The Escalating Murdoch Scandal  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2011

The Escalating Murdoch Scandal   

Why its significant that two of his other papers have been caught up in the hacking controversy. Mon. July 11, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The hits just keep on coming for Rupert Murdoch.

Politicians in Great Britain are frantically attacking the wounded mogul. The government has launched not one but two investigations into the exploding hacking scandal at his News of the World. Public fury was so intense that, in a spectacular effort at damage control, he felt compelled to shutter that high-circulation tabloid. Nevertheless, advertisers are fleeing his other properties. His effort to gain complete control of British Sky Broadcasting, which seemed for so long like a done deal, is suddenly imperiled.

The Teflon that has served him so well for so long seems be shredding rapidly.

One particularly significant development is the disclosure by the Guardian, which has led the way in the hacking investigation, of a particularly aggressive campaign to unearth information about former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. According to the newspaper, the forces of Murdoch not only attempted to gain access to Brown's voicemail but also obtained private banking and medical information.

And the malefactors in this case, says the Guardian, were not the much-pilloried News of the World, but two other Murdoch properties, the Sunday Times and the Sun.

What's important about this is that it reinforces the notion that the rampant misbehavior was institutional, that it in effect was part of the business strategy of Murdoch's news outlets in the U.K. It not only was not the work of a single perp, it wasn't the work of just one paper. That's not good news for Murdoch.

"The sheer scale of the data assault on Brown is unusual, with evidence of attempts to obtain his legal, financial, tax, medical and police records as well as to listen to his voicemail," the Guardian reported. "All of these incidents are linked to media organisations. In many cases, there is evidence of a link to News International," the parent company of Murdoch's British papers.

The hacking scandal has been out there for some time, but it never became a major threat to Murdoch until last week's disclosure that the hacking targets included a missing teenager and the families of terrorism victims. That touched the public imagination in a way that the previously known hacking of public officials and celebrities did not.

But another factor was the revelation of the vast scope of the hacking. That underscored that this was a paper-wide adventure, not the freelancing of a couple of bad apples or kumquats.

That's why pressure has intensified on Murdoch confidant and News International chief Rebekah Brooks, who had been the editor of News of the World during the hacking glory days. It seems inconceivable to many that the boss could have been unaware of such pervasive behavior. Murdoch is continuing to stand by his woman. After flying to London Sunday, he posed smiling with Brooks and said pointedly that she was his first priority.

And what of Murdoch, who has ruthlessly used the power of his newspapers to intimidate British politicians and who profoundly altered the United States' media and political worlds with his creation of Fox News Channel? How close will the raging inferno come to him? Murdoch, after all, has never been exactly a hands-off executive.

It's clear that there's much, much more to be revealed. There are those two government probes, and other news outlets are in full chase mode.

In a shockingly abrupt reversal, the seemingly unstoppable Rupert Murdoch seems very, very vulnerable.

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