What will become of the "man who owns the news"?
LONDON - For more than thirty years, British politicians of every political persuasion - from the steely Conservative Margaret Thatcher to the sanctimonious Laborite Tony Blair -- bowed and scraped before the presses of Rupert Murdoch, seeking his support.
But today, with one of the world's most powerful media barons weakened by the drip, drip, drip of allegations of phone hacking by reporters at the News of the World and the official investigations that have followed, the politicians turned on him.
Murdoch is "not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company," concluded a parliamentary committee in a long-awaited report into the phone hacking scandal. A harsh verdict on the octogenarian who built a global empire from a base in Australia.
But he might find some solace in a note on one of the last pages of the 125-page report, which reveals that not everyone is ready to judge him quite so cruelly. The committee divided sharply along party lines. The five Labor members of the committee endorsed the condemnation, as did the Liberal Democrat member. The four Conservatives on the committee rejected the "not a fit person" language.
It was not for members of the committee "to be advising News Corporation shareholders," Conservative Louis Mensch explained at a press conference following release of the report.
In a statement from its headquarters in New York, News Corporation said it was reviewing the report, but that it "fully acknowledges significant wrongdoing at the News of the World."
That is a far cry from what News Corporation editors and executives said when the phone hacking was first reported by the Guardian. The Murdochs and other executives attacked the Guardian. When the reports wouldn't go away, they blamed the phone hacking on "one rogue reporter."
Murdoch testified before the committee last summer, denying any knowledge of the phone hacking. (His appearance may be best remembered for his wife, Wendi Deng, throwing a roundhouse punch at a spectator who had thrown a pie into her husband's face.) During two days of testimony last week in another inquiry that has arisen out of the phone-hacking scandal -- this one before Lord Justice Leveson -- Murdoch continued to assert that he simply knew nothing about the illegal activity.
In today's report, the majority of the committee said that if, in fact, Murdoch did not know what was going on in his companies, it was because "he turned a blind eye and exhibited willful blindness."
The full committee agreed that Mr. Murdoch was guilty of "turning a blind eye" to the findings by a court that a reporter at the News of the World had blackmailed a woman, telling her that he would not put her picture in the paper if she wouldn't reveal details of a sex orgy involving Formula One Chief Max Mosley. (In testimony before the Leveson inquiry last week, Mr. Murdoch said he saw nothing wrong with what the reporter had done. It happens all the time in life, he said, just a case of "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back.")
The committee today accused three former executives of "misleading" the committee when they testified about their knowledge of the phone hacking: Les Hinton, one of Mr. Murdoch's most trusted friends, having worked for him for more than 50 years; Tom Crone, a lawyer at the News of the World; and Colin Myler, who became editor after Ms. Brooks left and had promised to investigate.
Last week, before Justice Leveson, Mr. Murdoch sought to avoid responsibility, suggesting that these three men were responsible for what he called a "cover up."
But today's committee report, in a passage that was not disputed, places ultimate responsibility on the Murdochs. "In failing to investigate properly, and by ignoring evidence of wrongdoing, News International and its parent News Corporation exhibited willful blindness, for which the company's directors -- including Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch -- should ultimately be prepared to take full responsibility." A less harsh judgment, perhaps, than the one the Labor and Liberal Democrat members endorsed -- but cold comfort nonetheless.
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