The Hubris Of Murdoch


Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the News Corp scandal was Rupert Murdoch's initial public response to it. Once it became clear that the crisis was of Fukushima proportions, Murdoch's decision to close down the entire NOTW while retaining the woman who edited it during its worst period struck me as, well, surreal if not creepily contemptuous of basic morality. Since when do the innocent have to do penance for the guilty? Brooks was guilty many times over – either of fantastic negligence or of direct criminality (and she has, of course, since been arrested). But Murdoch thought he could easily keep her in her position and cavorted around London with her beaming at his side, even as dozens of journalists who had done nothing wrong were escorted from their offices, which became a crime scene. Then there was the decision to appear in public in the back of a car with gym shorts on, his bare legs making Paris Hilton seem discreet. The grinning – like a Tom DeLay mugshot – was so out of touch you almost had to look away. It was only when Edelman took over the p.r. that Murdoch adopted the appropriate appearance of remorse and seriousness, and met with the parents of the missing, murdered girl, Milley Dowler, to apologize. Too little, too late.

In other words, Murdoch's first instinct was to fight this out. What does that tell you about his sense of his own immunity to the laws and basic morality that apply to everyone else? And what does that tell us about his fitness to run an ethical media company? We will at some point find out how News Corp managed to bury the first police inquiry – and then hire one of the investigative cops as a columnist! – but how credible is it that Murdoch knew nothing of it at all? Again, like Brooks, this is either grotesque negligence or criminality. And the way in which the police seem to have been coopted if not outright corrupted is arguably the most disturbing aspect of the whole thing.

And this of course is where David Cameron comes in.

Cameron started out as the kind of Tory who would try not to become too enmeshed with the Murdoch press. But when it duly turned on him, and Gordon Brown looked as if he might win a snap election, Cameron caved to chancellor George Osborne's darker instincts and fatefully hired former NOTW hack, Andy Coulson, implicated in the phone hacking scandal, to be his press spokesman. He famously said he wanted to give Coulson a second chance. But what he effectively did was signal that he would sign up for a compromising Blair-type deal with Murdoch to win favorable coverage and thereby votes. And it worked! Murdoch's mass market tabloid, The Sun, shifted from Labour to Tory overnight. Cameron won. And since the election, Cameron has had more social and business meetings with the Murdoch tribe than with the rest of the British newspaper world combined. He has also had the worst week – deservedly – since he came to office.

He can try to cauterize this wound, but it shows very simply that when he needed to, this affable and sincere man did what he thought he had to do to survive and win. That's never a pretty picture, but now it has a klieglight focused on it. I doubt it will seriously affect him long term, but it's pointless to deny it isn't wounding him now. He may have to be in a permanent wince position for the next few months as more revelations of his constant hobnobbing with various journalistic sleazeballs is revealed. I can't see it doing him any favors.

(Photo: British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Number 10 Downing Street for Parliament on July 13, 2011 in London, England. Later Mr Cameron met with the family of Milly Dowler. By Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)