Murdoch’s ultimate litmus test: Can he rise to the challenge? By James M. Dorsey
The bloodhounds are on the prowl for media baron Rupert Murdoch and his son James with five likely investigations in Britain and one in the United States.
Calls for the resignations of both men have already sparked speculation over the future of Mr. Murdoch’s media empire and who might succeed him.
Mr. Murdoch’s closure this weekend of the 168-year old News of the World, the paper at the core of the phone-hacking scandal, has done nothing to call off the bloodhounds. On the contrary, his failure to respond adequately and decisively when the scandal broke some five years ago, his unconditional backing of controversial News International Ltd Chief Executive Officer Rebekah Brooks and his at times heavy handed twisting of arms of politicians are finally coming to roost.
To Mr. Murdoch’s credit, he was among media barons a true newsman, albeit a divisive one. He cared about news and he cared about print to the extent that he was willing to maintain his print titles even if they were weighing his empire down. The problem was he didn’t care how his reporters obtained their news, failed to adhere to journalistic standards and was willing to impose his business and political agenda on the agenda of his media.
Mr. Murdoch’s shortcomings have already cost him News of the World as well as his bid to buy all of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSkyB). The loss of BSkyB has implications for the Middle East where many saw Mr. Murdoch and his alliance with Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as the kind of strong-willed broadcaster who could shape a market that is still dominated by free-to-air channels, slow in the uptake of pay-TV and suffering from large-scale intellectual copy piracy.
Mr. Murdoch would have been in far better shape today if he had not blocked an in-depth probe into the tactics of reporters at News of the World for years after its former royal reporter, Clive Goodman, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed in 2007 for tapping phones of members of the royal family.
The police closed their investigation last December, citing a lack of evidence. Testifying in front of parliament this week, former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Peter Clarke charged that News International had obstructed an earlier police inquiry into phone hacking by its “complete lack of cooperation” and “lies.”
Once celebrated as the world’s foremost media baron, Mr. Murdoch’s threatens now to be one of having caused great damage to the free press. At stake, are not simply the future of a major media conglomerate but also issues of freedom of the press and the media’s credibility at large.
The British media are already seeking to fend off calls for media regulation as a result of the phone hacking scandal.
To be fair, the non-Murdoch media are as guilty as is Mr. Murdoch himself. The phone-hacking scandal is as much the responsibility of a media baron who failed to impose proper journalistic ethics throughout his empire and allowed transgressions of the law as it was a media that by and large failed to police itself. It raises not only questions about the relationship between politicians and the media, a central issue in the debate in Britain as a result of the scandal, but also of the far too cozy relationship between journalists and their sources.
The phone-hacking scandal has unleashed a tide that is unstoppable. Mr. Murdoch and his son, widely viewed as a capable but ill-advised manager, now have to worry not only about the future of their empire but also the possibility that as directors they could be held criminally responsible.
Mr. Murdoch has shown little evidence of forward thinking in his handling of the scandal. There is little reason that he will do so now. But if he did, he would indicate his sincerity in wanting to clean up a mess of his own making by introducing management that would clean up his empire and demonstrate a willingness and intent to adhere to journalistic ethics and the law of the land.
That would mean bringing in someone with the credentials and credibility to do so. One name being bounced around is that of Chase Carey, the president, deputy chairman and chief operating officer of News Corp., Mr. Murdoch’s global holding company. Mr. Carey is described by those who know him as an operator who has worked for the company for the past 23 years but is capable of moving beyond Mr. Murdoch’s shadow.
The phone-hacking scandal is a litmus test for Mr. Murdoch’s mettle. He would do himself, his empire and the media a favor by rising to the challenge.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])