It is not only in politics that a week is a long time. The last week must have felt like half a lifetime for Rupert Murdoch. During it he has had to close the News of the World (the very first newspaper he bought in Britain), abandon his ambitious bid to take over the whole of BSkyB, succumb to demands from MPs to appear before them and face new challenges to his empire in the United States and Australia. And today, Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of Murdoch’s British operations, News International, and the figure whom he said only a few days ago it was his priority to save, has resigned. How much more humbling does the media tycoon face?
Few would have predicted that the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World would produce such dramatic consequences so quickly. But, once it had, few would have been surprised by the glee with which Murdoch’s troubles have been greeted. For many people, Rupert Murdoch has long been a hate figure in Britain.
To them he has long seemed too big for his boots. In their eyes he and News International have been almost single-handedly responsible for the coarsening of the British media, for the dumbing down of public debate and for fostering a climate of shrill, populist, bigoted right-wing opinion. Murdoch, they complain, has been allowed to become far too powerful, seemingly able to swing elections and have party leaders jumping to his tune, especially when it comes to issues affecting his own commercial interests. To them he has been an intolerable bully whose come-uppance can be only a matter for celebration.
Such a view of him has not gone unchallenged, however. No newspaper or newspaper magnate, it’s argued, is powerful enough to affect the result of elections in the way alleged. Newspapers may boast they can do so (as Murdoch’s Sun did in 1992 when it claimed that it was 'the Sun wot won it', after Labour lost the general election following a deeply personal attack by the paper on its leader, Neil Kinnock), but what newspapers really do is judge how their readers will vote and then get ahead of the game by telling them to do so. It wasn’t so much Murdoch’s abandoning Labour in 2009 that lost Gordon Brown the 2010 election (as the former prime minister seems to believe), but News International’s realisation that its readers had had enough of Labour that caused its titles to shift allegiance.
Defenders of Murdoch argue that he has been a force for good in Britain. It was largely he who was responsible for breaking the power of the print unions in Fleet Street, so making it possible for new titles, like the Independent, to emerge. And he was among the first to spot the opportunities available in satellite television, so breaking the duopoly of the BBC and ITV. BSkyB’s commercial success, it is argued, is a measure of how much the public supports this development.
But whatever the truth of the cases for and against Murdoch, it is as much as anything the Murdoch manner, the perceived arrogance of the man and his company, which grates. The interview with him this week in his own Wall Street Journal will have done him few favours among British public opinion, as he said that his company had made only ‘minor mistakes’ in its handling of the crisis. Nor will the fact that he and his son, James, initially turned down an ‘invitation’ to appear before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee, only to perform a U-turn when the committee subsequently ‘summoned’ them, seem like the behaviour of the properly contrite. It is being reported that News International is planning to take out advertisements this Sunday in other newspapers, apologising for what has gone on at the News of the World, but it remains to be seen whether this will appease public opinion.
Then the focus will be on the appearance of the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks before MPs on Tuesday. The MPs will no doubt be full of questions concerning the News of the World’s payments to the police, the pay-offs to victims of phone-hacking allegedly in order to buy their silence, about who knew what and how high responsibility went. But we should perhaps not expect a wholly clear picture of what went on to emerge through one morning’s interrogation of the chief actors. James Murdoch has already made clear that the three witnesses may be circumspect in what they say while criminal investigations are underway and before the major inquiry announced by the Prime Minister this week has even begun its work.
In the long run, it is this inquiry, under Lord Justice Leveson, which is likely to have the most impact. Its terms of reference are far-reaching, covering not only what went on at the News of the World, but also the future regulation of the press and issues of media ownership and the need to make sure that no one media organisation has undue power.
Some are speculating that long before the Leveson report is published Rupert Murdoch will have taken decisive action of his own. There are suggestions that he may sell all his British newspapers, since the print media is no longer the force (or source of profit) that it once was. His dismissal of these rumours as ‘rubbish’ does not mean that the idea may not be considered in future.
There is also a possibility that his existing 39% stake in BSkyB may be at risk too, as the regulator, Ofcom, may have to consider, in the light of recent scandals, whether or not the Murdoch empire is ‘fit and proper’ to be represented on the BSkyB board. In America too, Murdoch faces challenges, with an FBI investigation already underway as to whether private investigators acting on behalf of the News of the World hacked into the phones of victims of 9/11 and their families.
However all this unravels one other consequence may flow from the dramatic events of the last week. Rupert Murdoch is eighty. It had been widely expected that he would be succeeded as overall boss of his media empire by his younger son, James. But if James emerges tarnished from the current scandal, it may well be that power in the Murdoch will begin to shift outside the family. The Murdoch empire is not going to disappear any time soon, but the power of the Murdoch family may turn out never to be quite the same again.
What’s your view?
- Do you think Rupert Murdoch has been a force more for good or for bad in Britain?
- What do you make of the charge that he has been responsible for coarsening the media and fostering a climate of intolerance and bigotry?
- Do you share the view that his breaking of the print unions and his promotion of satellite television have been beneficial to this country?
- Do you think he has been allowed to wield too much power or not?
- Do you think his newspapers have been able to swing elections or not?
- Do you think political leaders have been too ready to kowtow to him, or not?
- Do you think his company has made only ‘minor mistakes’ in its handling of the recent crisis?
- What would you like MPs to ask the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks on Tuesday?
- Was Rebekah Brooks right to resign?
- And what do you hope will emerge from the Leveson inquiry?