Dial M for more Murdoch woes

Sat, Apr 21, 2012, 01:00

Once he was seen as untouchable, but now the media mogul’s troubles keep growing

LAST YEAR Rupert Murdoch’s public image received an unexpected boost during an appearance before a House of Commons inquiry when a protester pushed a paper plate filled with shaving foam into his face.

The protester, Jonathan May-Bowles, a self-described comedian, was met with a firm slap from Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, moments before he was restrained by security staff.

The hearing was suspended for 10 minutes. One of the committee, the Labour MP Tom Watson, a long-time critic of the Murdoch empire, left his seat and walked over to Murdoch and his son James. “As he did so, he heard one of the Murdoch aides say: ‘Don’t worry, this will play well’. Watson poured the mogul a glass of water and told him, ‘Your wife’s got quite a right hook’,” the MP recounts in a new book.

Next week, however, Murdoch and his son can expect no such intervention to help his image when they both appear before the Leveson inquiry. Much of the defence that existed when they appeared before the Commons’ media, culture and sport inquiry last July has evaporated, particularly the declaration that they had not known the scale of skulduggery at the News of the World.

James Murdoch had then told MPs, for example, that he had been unaware of the “For Neville” email – one that contained transcripts of hacked voicemail messages. Since then it has become clear that he had known about it.

Now, without some of the executive and board positions in the Murdoch fold that he enjoyed last year, James will face Lord Justice Leveson and his legal team on Tuesday. His father appears the following day, with the inquiry making it clear already that he will be expected to turn up again the day after if questions remain to be asked.

The inquiry was established after the News of the World was found to have hacked into voicemail messages left in 2002 for the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Faced with public outrage, Murdoch closed the paper. With every week that has passed since, the situation has become more critical for the Murdochs, particularly now that lawyers for some of the tabloid’s victims have moved to launch legal action in the US.

There, the Murdochs must worry not just about public outrage but also about the real danger of criminal prosecutions under the all-powerful Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Back in the UK, the list of those arrested for suspected involvement in hacking, or in alleged attempts to cover it up, gets ever longer. Three more people were held on Thursday in dawn raids, bringing the number to 49.

In his book, Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, which he wrote with Martin Hickman, Watson brings the complicated story of the phone-hacking scandal to life. Watson is not unbiased, having been a target of Murdoch papers, which once described him as the “poisonous” leader of “a plotting gang of weasels” in Labour. (In 2006 he and other MPS had called on Tony Blair to stand down, at a time when the former prime minister still had Murdoch’s support.)

Illustrating the circulation lust of the former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, the book recounts her campaign for the public to be told if released paedophiles were living in their midst. Fuelled by the tabloid’s hysteria, thugs forced four families in different parts of the UK to quit their homes when the father in each case was wrongly identified as a paedophile.

Besides detailing the extent to which a cover-up has taken place, Dial M for Murdoch tells how the British establishment backed away from tackling the media moguls even after it knew that wrongdoing was rampant.

For Watson and Hickman, phone-hacking is just one of Murdoch’s sins. They recount how, for years, he ran “a shadow state” that left a succession of prime ministers determined to keep him on side, no matter what the cost.

“In the end, this story is about corruption by power,” they write, one in which personal vendettas were viciously pursued. “They thought they could destroy the evidence, threaten and cover up.”

Protected by politicians, “they listened to phone messages, of course, but they also blagged, bribed, spied and bullied, and imposed their will through blackmail, corruption and intimidation.”

Watson believes that the scandal is “eating up” the company Murdoch built up over decades, quoting the business writer Michael Wolff’s declaration that “an extraordinary corporate death is taking place”.

Nevertheless, despite the wounds inflicted, and the certainty of more to come, the empire “stands shaken and ostensibly apologetic, but it is still there and Rupert Murdoch is still in charge”.