Two unsettling thoughts on U.K. lawmakers' condemnation of the media mogul
The House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media, and Sport filed its report on Rupert Murdoch's journalistic practices this week. The report was altogether damning, of course, as has been covered extensively in both the British and international press. But two points struck me that haven't received the attention they may perhaps merit.
The first involves the partisan split on the committee. It wasn't profound; there appears to have been unanimous agreement on the bill of particulars, as well as on its broad interpretation. But there was a rather heated disagreement involving some of the language the report employs. Specifically, the Tory members of the committee objected to the characterization of Rupert Murdoch as "not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company." This damning locution remains in the report because the Liberal Democrats on the committee, despite being part of Britain's ruling coalition, voted en bloc with its opposition members.
It's certainly possible I'm missing something significant, being thousands of miles distant from the scene of the action, but this seems to me, from a purely political point of view, a very foolish position for the senior governing party in Parliament to take. Among other enormities, Mr. Murdoch has been accused of wielding excessive and unhealthy influence over the country's politics, and of course its politicians. And while the opposition has hardly been untainted by Murdoch's poisonous tendrils, the salient example of such a connection with Labour occurred two leaderships ago. On the other hand, his cozy relationship with the Tory government, and his warm friendship with its leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, is taking place in the present tense and has been much remarked upon. Visits to Number Ten through the backdoor, undisclosed meetings at home and abroad, all while pressing the government for favors and special dispensation...at the very least, these look less than kosher. And the odds are they're as bad as they look.
Under such circumstances, one would expect the Tories on the Parliamentary committee to have put as much distance between their party and Mr. Murdoch as possible, and to be, among all the participants, the most vociferous in condemning his abhorrent practices. It's hard to know what caused them to hold back, to protest that the report's language was unduly harsh. Loyalty to a benefactor would seem to be the least likely explanation. A famous axiom variously ascribed to Benjamin Disraeli, Herbert Asquith, and Winston Churchill, avers that "a prime minister must be a good butcher." If ever there was a time for butchery—or at least radical surgery—surely it's now. The Tories are in enough trouble already; one would think, insofar as they're able to dislodge this particular lodestone from around their necks, they might attempt to do so with as much vigor as they can muster.
The second point is a little creepier.
Mr. Murdoch's papers have been a malign influence on Great Britain for at least a generation. They have ended careers, marriages, and even lives. They have gleefully exposed individuals to public ridicule. They have outed closeted gay politicians and entertainers, exposed adulterers, revealed details about unruly sex lives and drug abuse. If one reads Piers Morgan's memoirs, which are as disconcertingly entertaining as they are shameful, it's clear that this was always the point of the exercise, this was Mr. Murdoch's notion of what journalism is. All unpleasant enough, one would think, to make the man responsible something of a pariah in respectable circles.
But in addition, Mr. Murdoch's minions have also committed actual crimes. They engaged in something akin to blackmail—threatening vendettas against politicians who opposed them, for example, and frequently making good on those threats—along with bribery and rampant invasions of privacy. (In their testimony before the Parliamentary committee and the Leveson Commission, they undoubtedly added perjury to the list, even if it will never be proved in a court of law.) Although these practices may not have been publicly acknowledged, they could not have been entirely unknown in Fleet Street circles, or in Whitehall, let alone in Scotland Yard. And yet, through a combination of fear and avarice, no one sought to curtail these activities, let alone make them public.
No, what finally brought the whole corrupt system to a grinding halt was this: The News of the World hacked into the cell phone of a murdered teenage girl, Milly Dowler. And they compounded the heinousness of the act by erasing some of the messages in her voice mail in order to make room for more messages, misleading her parents into thinking she might still be alive.
I don't mean to minimize the awfulness of such a thing—is there a parent alive who didn't shudder inwardly when learning about it?—but it would appear, finally, to be merely an especially egregious example of things Murdoch's papers had been doing for years. It probably says something about how invulnerable his employees regarded their position that they dared to do something so grotesque. But why had no one blown the whistle on them prior to this? Why was this the thing that brought the whole edifice crashing down on Murdoch's head? It might have been the most poignant example of his journalistic offenses, but it was hardly unique. And there had been other tragic outcomes.
The repercussions of all this remain to work themselves out, but Rupert Murdoch's days of invincibility are clearly behind him, and the stunning power he enjoyed much diminished. But regardless of how it ends, is there any question whether he's a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company? He's barely fit to be considered a person.