Murdochalypse: Where do they go from here?

Jul 20, 2011

From being grilled for hours by public relations experts and members of Parliament to having pie almost thrown in their faces, Rupert and James Murdochs' careers have seen better days. Erik Wemple chatted about the Murdochs, how they are handling The News of the World hacking crisis, and how you think this situation will, or should, play out.

It takes a whopper of a scandal to get Americans tuning into a British parliamentary hearing. But that's what happened yesterday, as Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch (sort of) answered questions before a House of Commons committee. It was the latest flashpoint in a crisis that's had many of them, starting with revelations that Murdoch's News of the World tabloid had hacked into the voicemail of a missing 13-year-old girl, giving her family false hope that she was still alive. 

So there's plenty to talk about. Let fly! 

It seems odd that a newspaper, or any news-gathering operation, would hire a private investigator. It just seems like you're hiring someone to do your dirtywork. Isn't that what reporters are for? And if reporters are hiring PI's on their own and presumably paying them with their own money, isn't that going to get rather expensive? How is the pay/salary structure set up at Murdoch operations? I can't imagine they're unionized. As for the future of Murdoch's empire, I think it would take actions by advertisers to bring him down. He probably has monopolies in many of his markets, so advertisers can't go to other papers to advertise, which means readers won't have alternative sources of news.

Do other media also perform in the same manner? If they do, they should also be booked.  It is more important to stop the practice rather than to make one person responsible.

Well, the stopping of the practice here is what the scandal is all about. The more you dig into the files and the paper trail, the more questions there are about what News International executives knew and when they knew it. The denials of people like Brooks and the Murdochs about whether they knew about a practice that may have ensnared thousands of vicitms just doesn't ring true to British politicians or to the majority of commentators who've looked at the situation. Much of the parliamentary session yesterday was dedicated to pinning these folks down on whether they'd read this document or that document. The answers weren't reassuring. 

How many papers use wiretapping and who are the greatest sinners?

Well, this isn't exactly wiretapping here. This is voicemail hacking, an offense of less technological sophisticaion. What News of the World was doing was getting into people's voicemail accounts, not listening to their live conversations. As to which outlets do wiretapping, I don't know. That would be a HUGE story. 

Erik: Mr. Murdoch has said that he regards the former editor of the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, as a daughter and I've seen nothing to contradict that. Years ago, Ms. Brooks stated to a Parliamentary hearing that the News did pay police for information (I have seen that on tape and her admission is shocking in its casualness.) If Mr. Murdoch was so fond of Ms. Brooks and the News, I would have thought he'd have sat her down for a nice long chat and demanded that she answer his questions. He didn't. So I can only presume Murdoch was okay with paying cops. I am wondering how many more shoes will drop before this is over.

Yes, and one of the telling moments in yesterday's session was when Murdoch said something to the extent that he "still" believes in Brooks. When Brooks got to the table later, you could see why: She was a phenomenal witness for the company, parrying the questions, acknowledging concerns, expressing sincere regret. 

Also, yes: Her mien in that session back in 2003, when she acknowledged having paid cops was something to behold. It was like, Yeah, so what!  And then, when she was challenged on the matter, she was all like defiant and stuff. That was creepy. Oh, then her colleague defended payments to cops when it was in the "public interest." After stuff like this, I wonder why I've been covering U.S. media. Picked the wrong country. 

Jay Rosen, a Professor at New York University, writes that News Corporation is really a lobbying organization for policies. What is your opinion of this opinion?

Yeah, I read Jay's piece in the Guardian. There's clearly plenty of evidence for Jay's argument, even here in the United States, where his newspaper properties aren't as robust as they are in Australia or the U.K. Former reporters of the New York Post have alleged that their editorial instructions would often align with Murdoch's business interests. For example, when Murdoch was looking to court Beijing, reporters were apparently instructed to go easy on China. And when the Murdochs had reached some reconciliation with the Clintons, likewise. Too, Fox News' treatment---or pooh-poohing---of the current scandal on its air speaks to what Jay is talking about. So it's a fair point to make. 

For balance, though, Murdoch loves a good, fleshy newspaper story on its own merits. He's a news person to the core. 

What do you think - were the Murdochs completely honest yesterday? Does James always stutter so much?

Don't want to broad-brush this one. 

Rupert appeared honest---honest, that is, in saying he had no clue. That, of course, is no defense for a leader. 

James, on the other hand, is a dicier subject. He showed considerable mental agility and appeared to register quickly the intent and backdrop behind each question hurled at him. The impression that he cast was that of a mentally agile and engaged executive.

Yet! He said countless times some variation on "I have do direct knowledge of that" or "I have no knowledge of that." And so on. From where I sit, I cannot say that he was lying; I can only suspect what many others suspect, and that is that it's implausible that someone as focused and bright as he would not have been aware of any of this wrongdoing.  

I watched about half an hour of live video on the Washington Post this morning of the British Parliament hearings. I was fascinated with how differently they conduct themselves from the U.S. Congress. They seemed at the same time both more and less formal in their interactions. It is weird how they never say "you" when speaking to another person; they always address the other person in the third person as "he" or "she." I saw one woman address a colleague as "you" and immediately apologize for it to the Speaker.

The politicocultural gap is worth a story unto itself. You get the gamut at parliament: In some proceedings---as when the House of Commons is grilling an appointee of the prime minister---the goings-on are raucous and chaotic. Yet in yesterday's session the decorum was remarkable. 

Don't you mean he's a sensationalist scandal-monger to the core? Seriously.

Oh, he's certainly a sensationalist scandalmonger to the core---sure. But I think he loves other sorts of news, too. Like the stuff that appears every day in the Wall Street Journal. He loves newspapers of all kinds. 

I guess I'm confused. If the Murdochs really don't know anything, why are they being pulled into the parliamentary committees? Will they be charged with anything? And if so, what would that charge be and would there be some sort of punishment?

There's been little talk of arrests for those two. As James continually reminded us yesterday, he come on board News International in late 2007, after the scandal had surfaced, and five years after the Milly Dowler hacking. 

As for Rupert, what are you going to get him on? 

I'm not very familiar with the British legal system, and how it relates to Parliament. What was Parliament hoping would come of this hearing? If they don't believe Murdoch, what would their next steps be? And one of the MPs brought up "willful ignorance" - can anyone be prosecuted for this? Thanks!

Great questions here. 

It's clear that, as in any large representative body, the intentions of Parliament vis-a-vis the Murdoch testimony were varied. Some wanted to grandstand. Some wanted their ideological soulmates in the media to skate by. 

And some wanted to press the Murdochs for all the inconsistencies and unfathomabilities in the public record. You heard several MPs pressing James and Rupert and Rebekah about the so-called Harbottle & Lewis file. This is a study commissioned by News International around 2007 (I think). The finished product, according to a government official who later reviewed it, included "blindingly" persuasive evidence of widespread law-breaking and phone hacking. Several MPs wanted to know whether James and others had seen that material. 

I am wondering how journalistic standards and norms vary between England, Australia, and the United States? I by no means am trying to excuse any behavior, yet I had the opinion that Murdoch, perhaps wrongly, tried to manipulate the news outcomes in Australia, and now believes he has similar authority to do similar manipulations in other countries.

News standards vary widely, simply put. The thing about Murdoch is that he always meddles in the editorial product. As he signaled in the hearing yesterday, he customarily talks to editors all the time. Now that he owns nearly 200 papers, he can't get to all of them. But yes, he's an interventionist publisher, no doubt. 

I remember some report on PBS about the TEA Party and they asked how a bunch of "regular folks" had first learned about TEA Parties. All answered either Glenn Beck or FOX News. Then FOX News hosts started hosting TEA Party rallies. Then there was Glenn Beck's 9/12 rally and the FNC producer that got caught on camera wiping up the crowd. I mean I'm not trying to be Media Matters or Jon Stewart here, but there does seem like some pretty weird and non-journalism stuff goes on at NewsCorp America, right?

Well, no one can really be Media Matters or Jon Stewart.

Let me just say that if Media Matters or Jon Stewart moved their franchises to Britain, offenses like those that routinely crop up on Fox News would look like chicken feed when compared to the standards of the British tabloids. Fox News has a history of beaming a tendentious, conservative bent---a pattern of behavior that doesn't really belong in the same debate as News of the World. 

Rupert is a U.S. citizen and News Corp is a U.S. based company. Do you have any odds on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act being trotted out here by the Justice Department with regard to payments to police? I work for an American arm of a U.K. company and we had to take an entire web tutorial on the subject.

The good old Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. A few careers ago, I worked as a newsletter editor on export trade. One of the issues our subscribers cared deeply about was FCPA. They always griped about it because they said it prevented them from greasing palms in Third World countries just to get basic business done. That it creating an unlevel playing field in terms of international competitiveness. So I had to chuckle a bit when I first saw FCPA making an appearance in the Murdoch debate. I suppose it could be hauled into duty to try to punish News Corp., but two things: 1) I'd be very surprised to see Justice do anything to a news organization along these lines so long as the British authorities finally get serious and take care of business; 2) if FCPA is all Murdoch has to worry about over here, he's probably sleeping pretty soundly. 

Or, as John Oliver put it, "Jon, do you have any idea what it takes to disgrace a British tabloid?"

Precisely. And that is one of the sorry realities of this crisis. No one expects legitimate journalism out of tabloids, and so tabloids don't produce it. #vicious cycle

Is Rupert Murcdoch the last of his kind--the meddling, piratical newspaper magnate throwback to WR Hearst?

He is certainly the most powerful piratical newspaper magnate throwback to WR Hearst. Thing is, it's almost unfair to Murdoch to put him in the same column with Hearst. Murdoch's empire has more than $50 billion in assets. Heast's empire, adjusted for inflation, crested at less than a billion. So Murdoch has far more to meddle in than WRH. 

Guess my knowledge of English journalism is based a lot on that TV miniseries "State of Play" but the standards are different (recording with consent or paying money to a source or whatever). I'm not here to say that's right or wrong and considering the UK doesn't have a Huffington Post-type website stealing content or using unpaid bloggers, can't all be bad. But because the standard is very different for all of Fleet Street, does it mean that Murdoch's papers there were only crossing a line much closer to where their peers were compared to in USA where the standards for all jounalists are very different.

Great insight packaged in a question. The answer is yes. If you spend some time poring over the files on British press scandals over recent decades, you see a lot of titles popping up---titles that aren't under the Murdoch umbrella. Yes, phone hacking appears to be a News International thing. And yes, phone hacking represents an incremental step beyond the sleazy methods commonly employed by British tabs. 

How do you think the scandal will effect how Americans perceive the credibility of Murdock news outlets here? It may be unfair, as the WSJ insists that it has complete wall between news and opinion, and of course FOX is "fair and balanced" but I can't help but feel a high degree of skepticsm about what I read and see with these outlets now-- I don't mention the NYPost as I never considered that more than a scandal sheet anyway. What will the long term fall out be to the reputaion of New Corp?

The long-term repercussions for the News Corp. brand are serious, which is one reason why shareholders are making a lot of nose about the phone hacking. It's always helpful to remember that the market value of things like newspapers and TV stations springs from their reputations, not so much their physical plant, technology, and hard assets. So phone hacking will hack away at the company's most critical asset. 

How will that affect Fox News and WSJ? That's hard to say. Something as nasty as phone hacking can have a corrosive impact on an entire corporation. Detractors will always be able to tar News Corp. properties as the corporate cousins of phone hackers. 

What's the ethical difference between the phone hacking the News of the World engaged in and illegally accessing private phone records which was performed by two now famous Post reporters during the Watergate investigation? Does the target (crime victims or Nixon) make a difference in what is an acceptable journalistic practice?

Now there's a question. I'd prefer that you put that to Woodward and Bernstein, but I will take a whack at it anyhow. 

News of the World: A routine and repeated frenzy of voicemail hacking, including at least one instance in which a reporter accessed the technology himself.  Dubious public interest justification. 

Watergate: An isolated incident of accessing private records. Overwhelming public interest justification. 


Do you think similar scandals have hit the U.S. and just haven't been uncovered yet?

I have no idea. If they have, pass along some tips, please. 

I remember how nuts FOX News Channel went over the non-scandal of NPR firing Juan Williams or how Bill O'Reilly attacks General Electric (owners of MSNBC and NBC News) nearly every night for just existsing. So isn't it fair to point it out to FNC that they are being a bit of a hypocrit in this situation in either ignoring the NewsCorp scandal or even defending NewsCorp's actions (Steve Doocy on Fox & Friends acted as NewsCorp were the victims of a hacking attack rather then the ones DOING the hacking)? I wouldn't mind it so much but they haven't gotten ANYBODY there in "Fair & Balanced Land" to say "Hey, maybe it's right and deserved to pill on for the crimes committed here"

It's fair and balanced to hammer Fox News for trying to subdue the scandal on its airwaves. A lot of that is happening every day out there on the web. 

But as I've noted on my blog, I don't think any large organization is ultimately capable of auditing itself with the scrutiny that the public demands. That's why there are competing outlets---people who can pounce on the story and never let go. And there's no piling on out there in the media. There's been too much news to report---it just looks like piling on. 


Sounds like some very convenient ethics - if you win a Pulitzer, it's okay? So hacking into the voice mail of elected officials who are suspected of wrongdoing, according to your reasoning, is acceptable?

You asked what the distinction was, and I drew a couple.  I never stated that any form of hacking was acceptable and have never practiced or permitted it in any way.

My recollection from those Watergate books was that there were some regrets about some of the reporting tactics, including accessing grand jury information.  

Watching Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant discuss this hacking stuff, you realize that these are very educated and well-spoken men which is trouble for NewsCorp. Not to knock the Olsen twins, but American actors never really come off that great to me when they are advocating some social issue or headline on TV.

Grant has acknowledged having a bias on this matter. But he is right. 

Thanks so much for chatting, people. That'll end this session. 

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Erik Wemple
Erik Wemple is an editor-turned-blogger who?s obsessed with the media issues of the day, and of yesterday as well.
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