Wednesday, July 20, 2011

News Corpse III: The humbled buccaneer

The Rupert Murdoch / News Corporation All Apologies Tour is in full swing and maybe coming to a newspaper, TV station and continent near you. It's been a big hit on the other side of the Atlantic: It began last weekend in several of the UK newspapers owned by Murdoch’s News Corp. An ad that ran in those papers cried out with “We are sorry” — a far more circumspect headline than the ones that usually appear in the breathless, sensational stories populating his papers around the world. You could almost hear people responding: “You’re sorry? That’s no revelation. We’ve known you were sorry for years!

A second ad, running in Monday’s editions, revealed a strategy not unlike one used by BP (another British superconglomerate) in last year’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The new News Corp ad made the case for “Putting right what’s gone wrong.”

It read in part: “It may take some time for us to rebuild trust.” Ya think? All praises to someone with a good grasp of the obvious.

Part of that trust-rebuilding process apparently required adding two more names to the growing list of News Corp’s hallowed dead, hurling two trusted News Corp execs under a bus that’s moving sideways at best. Les Hinton resigned as the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, one of the News Corp crown jewels. Hinton is believed to have lied to Parliament in previous statements denying knowledge of the hacking scandal that’s now News Corp’s undoing.

The company also accepted the resignation Friday of News Corp’s tyro in chief, Red Queen Rebekah Brooks, who was briefly arrested, interrogated and released.

We’ve previously seen the ruthless business dealings of Murdoch the Merciless; we’ve encountered Murdoch the Mercurial, a man whose tempers and passions brought his business to the pinnacle of success. On Tuesday, at a parliamentary hearing he couldn’t bluster, bluff or buy his way out of, we got a good look at Murdoch the Mild. It was not a pretty sight.

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This sordid corporate tale of malfeasance and mismanagement had just about everything. Now — cue Agatha Christie — there’s a body in the morgue.

Various UK papers reported the death of Sean Hoare, a former News of the World entertainment reporter and News Corp whistleblower. “I want to right a wrong, lift the lid on it, the whole culture. I know, we all know, that the hacking and other stuff is endemic,” Hoare told Nick Davies of The Guardian. He’d spoken to The New York Times last year about phone hacking at NOTW. Hoare was found dead Monday in his apartment in Watford, northwest of London. Hertfordshire Police, in a statement, said Hoare’s death “is currently being treated as unexplained, but not thought to be suspicious.”

Correlation, of course, isn’t causation, but timing is a very compelling thing. Even if Hoare’s death has no connection to the News Corp implosion — Hoare was reported to have had alcohol and drug problems in the past — it’s just one more thing for News Corp to endure.

Scotland Yard, too: The scandal and the ways Murdoch media money compromised the integrity of officers on the force claimed the careers of the Metropolitan Police’s top cops. Sir Paul Stephenson resigned as police commissioner on Sunday; his deputy, John Yates, checked out the next day.

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On Sunday it got worse for Rupert Murdoch’s defense of innocence-by-ignorance. According to The New York Times, News Corporation paid out about $655 million over five years to silence or settle various charges of spying, allegations of antitrust violations and anti-competitive practices.

That that kind of money could be spent by a company without the knowledge and approval of the chairman and CEO of that company flies in the face of fiscal reality. That that kind of money could be spent for that purpose with the chairman and CEO’s blessing surely waltzes past fiscal responsibility. CEOs have been fired, or worse, over a lot less money than that.

Still, the notion persists that Rupert Murdoch is capable of having it both ways: of maintaining his historically hands-on, dictatorial lock on power over News Corp while denying any involvement in such mammoth payouts, or any knowledge of the activities that made those disbursements necessary in the first place.

More and more, the contours of the News Corp/Murdoch scandal, the shape of this thing has no shape. It’s become like one of the CGI phantasms of the movies, like something from the “Transformers” movie series, growing, morphing, sprouting limbs and heads it didn’t have the day before.

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Maybe that’s why Rupert swears he didn’t see this coming. Maybe that’s why, at the Government Select Committee parliamentary hearing convened on Tuesday at Portcullis House in London, he insisted it was all somebody else’s fault. All of it.

The cultivation of a ruthless hacker culture. The disregard of editorial oversight and circumspection. The war on enemies real and imagined.

The spying. The bribes. The possible antitrust violations. The wanton torching of $655 million in defense of a way of business as a way of life — a sum of money whose squandering by any other CEO in the world would be grounds for solitary confinement in an eight-by-ten-foot cell.

Louise Mensch, a Conservative Party MP, asked Murdoch straight out: You’ve pushed others down the gangplank: Why shouldn’t you take that stroll yourself — why shouldn’t you resign?

“Because I feel that people I trusted … let me down, and I think they behaved disgracefully, betrayed the company and me, and it’s for them to pay … frankly, I’m the best person to clean this up.”

He did it again: Labor Party MP Jim Sheridan asked Murdoch who was ultimately to blame for the current crisis facing his company. “The people I trusted to run it, and maybe the people they trusted.”

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It was the last of the brave face of a pirate facing his own watery walk. Regardless of how this plays out, from the available physical evidence in Tuesday’s riveting testimony, Rupert Murdoch is a broken, blood-soaked, beaten man feebly grumbling at the actions of others.

You could see it at certain times on Tuesday. At one point during an especially barbed interrogation, Rupert sits seemingly defeated not so much by the individual questions as by a slow realization of the accretion of events, the cascade of hubris and calamity that brought him to this place.

Rupert’s right hand covers his left, his head lowered in what looks like contrition, or fatigue, or probably both, the buccaneer of world media assuming the defeated countenance of a schoolboy sent to stand in the corner.

Behind him sits his wife, Wendy Deng Murdoch, staring down the barrel of the middle distance, lost in thought.

And Murdoch’s son James, the deputy chief operating officer of News Corp, didn’t fare much better at the Tuesday hearings. Generally responsive and on point, taking the best advice of his media trainers, Murdoch the Younger still at times lapsed into repeating phrases repeating phrases with a disturbing automaticity, like Jimmy Two Times in “Goodfellas” (“I’m going to get the papers get the papers”).

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That gangplank won’t be getting any shorter any time soon. What happened on Tuesday is the first in a three-act train wreck. The fishwrap stink loose in the current scandal is all over every Murdoch paper in the UK, Scotland Yard, reportedly as many as 4,000 hacking victims of various social positions, and the government of Prime Minister David Cameron.

The United States Justice Department is sound-checking the hall for act two. Over here, in the United States. Murdoch the Elder, an American citizen since 1985, may be the object of a command performance. By subpoena.

The  white-haired 80-year-old man who sat at Portcullis House on Tuesday has surely grasped by now that to be an absolute monarch, to be in absolute control of an enterprise as mammoth as News Corp, is absolutely impossible — as impossible as containing the damage he apparently never saw coming in the first place.

The veneer of respectability is gone from News Corp; what’s underneath that candy coating is the same as it ever was: a rapacious corporate culture that prized success at all costs, a company that’s sacrificed its journalistic professionalism to the conveniences of the expedient. And that’s what they’ve really lost:

Despite its vast financial resources, credibility is the one currency that’s long been in short supply at News Corporation, and now when it’s needed most, the company has hit a debt ceiling all its own.

That’s a lesson Keith Rupert Murdoch is learning, reluctantly but certainly, right now. But he’s going to need more than one lesson. And he’s going to get more than one lesson.
Image credits: Murdoch, Murdoch at hearings: via Current TV. Sean Hoare: Reuters. Murdoch protester: AFP.

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