minister John Profumo came to light in 1963. Following his resignation Profumo had been seen to have redeemed himself through years of charity work so Murdoch's decision to publish the sordid details were seen as muck-raking of the lowest kind, done entirely for his own personal gain.

After repeated rejections from the British establishment Murdoch left the UK in 1973 to continue his empire building in the United States. His first acquisition was the San Antonio Express in 1973 followed by a stream of other newspapers. He liked to claim that it was him that chose to reject the British establishment and often justified the simplistic and sensationalist style of his newspapers by dressing it up as anti-elitism.

In 1981 he returned to the UK to buy out the Times group, a move that shocked both sides of the political spectrum. He was facilitated in his acquisition by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who allowed the deal to go ahead without referring it to the Monopolies Commission as it should have been. The two remained close allies from that point onwards, Murdoch's papers provided unrelenting support for Thatcher's divisive regime while Thatcher allowed him to sack 6,000 striking print workers in 1986 and passed the merger between Murdoch's loss making Sky TV and the only other major satellite broadcasting network BSB in 1990.

Murdoch and Thatcher had a number of shared ideologies, from hatred of trade unions to belief in the privatisation and the neoliberal economic model. They both also had a ruthless streak, would dispose of anyone that stood in their way and they both had management styles best described as "divide and conquer". Murdoch's relationship with Thatcher seems like one of the few genuine relationships he had with politicians rather than his usual modus operandi of exerting as much control over them as he could in order to increase his own wealth, power and influence.



Fox News, fair & balanced is a great joke,
almost as good as the FCC's 1995 conclusion that Murdoch's ownership of
the Fox Network is "in the best interests of the public"
In 1985 Murdoch became a naturalised American citizen allowing him to bypass the foreign ownership rules for US television stations. He bought Fox studios in 1985 and the Metromedia group, which would eventually become the Fox Broadcasting Company.

In 1995 Murdoch's Fox Network became the object of scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), when it was alleged that News Ltd.'s Australian base made Murdoch's ownership of Fox illegal. However, the FCC ruled in Murdoch's favor, stating that his ownership of Fox was "in the best interests of the public" probably the most absurd committee decision since the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to give war monger Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.


In 1990 his long standing ally Margaret Thatcher was removed from power by a Conservative party rebellion in the wake of the Poll Tax riots and double digit leads for the Labour opposition in the majority of opinion polls. Murdoch's papers supported Thatchers' favoured successor to the hilt, and when the Conservatives defied the polls to win the 1992 General Election Murdoch's Sun newspaper ran with the headline "It's the Sun wot won it" a sentiment acknowledged by several Tory MPs at the time.
By the 1990s Murdoch's gutter press had become
much less candid about their controlling influence
over the British electorate.
By this point the influence of the Murdoch press was powerful enough to win him personal meetings with heads of state and political leaders across the English speaking world, a kingmaking tradition that continues to this day with both Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour opposition leader Ed Milliband having dined with Murdoch since the 2010 General Election.

In 1995 Murdoch unexpectedly turned his back on the Conservatives instructing his News International papers to support Tony Blair causing his long time ally and Conservative party go-between Woodrow Wyatt to state that "Rupert has behaved like a swine and a pig".


After Labour's election victory in 1997, opinion was divided. Many people claimed that Murdoch switched his support to Blair because he knew that "the grey man of politics" John Major couldn't possibly be re-elected and he couldn't be seen to back a loser. Others concluded that Blair must have driven the Labour party so far to the right that their policies had become acceptable to "uncle Rupert".

Whatever the motivation for his betrayal of the Conservatives, in Tony Blair's New Labour he had a party that were more than happy to continue with Thatcherite policies, from further privatisation of national infrastructure to appeasing the right-wing press with measures like the scapegoating and persecution of minorities such as refugees. According to Lance Price, an ex-spin doctor who worked as Alistair Campbell's deputy, Murdoch had regular secret meetings with Blair, was in regular telephone contact with him so much that he seemed like a 24th member of the cabinet.



Tony Blair openly ignored the protests of
millions of his countrymen but took several
secretive calls from Murdoch in the buildup to war.
Blair insisted no record was ever kept of his meetings or calls with Murdoch, including the three conversations in the ten days before the commencement of the Iraq invasion in 2003.

Murdoch was a keen advocate of the Iraq invasion and famously stated that "The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy...would be $20 a barrel for oil. That's bigger than any tax cut in any country." It seems incredible but it seems that Rupert Murdoch held more sway over Tony Blair's decision making than the million plus of Blair's fellow countrymen that held the largest public demonstration in British history in opposition to the invasion on 15 February 2003 and the views of millions more across the globe.


In 2000 Murdoch appointed Rebekah Wade (now Rebekah Brooks) as editor of the News of The World, making her the youngest editor of a British newspaper and setting in motion the events that led eventually to the demise of the title eleven years later. Wade enthusiastically embraced Murdoch's favoured gutter press style of journalism famously orchestrating public witch hunts against paedophiles by publishing their personal details. Unfortunately several of the details published in the paper were inaccurate causing great suffering to innocent people. The campaign was criticised as "grossly irresponsible" by Tony Butler, then Chief Constable of Gloucestershire.

In January 2003 Murdoch moved his protege across Wapping to take over as editor of the Sun. She continued to court controversy with headlines such as "Bonkers Bruno Locked Up" labelling the former boxer a "nut" after he was admitted to a mental health institution suffering from depression and bipolar disorder. This character attack provoked widespread criticism from across the political spectrum and a swift retraction. Later that year she made a bizarre admission to a House of Commons Select Committee, stating that her publication had paid police officers for information.

In 2006 the News of the World phone hacking scandal first broke with Royal editor Clive Goodman and the private investigator Greg Mulcaire eventually sentenced to a few months in prison for hacking into the mobile phone messages of one of Prince William's aides to delve for information. The revelations led to the resignation of Rebekah Brooks' successor as editor Andy Coulson who claimed that he didn't know anything about the illegal practices going on under his stewardship.

News International created the line that it was only a few rogue individuals. It is quite an irony that the phone hacking scandal that eventually rocked his media empire started off with revelations that one of his newspapers had been spying on one of the British establishment that he so openly despised.



"Yates of the yard" clearly misled a Home Affairs Select Committee
helping to cover up the massive scale of the phone hacking scandal.
Inquiries by several organisations came to the same conclusion, that phone hacking and illegal activities at the News of the World were limited to a few rogue elements.

During their investigation the Metropolitan Police took the highly controversial decision not to inform the thousands of individuals whose phones had been hacked and assistant police commissioner John Yates deliberately misled a Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee by stating that "all reasonable steps" had been taken to warn individuals where police had reason to believe their phones had been hacked, which he said only applied in the case of 10 to 12 people.

This  police collusion seems a little easier to understand in light of further revelations that News of the World journalists had regularly paid police officers for information. Given the immense political fallout if the police bribery evidence came to light, a limited scope investigation focusing on the activities of a few clearly nominated fall guys favoured the interests of both the Metropolitan Police and News International. Suspicions were further raised when Andy Hayman, the police officer with overall responsibility for the phone hacking investigation subsequently went on to become a columnist for News International papers including News of the World and the Times where he wrote in defence of the police investigation, maintaining that there were only "perhaps a handful of hacking victims".


In 2009 the Guardian and Private Eye revealed that senior News International executives had signed of a secretive £1 million compensation package to former FA chief executive Gordon Taylor on condition of secrecy. The evidence that they had tried to suppress was the commissioning of private investigators to illegally obtain personal information on an astonishing scale. The evidence showed that journalists from News of the World, other News International titles and senior executives from News International had systematically paid private investigators to (illegally) hack into over 3,000 telephones and (illegally) con organisations into breaching the data protection act by giving out personal details such as telephone numbers, personal addresses, criminal record details and health records. The organisations targeted included the DVLA, police criminal records databases, British Telecom, the Inland Revenue, taxi companies, hotels and other sources.

In the wake of these revelations John Yeats of the Metropolitan police took the decision not to re-open criminal proceedings after studying the evidence for only eight hours. The media owned self-regulation service the Press Complaints Commission strongly resisted calls from the Information Commission to issue "a clear public statement warning journalists and editors of the very real risks of committing criminal offences", choosing instead to issue guidelines that were criticised as insufficient, and to announce that they had found no evidence to show that they had been "materially misled" by the News of The World or News International executives.

The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger resigned from the PCC in disgust and his newspaper continued their efforts to reveal the true scale of the scandal, efforts derided by the Murdoch press as a witch hunt against Andy Coulson who had taken over the Woodrow Wyatt role as Conservative party communications director (the human interface between David Cameron and the Murdoch press) an appointment that neatly coincided with Murdoch's decision to switch allegiance once again, to back the Tories ahead of the 2010 election.


Rebekah Brooks was condemned by a House of Commons
report for her failure to co-operate with their investigation
In February 2010 a House of Commons report condemned the testimony of News of the World witnesses that had appeared before the committee, referring to "collective amnesia" and "deliberate obfuscation", and noted Rebekah Brooks (who had by then risen to become News International chief executive) had refused to appear at all.

The Committee concluded "We strongly condemn this behaviour which reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred". These findings prompted Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to call for a full judicial inquiry into the affair, however further investigation into the phone hacking affair was deliberately torpedoed by Britain's top civil servant Sir Gus O'Donnell on the grounds that re-opening an investigation involving a leading member of the Conservative party (Coulson) would be inappropriate so soon before the 2010 election.



British Prime Minister David Cameron may come to regret his close
personal friendship with Rebekah Brooks, 
his employment of
Andy Coulson 
and his meetings with Rupert Murdoch
After no side managed to form an overall majority David Cameron became Prime Minister by entering into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and the judicial inquiry into the phone hacking affair was forgotten about but the Guardian, Private Eye and Labour MPs Cris Bryant and Tom Watson continued investigating the phone hacking affair releasing a stream of information throughout 2010 and 2011.

 Amidst all of this negative publicity Andy Coulson's position as Cameron's communications director became untenable and he resigned in January 2011.


In January 2011 the Met's deputy assistant commissioner, Sue Akers, headed up yet another investigation called Operation Weeting which employed 45 officers on a full time basis. Hopes were high that this one may actually turn out to be more than just a cover-up and whitewash.

In July 2011 the Guardian revealed that the News of the World had hacked into the telephone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, interfering with the police investigation and giving false hope to the parents that she was still alive. They also revealed that other victims had included the families of dead British servicemen, victims of the 7/7 bombings in London. They had evidence that News of the World had been making illegal payments to police officers in return for information. Other newspapers reported that the families of murdered Soham schoolchildren Sarah Payne and Holly Wells were also potential victims.


Despite revelations that NOTW employees had been
involved in the hacking of telephones belonging elected politicians,
the real public backlash came when it was revealed that
they had hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler.
Following these revelations there was a huge public outcry and a mass exodus of sponsors away from News of the World. On 6 July Chris Bryant was allowed to bring an emergency debate in parliament which featured condemnation of News International from across the political spectrum. One of the most extraordinary contributions came from Conservative MP for Richmond and Hampton, Zac Goldsmith who concluded with the statement that Rupert Murdoch's organisation had "systematically corrupted the police and castrated parliamennt".

On 7 July 2011 News Corporation Europe and Asia chief executive and Rupert's son, James Murdoch announced that the News of the World would be shut down after the publication of the 11 July edition. Tom Watson MP responded with the statement that "Rupert Murdoch did not close the News of the World. It is the revulsion of families up and down the land as to what they got up to. It was going to lose all its readers and it had no advertisers left. They had no choice."

Rebekah Brooks adressed staff for the final time she told staff how advertizers had deserted because the News of the World brand had become toxic, that the decision to close the paper had not been taken lightly but as the worst revelations were yet to come, the paper would have suffered a further two years of turmoil.

It is pretty hard to imagine what is worse than hacking the telephone of a teenage girl and deleting messages from her inbox as she lay dead, spying on the grieving families of dead soldiers and victims of terrorism, bribing the police and paying private investigators tospy on key members of the British government.


News of the World staff were virtually unanimous in their appraisals that they had all been sacrificed to save the career of Rebekah Brooks who remained in her post as chief executive of News International. As staff worked to complete the final edition of the paper, without access to the internet or email, (presumably to prevent angry staff from exporting further incriminating evidence):
  • Speculation abounded that the NOTW would simply be replaced by a Sunday edition of the Sun, a strategy that has allegedly been under development for at least three months.
  • Their former editor Andy Coulson was arrested by police.
  • Scotland Yard's assistant commissioner tried to talk down the police role in the cover up and his refusal to reopen the case after the 2009 Guardian revelations with words of "regret".
  • It was revealed that a senior News International executive had deliberately deleted the majority of an archive of millions of internal emails, including potentially incriminating correspondence with other senior NI executives.  
  • It was revealed that private investigators acting on behalf of newspapers from across the News International spectrum blagged information, hacked into databases and employed corrupt police officers to gather information on Gordon Brown while he worked as chancellor and Prime Minister.
  • Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown who had been extensively briefed on phone hacking details that had not been made public for legal reasons revealed that he had advised David Cameron of "terrible damage" to the coalition if he continued to employ Andy Coulson once the truth eventually emerged.
  • Labour party leader Ed Milliband announced his intention to initiate a parliamentary vote to block News Corporation from buying out the 61% of BSkyB that they do not own.
  • The coalition government announced that a full judicial inquiry into the affair would be initiated.
News Corp stock lost $2 billion in value in the week and the BSkyB takeover plan began to look dead in the water causing critics of Murdoch's evil empire to rejoice, however Murdoch is a tenacious fighter and still held a strong influence over British and global politics.

Prime Minister David Cameron understandably made moves to distance himself from Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks and has repeated the line that he was "naive" to offer Coulson a second chance after his resignation as News of the World editor.

It is clear that the Prime Minister has two courses of action available to him, he could either bite the bullet and ditch Murdoch, just as Murdoch ruthlessly betrayed the Tories in the mid 1990s or he could join in with the popular condemnation for the time being and simply wait for the fuss to die down before allowing the News Corp takeover of BSkyB to go ahead. After all, he knows that the British electorate have remarkably short memories given the fact that so little was done after the public outrage at the parliamentary expenses scandal and the fact that the banking sector have been allowed to carry on enriching themselves despite the furious public reaction at their role in the 2008 global economic meltdown.


My guess is that Cameron will avoid confrontation with one of the most powerful men in the world at all costs, knowing that after his policies of cutting services for the poor, slashing legal aid, privatising the NHS and allowing the economic elite to continue to siphon billions out of the economy via elaborate tax avoidance schemes, he will need unanimous support from Murdoch's gutter press if he intends to hang onto power for more than a single term in office.

However if he has the balls that I suspect he doesn't; he could begin a campaign to rid the United Kingdom of Murdoch's corrupting influence by crashing the BSkyB takeover, forming a cross party agreement to cut News International out of the political loop and reforming the press regulator to give them the power to force demonstrably corrupt organisations to divest their ownership of British media.



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Acknowledgement: I borrowed heavily from this  excellent blog post by Adam Curtis (featuring BBC archive footage of Rupert Murdoch) for the details of Murdoch's early influence over the British press.


                    
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