AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2012

“Not a Fit Person”   

A Parliamentary committee’s harsh verdict about Rupert Murdoch. Tues., May 1, 2012.

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

It's a devastating document.

The report by a Parliamentary committee investigating the various scandals that have engulfed Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. certainly doesn't pull any punches.

Murdoch, the select committee on culture, media and sport concluded, is "not a fit person" to run a major international company.

The panel found that the embattled mogul "did not take steps to become fully informed about phone hacking [by his employees], he turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications."

It also said Murdoch's son James, Rupert's designated successor until he was tarnished by fallout from the company's disgrace, showed "wilful ignorance" of the extent of phone hacking during attempts to sort out the sordid situation in 2009 and 2010.

The panel concluded that that rather than shed light on its operations, Rupert Murdoch's company did everything it could to prevent the MPs to getting to the truth about rampant phone hacking by News Corp. personnel and other misdeeds.

"Corporately," the report said, "the News of the World [the hack-happy paper closed as a result of the scandal] and News International [Murdoch's British subsidiary] misled the Committee about the true nature and extent of the internal investigations they professed to have carried out in relation to phone hacking; by making statements they would have known were not fully truthful; and by failing to disclose documents which would have helped expose the truth. Their instinct throughout, until it was too late, was to cover up rather than seek out wrongdoing and discipline the perpetrators, as they also professed they would do after the criminal convictions."

And it found that the company's culture "permeated from the top."

The company long held to the line that the phone hacking was the work of one "rogue reporter" rather than a far broader enterprise. The cliché has it that the cover-up is always worse than the crime (it's not, of course). But in this case the cover-up worked quite well for a long time, thwarting previous Parliamentary efforts to get at the truth. It wasn't until the revelation last summer of the hacking of the phone of missing school girl Milly Dowler – in 2002!--that the scandal began to resonate with the British public.

The report's brutal conclusion about Murdoch's unfitness is muffled somewhat by the fact that it was hardly unanimous. The vote on that particular conclusion was 6-4, with all of the Conservative members voting against it. But that it happened at all is a vivid reflection of just how far the mighty Rupert has fallen.

For years British politicians of all flavors groveled before the great man, seeking his support and, more important, trying to make sure his media empire didn't savage them. Until recently, any government rebuke would have been unthinkable.

Since the seemingly buried scandal exploded last summer, the damage to Rupert Murdoch and his empire has been immense. Murdoch closed the News of the World, once the largest-circulation English language newspaper in the world. He was forced to drop his bid to take over BSkyB, Britain's largest broadcaster. The collateral damage has included close Murdoch associates like Rebekah Brooks, his protégé who lost her job as chief executive of News International and was arrested, and Les Hinton, his associate of more than 50 years who was forced out as CEO of Dow Jones. His succession scheme blew up.

As what of Murdoch himself? For years he has been a powerful force. Love him or hate him--and he has no shortage of enemies – it was hard not to give the devil his due. He was a buccaneer who always seemed to get what he wanted.

Now he seems a far smaller figure, forced to appear in public to try to defend the indefensible, a hapless figure at the helm of a crumbling empire.