The New Yorker sums it up and bites through Murdoch's jugular vein
by Anthony Lane
August 1, 2011
On March 21, 2002, a thirteen-year-old English schoolgirl took the train home. Usually, she took it all the way to Hersham, seventeen miles from London, where she lived, but on that day she got off one stop before, at Walton-on-Thames, to get something to eat. From that decision flowed two events, one terrible and final, the other more ambiguous and by no means complete. The first was the death of the girl, whose name was Milly Dowler. Walking home from Walton, she was abducted and murdered by a man named Levi Bellfield. Her body was found six months later, in a field twenty-five miles away, by mushroom pickers. The second consequence has been the fraying of an empire, and the sight of its emperor under siege. Many people have dreamed of such a day; far fewer would have predicted the swiftness with which it arrived; others view it as an overreaction tinged with hypocrisy and hysteria; and only the unworldly would claim that the end is nigh. Empires strike back.
The emperor is, of course, Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and C.E.O. of News Corporation; the owner of Twentieth Century Fox, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal; the proprietor, in Britain, of the Times, the Sunday Times, and the Sun, and the holder of a 39.1-per-cent stake in BSkyB, the country’s leading satellite-broadcasting company; an Australian by birth and an American by choice; the proud father of six children; the thirty-eighth-richest person in this country; and, in the words of his mother, the adamantine Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, now a hundred and two years old, “that wretched boy of mine.” Never underestimate the wish, in the heart of a child, even a child aged eighty, to please the matriarch and prove himself less wretched in her eyes. It takes only three minutes, near the start of “Citizen Kane,” to shift from the stony stare of Mrs. Kane, as she watches young Charles leave forever, to the bullish proposal of the grown lad: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”
In the past weeks, the fun has leached away. Readers and viewers who know Murdoch purely as a name—or as one of those figures so wealthy, and granted such frictionless mobility by their wealth, that they never seem to be in the part of the world that you expect them to be—were startled to see a senior gent, with sparse white hair and a clownish smile, descend upon London. He was seen jogging in one of the parks, in the thrall of a personal trainer. She was blond and wholly fearsome, like someone whom Sylvester Stallone very nearly married before changing his mind and hiding under the bed. As for her trainee, he was photographed with milk-white shanks exposed unkindly to the elements. This was Rupert Murdoch? The man to whom Prime Ministers bend the knee? More unfamiliar still was the contrite figure who emerged from a meeting in a London hotel and pronounced himself “appalled to find out what had happened.” He was also “humbled to give a full and sincere apology to the Dowler family,” according to the Dowlers’ solicitor. Of all the words one never thought to find in the vicinity of Murdoch, “humbled,” especially in the passive voice, would top the list. But what was he apologizing for?
Chronology matters here, if one is to chart the rising tide. Bellfield, who is serving life imprisonment for two other killings, committed in 2003 and 2004, was tried for Milly’s murder and convicted, on June 23rd of this year. The following day, the Dowlers complained of their legal ordeal; Milly’s father, Robert, who had been an early suspect, had endured fierce cross-questioning. So had Milly’s mother, Sally, who was made to listen to Milly’s private notes, and who collapsed after giving evidence. “My family have had to pay too high a price for justice for Milly,” Robert Dowler said. On June 25th, the chief constable in charge of the investigation, Mark Rowley, said that the Dowlers’ privacy had been “destroyed.” He contrasted their position with that of celebrities who seek to guard their follies through legal injunctions—Ryan Giggs, for instance, a Manchester United soccer player, whose sexual exploits had been concealed, protected by such an injunction, until unloosed on the Internet.
What links all these disparate details is a confused and volatile concern about how, and even whether, our lives still belong to us. Who can possibly remain a closed book, when others try to open it and leaf through? Have the millions who volunteer their thoughts, on Facebook and in other social media, made it more treacherous for others—and for themselves—when a secret begs to be kept? The hungering quest to know, in short, and the debatable right to pry were already being stirred in the public mind. A sportsman with too many girlfriends could be jeered like a baited bear, but bereaved parents, who had sought no fame, were another matter. Something had to give, and it came on July 4th, with the allegation that the News of the World, the Sunday paper owned by Murdoch, had hacked into Milly Dowler’s cell phone. In the days after she vanished, it was said, journalists had deleted messages on her phone, in order to clear space for more. This may have compromised the police inquiry, and had also, more damnably, given her family false hope that she might be alive.
The story was broken by the Guardian, the upmarket daily paper that has been pursuing the matter of illegal conduct by the tabloids since 2002. The royal editor of the News of the World and a private investigator employed by the paper had already been jailed for hacking into phones used by members of the Royal Family, yet it would be fair to say that such occurrences had been met, by the wider public, with a shrug. So what was different now? The received wisdom—that the extreme sufferings of ordinary folk do not merit exploitation—is correct. There was, furthermore, a sense that the hacking of Milly Dowler’s messages represented a desecration of the dead. The obloquy deepened in the ensuing days, during which it was reported that the cell phones of families of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan may also have been hacked. These are, as yet, allegations: nothing has been proved, although little has been denied. What hackers could conceivably have gleaned from such activity, apart from listening to messages of condolence, is hard to imagine; maybe hacking, profitable or not, had stiffened into a reflex.
From here, the outcry gathered force, and rolled over those who stood in its path. On July 8th, Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, who later became the communications director in the office of David Cameron, the Prime Minister, was arrested in connection with the allegations. On July 14th, the same fate befell Neil Wallis, who had been the deputy editor first of the Sun and later of the News of the World, where he rose to become executive editor. The next day, Les Hinton, the C.E.O. of Dow Jones, a subsidiary of News Corporation, and a colleague of Murdoch’s for half a century, resigned his post, as did Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, which publishes all the Murdoch newspapers in Britain. She had edited the Sun from 2003 to 2009, and before that the News of the World, from 2000 to 2003—the period that included the alleged hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. Brooks is evidently close to Murdoch, who, on July 10th, having arrived in London to limit the damage, was asked what his greatest priority was. “This one,” he replied, indicating Brooks. A week later, she was arrested.
Later that day, Sir Paul Stephenson, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and thus the senior law-enforcement official in the land, also quit his job. He had been hobbled by the revelation—and here we are treading close to farce—that Neil Wallis, after leaving the News of the World, in 2009, had been hired by the Metropolitan Police (the Met, as it is known), as a public-relations consultant. Stephenson, in his resignation speech, pointed out that Wallis, unlike Andy Coulson, had not been forced to resign from the paper. The Prime Minister had nonetheless gone ahead and hired Coulson. Cameron was, and remains, under fire not just for his naïveté in that appointment but for the ease with which he had mingled with members of News International; lips were pursed at his personal amity with Brooks, who was a neighbor of Cameron’s, in Oxfordshire. (Her husband, a racehorse trainer, was educated at Eton, as was the Prime Minister: nothing suspicious about that, but it does oil the wheels.) How high would this scandal rise? Could it not merely corrode but pull down a government?
Of all the charges being levelled, the social one—that the Prime Minister was fraternizing with the wrong sort—is at once the most splenetic and the weakest, especially to anyone familiar with the dance that politicians and newspapers have led one another in the past hundred years. No waltz could have been merrier than the weekend gathering in November, 1923, at Cherkley Court, a resplendent country house, in Surrey. The guests included David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Austen Chamberlain (a former Chancellor of the Exchequer), and Lord Birkenhead, until recently Lord Chancellor. Their plan was to discomfit the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and form a new coalition—a scheme abetted by their host, Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express, then a newspaper of great potency and reach. “I think Baldwin will be defeated,” Beaverbrook wired to another press baron, Lord Rothermere, who owned not just the Daily Mail but also the Daily Mirror. Later, in the Second World War, Beaverbrook became, at Churchill’s invitation, Minister of Aircraft Production. His colleague Ernest Bevin, the wartime Minister of Labour, said that, when it came to Beaverbrook, Churchill “was like a man who’s married a whore; he knows she’s a whore but he loves her just the same.” Churchill himself, incidentally, once wrote for the News of the World.
The joke is that the anti-Baldwin plotting petered out; when it comes to moguls and ministers, not all convenings are conspiracies, and few conspiracies succeed. It is natural, in the present frenzy, that Carl Bernstein, writing in Newsweek, should claim that comparisons with the Watergate affair are “inevitable.” But is that so? On the Presidential watch, men were hired to commit criminal acts; Cameron, by comparison, took on a man, Coulson, who had been tarnished by association with criminality, and gave him a respectable (if serpentine) job, which by all accounts Coulson performed with aplomb. The Prime Minister erred, but was he guilty of anything darker than lousy judgment? Ian Katz, the deputy editor of the Guardian, may well be right when he says, “The conspiracy reading is that Cameron wasn’t prepared to risk the ire of News International by dumping Coulson overboard, because once he dumped Coulson, the whole thing would chase back up the ladder towards Murdoch. I don’t really buy that. I think it was more a combination of arrogance and a reluctance to confront a really difficult situation.”
If the Nixonian shadow falls anywhere in this case, it is not on Cameron but on Murdoch, for it was doubtless under his aegis that cell phones were allegedly hacked, and the law transgressed. As he admitted, “I don’t know any better than anyone else where the electronic age is taking us, or how it will affect a large newspaper company.” Those words were quoted in Fortune, in February, 1984. Whether he is wiser now, more than a quarter of a century later, God only knows. And, as yet, no one has hacked His phone.
For a small nation, Britain has an awful lot of national newspapers. Six days of the week, you can choose among five tabloids, some of them known, for reasons of design rather than of ideology, as “red-tops” (the Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express, the Daily Star, and the Daily Mail), and five broadsheets—the Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times, and the Daily Telegraph. Only the last two are still technically broadsheets, in terms of their page size, but the term has adhered to anything that lays claim to higher ground. (There is also a new kid, simply called i, which the Independent launched last year, and which fillets much of its content from its elder brother.) On Sunday, there is the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, and the Observer, and, at the more perspiring end of the market, the Sunday Mirror, the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Star Sunday, the People, and the Sunday Express. There was the News of the World, the heaviest breather of all, but its final edition came out on July 10th. Murdoch, in a bid to avert the hacking crisis, shut the paper, like a veterinarian who takes one look at your boisterous, nippy, but otherwise healthy mastiff and puts it down.
This barrage of print has one overriding effect: in Britain, you cannot hear yourself think. You never really notice this until you leave the country, whereupon the white noise suddenly stops. The noisiest paper, without doubt, was the News of the World, which resounded with three continuous notes. The first and most defensible was sport; last year, the paper laid bare a match-fixing racket in Pakistani cricket—a bigger and more lucrative deal than it sounds. Then, there were television performers, who furnished an astounding proportion of the paper’s stories. (When historians come to measure the age of Murdoch, that symbiosis between media will loom large.) Last and most cacophonous, there was the assumption, or the ardent hope, that somebody, somewhere, was having sex with somebody he should not be having sex with. Viewed from outside, what this fixation suggested was a giggling braggart, fidgeting in the school playground, and pointing at girls with whom he would never stand a chance.
The resulting product was the best-selling newspaper in the country; make of that what you will. Murdoch certainly did. He bought the paper in 1969, acquiring the Sun later that year, and both Times titles in 1981. The News of the World had been alive since 1843, but, at the time of Murdoch’s approach, it had not been kicking for some while. In 1950, its circulation stood close to eight and a half million, an astonishing command of the reading public, but had since fallen to around six million. This was in line with a general subsidence; as Kevin Williams explains in his book “Read All About It,” “the decline of the mass Sunday newspaper is attributed to the incorporation of its values into the mainstream daily papers. The reader did not have to wait for the sleaze, scandals, and sex that up until the 1960s had only been available on Sundays.” Lurking somewhere behind this is a sulfurous inversion of religious practice: it’s not enough to confess your faith on the Lord’s day; you must go out and live it every day of the week.
One of the last people to inveigh, with any effect, against that heresy was Cardinal Heenan, the Archbishop of Westminster, who took Murdoch to task, in 1969, for having bought and splashed, or resplashed, the memoirs of Christine Keeler in the News of the World. She was the woman who had enjoyed simultaneous affairs with the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, and a Soviet attaché—a grave security risk and, by any standards, a superheated news story. But that had all happened six years earlier; Profumo had resigned and devoted himself to work among the poor, in the East End, and the saga had grown cold. Murdoch was warming it up again, because his instinct, as keen as ever, told him that the will to forgive is weaker, in the communal conscience, than the urge to drool. He was reported as saying, “People can sneer all they like, but I’ll take the hundred and fifty thousand extra copies we’re going to sell.”
Nonetheless, he apologized to the Cardinal, thus setting a pattern that persists to this day. Murdoch would preside over an exclusive, reap the reward, and, if necessary, express contrition, while his underlings readied themselves for the next scoop. On July 16th of this year, as the hacking scandal bloomed, News Corporation placed full-page advertisements in several newspapers—including, with some panache, the Guardian—headlined “WE ARE SORRY,” and adding, “Our business was founded on the idea that a free and open press should be a positive force in society. We need to live up to this.” That is a direct descendant of a statement that Murdoch issued in 1995: “This company will not tolerate its papers bringing into disrepute the best practices of popular journalism.” The fault, on that occasion, was a story, in the News of the World, about Victoria, the troubled wife of Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother. Included were photographs, described by the paper’s editor, Piers Morgan, as “evocative,” of Victoria Spencer on the grounds of a private clinic. The matter was referred to the Press Complaints Commission, the invertebrate body that oversees the misdeeds of British newspapers. “That press complaining thingamajig,” Murdoch called it, according to Morgan, when they spoke a few days later.
Morgan owes much to Murdoch. He ran “Bizarre,” the show-biz column at the Sun, before taking the helm at the News of the World, in 1994, at the age of twenty-eight. From there, he left to edit the Mirror, the Sun’s enduring—and traditionally more left-wing—rival, from which he was sacked in 2004, having published photographs of British troops abusing Iraqi civilians. The front page showed a soldier urinating on one of his victims. It was more than possible that such images could stoke retaliation against British forces, and Morgan soon had a fresh problem: the pictures were fakes. (He has said that he is still uncertain of this.) For anyone who wishes to learn how the cycle of contumely and pardon—or simple forgetfulness—spins in England, note the consequence. Morgan went on to become a judge on “Britain’s Got Talent,” on ITV, and on “America’s Got Talent,” on NBC, before ascending to the throne of Larry King, on CNN.
Morgan’s diary, published as “The Insider,” in 2005, is a tour guide to the freakery of life among the red-tops. What stands out is not the crowing thrills, or the major foul-ups, but the run-of-the-mill assumptions on which the tabloid press relies; they are the secret of the Murdoch mill. In the News of the World, on November 13, 1994, Morgan ran a photograph of Spike Milligan, once a harebrained figure in British comedy and now, apparently, whittled to what the caption called “a shadow of his former self.” The picture, it turned out, was not of Milligan at all, but, as Morgan reassured himself, “Spike will see the funny side, I’m sure. He’s a comedian.” Four days later, when a letter arrived from Milligan’s lawyer, expressing a grievance and requesting compensation, Morgan wrote, “I genuinely cannot believe how prickly Spike is being over all this.” Such is the quintessence of the tabloid: to bruise and bully, and then to back off, exclaiming, Come on, we’re only having a laugh. Can’t you take a joke? The British sense of humor is both an invaluable broadsword and an impenetrable shield.
The most thickly armored warrior, in this regard, was Kelvin MacKenzie, who edited the Sun from 1981 to 1994. When it comes to ethical discrimination, MacKenzie makes Morgan look like Ronald Dworkin. Students of the period should consult “Stick It Up Your Punter!,” by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie, much of which is consumed by MacKenzie’s reign. Here you will find, for instance, details of the interview with Marica McKay, the widow of a British sergeant who died in the Falklands and was honored with a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest British award for gallantry—an interview compromised by the fact that she never actually spoke to the Sun. Or, there was the mission to out Peter Tatchell, the Labour candidate for the London constituency of Bermondsey, who was finally snared by the headline “RED PETE ‘WENT TO GAY OLYMPICS.’ ” MacKenzie was informed that Tatchell had not, in fact, attended the Gay Olympics in San Francisco, but, undaunted, the editor simply inserted the claim between single quotation marks and ran it anyway. It suited MacKenzie’s bellowing homophobia, which, in turn, was consonant with his racial fears. “Botha has said the days of white power are over in South Africa. What he doesn’t say is what’s going to happen when the darkies come down from the trees,” he said. That was reported in the New Statesman, in 1985, by Peter Court, who had briefly worked as a graphic designer for the Sun.
When “Stick It Up Your Punter!” first came out, in 1990, it was hailed for its comic momentum, and the back cover of the paperback is strewn with snippets of admiring reviews from, among others, The Economist, the London Review of Books, and, yes, the Guardian—the well-bred visitors laughing at the tabloid zoo. Read now, it seems less amusing, and what previously felt like a string of high jinks comes across as a tireless parade of emotional cruelty. Court had a colleague in the art department who was instructed by MacKenzie to “do us all a favour, you useless cunt—cut your throat.” According to Matthew Engel, in “Tickle the Public: One Hundred Years of the Popular Press,” a news editor was discovered whacking his skull against a wall, in an effort to preëmpt what he thought a raging MacKenzie would do to him later.
All of which suggests that the seeds of the current crisis were planted long ago. If your attitude toward the lives of others is that of a house burglar confronted by an open window; if you consider it part of your business to fabricate conversations where none exist; and if your boss treats his employees with a derision that they, following suit, extend to the subjects of their inquiries—if those elements are already in place, then the decision to, say, hack into someone’s cell phone is almost no decision at all. It is merely the next step. All that is required is the technology. What ensues may be against the law, but it goes no more against the grain of common decency than any other tool of your trade. This has been confirmed by Paul McMullan, a former deputy features editor at the News of the World, who started by blowing the whistle on phone-hacking and now appears, for the hell of it, to have switched from a whistle to a trumpet. Questioned on the BBC, on July 5th, he said that, having pondered the matter of Milly Dowler’s messages being hacked, he has come to view it as “not such a big deal.”
McMullan cuts exactly the figure that one would hope: the stained white suit, the tie askew, the despairing beard, the eruptive complexion, and the hair that no comb would dare engage. Yet, at present, he is perhaps the only player in this drama who speaks without a trace of caution—cheerfully confessing to what he hardly perceives as wrongs, and manfully struggling to grasp those moments when even he may have exceeded his brief. On BBC Radio, he spoke, with a fuddled melancholy, of Jennifer Elliott—no celebrity, but the daughter of the actor Denholm Elliott, who was in “Trading Places” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He died in 1992. She had a drug problem, and McMullan wrote about her in the News of the World, in 1995, alleging that she was a beggar and a part-time prostitute. Just to coarsen things, he admitted that the tipoff came from a policeman who had taken payment from one of his colleagues. Jennifer Elliott later hanged herself. Asked by the BBC, “Do you think that decision had anything to do with what you wrote and what you did?,” McMullan replied:
Yeah, I totally humiliated and destroyed her. It wasn’t necessary, she didn’t deserve it. She was having a bad time after her own dad had died. Yeah, I went a step too far. And it was based on a now criminal act, and so you gotta sometimes question, well, in some cases, criminal acts perpetrated by journalists aren’t always justified. And in this case, not only was it not justified, it was downright wrong, I sincerely regret it, and, again, if there was anyone to apologize to, I would. But they’re all dead.
If you want to track down a forebear of McMullan, try George Flack:
That’s about played out, any way, the idea of sticking up a sign of “private” and thinking you can keep the place to yourself. You can’t do it—you can’t keep out the light of the Press. Now what I’m going to do is to set up the biggest lamp yet made and to make it shine all over the place. We’ll see who’s private then!
Flack was a fiction—a journalist dreamed up by Henry James, for his 1888 novel “The Reverberator.” To pass from the author of “The Golden Bowl” to the News of the World is to range from one end of the human pH scale to the other, yet James detected the note of pure threat, and wondered how we might cower beneath it. Fear and loathing of the press is as old as the press itself, and the press would argue that the mighty in their seats have much to be fearful about; but the British tabloid press, in particular, spends much less time on the mighty, from day to day, than on the lowly, the lecherous, and the foreign. The Sun, July 4, 2003: “Police swooped on a gang of East Europeans and caught them red-handed about to cook a pair of Royal swans.” The Press Complaints Commission found that the newspaper “was unable to provide any evidence for the story.”
Yet the story ran, deftly hardening the readers’ xenophobia, though its primary purpose, in the land of the gray sky, was surely to dispel their clouded gloom. As one scans the history of Murdoch’s rise, this mission to entertain assumes far more importance than his political agenda. Unlike Rothermere and Beaverbrook, he relishes not the orotundity of power (“It is the duty of newspapers to advocate a policy of optimism in the broadest sense,” Beaverbrook said, in 1922) but the more subtle power of suggestion. (When Murdoch was angling to buy the Times, he entered a committee room “like someone visiting a friend in hospital”—the recollection of Harry Evans, who was about to cross over as editor of the Sunday paper to editor of the daily paper.) Murdoch is not prone to intellectual nicety, and his support for any given government has been determined, more often than not, by its willingness to strike the fetters from the market; once the Conservatives chose not to refer his takeover of the Times and the Sunday Times to the Monopolies Commission, it was easy to guess where Murdoch’s fealty would lie. But if one had to isolate an instant, in the thirty years of his ownership, that best portrayed the Murdoch touch it would be the dictum that he issued, over the phone, on the evening of Saturday, April 23, 1983. The Sunday Times, poised to publish Hitler’s diaries, had hit a wrinkle; the historian Lord Dacre, who had verified their authenticity, was having second thoughts. Stop the presses, or forge ahead? Over to Murdoch, in New York: “Fuck Dacre. Publish.”
That is a sheer tabloid instinct, in a broadsheet world. It paid off, too; the diaries were soon exposed as forgeries, but, as William Shawcross explains in his 1992 biography of Murdoch, “the circulation of the Sunday Times rose 60,000 while the controversy raged, and 20,000 of those readers stayed with the paper.” Shawcross admires Murdoch, with reservations—more so than detractors like Evans, who noted a “bleak hostility,” or Evans’s successor, Frank Giles, who found Murdoch “intemperate and disagreeable.” Then, there is Michael Wolff, who, throughout “The Man Who Owns the News,” his 2008 exploration of Murdoch, is openly fascinated by the elusiveness of his prey: “He uses his newspapers to change himself. It’s as though he can’t express himself without one.” This notion of an Australian chameleon is not easy to accept, especially for those who prefer to label Murdoch a cantering rhino, yet on one thing all the commentators, warm or frosty, are agreed: the guy likes newspapers, or at any rate the rough business of newspapers. Less has changed than Wolff proposes, perhaps, in the years since Murdoch bought the News of the World and declared:
Since a paper’s success or failure depends on its editorial approach, why shouldn’t I interfere when I see a way to strengthen its approach? What am I supposed to do, sit idly by and watch a paper go down the drain, simply because I’m not supposed to interfere? Rubbish! That’s the reason the News of the World started to fade. There was no one there to trim the fat and wrench it out of its editorial complacency.
That could be Margaret Thatcher, acquiring an equally faded Britain ten years later. Fat-trimmers, like all diet obsessives, understand one another; in the words of Charles Moore, Thatcher’s authorized biographer, “they were both trying to do something against the status quo; what’s happened since is that Murdoch has become the status quo.” He is hardly the first outsider, or upstart, to make that switch; like a News of the World reporter writ large, he loitered on the doorstep of the British establishment, then muscled his way in and decided to hang around. Whether he likes the look of the joint, after all these years, is far from certain. America suits him better. Britain, for its part, has never really liked the look of Murdoch, thus confirming the prejudices of the youngblood who turned up from Australia in the nineteen-sixties and found himself tussling with bishops. Spurned by the British as a colonial, from an uncouth continent, he exacted the perfect revenge: he colonized their imagination.
That is why witnesses at the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media, and Sport, which summoned Rupert Murdoch and his son James to appear on July 19th, were so taken aback. Almost the first move of the father, as the session began, was to cup his ear toward an interlocutor, and, with that tiny gesture, he broke the spell—the wicked charms that he had wreathed around the United Kingdom for decades. Here was no beast, no warper of souls or glutton for companies; here was an oldster, tortoise-slow on the uptake, with head drooping, shoulders slumped, rousing himself now and then to make a point by slapping the table before him. Though meant to sound decisive, the slap reminded some viewers of a grumpy grandpa asking when his Jell-O would be served. What ensued was equally bewildering, for Murdoch’s answers to the committee denoted at once a Kane-like power (“The News of the World is less than one per cent of our company. I employ more than fifty-three thousand people around the world”) and minimum control, as the chief executive officer declared himself scandalized by events, while also appearing ignorant of what many of those events were and when they had occurred. Even the fact that News Corporation had paid the sums of seven hundred and twenty-five thousand pounds ($1.2 million) and a million pounds ($1.6 million) to two victims of phone-hacking, in an out-of-court settlement, seems barely to have flickered on his radar.
Seasoned Murdoch watchers, who have pursued the man since he appeared on the cover of Time, in 1977, clambering towers in the guise of King Kong, were not convinced. He may have voiced his belief, before questions began, that “this is the most humble day of my life,” and he may have deflected many of those questions onto the Prince Kong who sat, alert and in possession of the facts, at his side, but might this not have been the greatest impersonation of semi-senility since Harold Pinter performed “Krapp’s Last Tape,” in London, in 2006? Could it be that Murdoch, once the quizzing was done, had leaped into a limousine, cracked open a beer with his teeth, and started barking orders into half a dozen phones? He could even have paused, despite himself, to applaud the efforts of the Guardian, which, in its doggedness to unveil illicit dealings in the labyrinths of those who rule and police the nation, is doing precisely what the younger, keener Murdoch had in mind. To make trouble for an Etonian in Downing Street: nothing would have been sweeter.
Whatever the case, the last laugh has been his. Murdoch knows something that his assailants will seldom concede, and that renders their call for radical change, in the rapport between governance and the media, both tardy and redundant. The change has already happened; culture, media, and sport are not in Murdoch’s pocket, but the British, not least in their yen to watch soccer and cricket on Sky, have reached into their pockets and paid for his feast of wares. The country is in uproar just now, but outrage en masse functions like outrage in private: we reserve our deepest wrath not for the threat from without, which we fail to comprehend, but for forces with which we have been complicit. The British press has long revelled in the raucous and the irresponsible; that was part of its verve, and it was Murdoch’s genius, and also the cause of his current woes, to recognize those tendencies, bring the revelry to a head, and give the people what they asked for. He reminded them of themselves.
Look at an average copy of the News of the World, from March 27th, well before the latest outcry. There are only scraps of news here, and almost nothing of the world. No woman in the first six pages wears anything warmer than lingerie. An entrant from a televised ice-dancing contest is granted a double-page spread to muse upon his newly transplanted hair. And the column on the op-ed page is by Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator—a respectable weekly journal, loosely tied to the Tories, with a strong showing in arts and books coverage. Over the course of four decades, under Murdoch’s approving gaze, the lowbrow has paid no more attention to the highbrow than it ever did, while the highbrow has paid both heed and obeisance to the low—submission, in the weird wrangling of British class consciousness, being preferable to condescension. The most telling piece in the Guardian, in the wake of the hacking scandal, came from a former editor of the paper, Peter Preston, who analyzed the sales figures and showed that more ABC1 readers (that is, those with better education, employment, and pay, and thus close to advertisers’ hearts) read the News of the World than the Sunday Times—more, indeed, than the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph, and the Independent on Sunday put together. Murdoch must have closed the Screws with a pang.
The front page of the March 27th edition bore an archetypal story, in that it was barely a story at all. The headline read “JORDAN DROVE ME TO SUICIDE.” Now, this could not literally be true, unless the paper’s foreign desk was even more foreign than we knew. Rather, the lucky survivor was Alex Reid, a professional cage-fighter, and formerly the paramour of Jordan—the defining, improbable deity of the past ten years, acclaimed for her volcanic breast implants, for her crowning appearance on a jungle-based reality show, “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!,” and for the five best-selling novels that she engendered but did not actually write. In short, like other personae in the Murdochian drama, she scarcely exists outside the appetites of the tabloid press—and there, you might expect, she would remain, as safe a standby as Christine Keeler was. Should you wish, however, to delve into all that Jordan means, and the reasons for her reign in the jungle that is Great Britain, there were two lengthy, in-depth interviews published last year, one with her and the other with Alex Reid. Both were in the Guardian.