4 Ways the Murdoch Scandal Points To Rot at the Top
It started with a phone-hacking scandal at a British tabloid, but the scandal now engulfing Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation empire encompasses several of his newspapers, including the once-venerable U.K. paper, the Sunday Times, and points to malfeasance by Murdoch's top lieutenant, Les Hinton, the former executive chairman of News International who is now based in New York in his current role as CEO of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. News International is the News Corp division that comprises all of Murdoch's British papers.
Although yesterday's revelations are rich in new details, those details simply reinforce a narrative that has long defined the company ethos of News Corp, an ethos we describe in four points:
* The targeting of Rupert Murdoch's political enemies
* Lying to public officials in official investigations
* Buying the silence of troublesome employees
* Lack of full disclosure of conflicts of interest
First, a Little Backstory
Sunday the scandal exploded once again as the Guardian -- the liberal U.K. paper that has doggedly reported this scandal as it has unfolded over the course of six years -- reported that Hinton may have lied to the British parliament about the number of people involved in the News of World phone-hacking schemes. (AlterNet's reporting on the scandal has raised questions about Hinton's role.) Then the Guardian revealed that the Sunday Times, another News International paper, targeted former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown using similarly underhanded tactics, such as having a private investigator pose as Brown in a phone call to Brown's bankers in order to obtain confidential information about the politician's personal finances. The targeting of Brown took place while Hinton manned the helm of News International.
While Hinton told parliament in 2007, just months before he was rewarded with his current post in New York, that the News of the World phone-hacking practices were limited to the actions of a single reporter and the hacker he hired, the Guardian today brought to light an internal News International investigation that suggested the practice was widespread at the paper. Hinton was among those to whom the memos detailing the findings were made available at the time of the investigation.
The phone-hacking part of the scandal, you'll recall, was first exposed years ago when it was revealed that News of the World, the British tabloid shuttered yesterday by Murdoch, had hired investigators to hack into the voice mail accounts of celebrities and aides to the royal family in order to glean fodder for the gossipy pieces that sold newspapers. But when, last week, the Guardian revealed that News of the World had used similar practices to feed its sensational coverage of a teenage murder victim -- even erasing the victim's voice-mails in order to make room for any new info that might have poured into her mailbox -- the British public turned on its most-read newspaper. A subsequent revelation that News of the World also hacked the voice-mail accounts of victims of the London subway terrorist bombings in 2007 further disgusted the public.
Then there are pay-offs to British law enforcement for information on people the newspapers were looking to find dirt on, payments that may also have yielded a less-than-thorough investigation of the phone-hacking scandal when it initially broke six years ago.
While the tactics of News International papers exposed by the Guardian may represent the most extreme manifestations of the ethical breaches and general malfeasance of News Corporation outlets, a similar pattern of pay-offs, prevarication and political sliming pervades the whole company, including at some of its big U.S. holdings such as Fox News, HarperCollins and the Wall Street Journal. (Four ways explained on next page.)
1. Targeting Murdoch's political enemies. While many newspaper moguls advance their political point of view on their editorial pages, Murdoch's minions are known to launch jihads against their boss' liberal political opponents. Murdoch is not a newspaperman with a political point of view; he's a right-wing political force who owns a number of very powerful media properties.
On Hinton's watch, the Sunday Times targeted Labour Party official Gordon Brown over the course of 10 years, both during Brown's long tenure as chancellor of the exchequer (the British equivalent of the U.S. treasury secretary) and his shorter stint as prime minister. The Guardian reports that as early as 2000, a "blagger" working on behalf of the Times posed as Brown in calls to the Abbey National Bank in a scam to get information about the chancellor's personal finances.
Also suspect, according to the Guardian, is the manner in which News International papers came to know of the cystic fibrosis diagnosis of one of Brown's children just hours after the Browns received the diagnosis, as well as the paper's reporting years earlier that Brown's daughter was dying of a brain hemorrhage. The Guardian also found that the paper had assistance from a police officer in its targeting of Brown and two Labour Party members of parliament.
Here in the U.S., the Wall Street Journal, under Hinton's watch, apparently sanctioned the involvement of an editorial board member in a political crusade to unseat Democrats in Wisconsin and elsewhere, via a program designed to indoctrinate employees of privately held businesses to vote against Democrats in the 2010 elections. As AlterNet reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore made numerous appearances on behalf of employers at workplaces in Wisconsin and elsewhere to persuade workers that Democratic policies would ultimately cost them their jobs.
Fox News has made no secret of its intimidation of perceived political enemies. During Amanda Terkel's tenure at ThinkProgress, the blog of the liberal Center For American Progress Action Fund, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly dispatched his producers to tail Terkel as she set out on vacation in 2009, and confronted her once she reached her destination.
2. Lying to public officials. There is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that lying to public officials who are conducting investigations is part of the News Corp ethos. Les Hinton's testimony before the British Parliament -- in which he said that phone-hacking at News of the World was practiced only by a single reporter, despite an internal investigation that suggested otherwise -- echoes, notes Media Matters' Eric Boehlert, advice allegedly given by Fox News chief Roger Ailes to Judith Regan, then an editor at Murdoch's book-publishing company, HarperCollins.
At the time, Bernard Kerik, who had served as New York City police commissioner under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, had been nominated to the post of Homeland Security secretary by President George W. Bush. In the vetting process, investigators planned to interview Judith Regan, who had had an affair with Kerik. Revelation of the affair would have spoiled the nomination for Kerik and cast Ailes' friend Giuliani, who was floating a presidential bid, in a bad light. In a lawsuit against her employer, Regan alleged that a News Corp executive told her to lie to investigators. An investigation by the New York Times concluded that Roger Ailes was that executive.
3. Paying off troublesome employees to buy their silence. When Clive Goodman, the News of the World reporter who covered the royal family, lost his job after his arrest on phone-hacking charges, he began legal proceedings against his former employer, claiming he had been wrongfully dismissed. Les Hinton had told parliament that Goodman was the "lone reporter" responsible for the newspaper's phone-hacking scandal. Were Goodman to appear in court to tell the phone-hacking story he knew, it's likely that a whole lot of other people -- maybe even Andy Coulson, the paper's editor who would go on to become communications director for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron -- would likely have been implicated. So News International bought his silence for an undisclosed sum.
When Judith Regan was canned from HarperCollins for her relationship with Bernard Kerik, she, too, prepared to take the matter to court -- which would have exposed Fox News chief Roger Ailes as the guy who told her to lie to the feds. Court documents as prepared asserted that Regan had a recording of the phone call in which Ailes told her to fib about her affair with Kerik. Regan's threats of a lawsuit earned her a cool $10.75 million, according to the New York Times, in exchange for her silence. That took place in 2007, right around the time that Goodman received his own gag money.
4. Lack of full disclosure. There's a fundamental tenet of journalism known as full disclosure, which requires a journalist to report any potential or apparent conflict of interest he or she may have in reporting a story. (For instance, if I report a story on Transportation Security Administration airport screeners, I must tell you that from 2002 - 2005, I worked for the labor union that was organizing those screeners.) In Murdochland, however, that tenet is routinely disregarded.
As noted by Media Matters' Boehlert, it took the Wall Street Journal until today to report that its very own CEO played a role in the Murdoch scandal. In the AlterNet/Investigative Fund investigation of Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore, we found that Moore received at least $180,000 in speaking fees from the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which is chaired by David Koch, without making full disclosure when he quoted Americans for Prosperity officials in his columns, or when he was asked to discuss the group's political activities in his guise as a pundit. When we asked Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot for comment, he referred our query to the director of communications for Dow Jones, who reports to Les Hinton.
Time to end the timidity
Until this recent explosion of Murdochgate, Labour Party officials in Britain were notoriously timid about taking on the Murdoch machine, even as it mowed down allies. Democrats and good-journalism groups (with the exception of Media Matters, which is now the subject of a Fox News assault on its non-profit status) have also been reluctant to confront the malevolent mogul, despite the culture of corruption that encompasses his news properties and the many ways he has contributed to the destruction of American political culture.
This scandal has him weakened. If there was ever a time to fight back, it's now.