Rupert Murdoch’s Watergate?

In the May 2, 2011 issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn has a good analysis of the UK phone hacking scandal plaguing the Rupert Murdoch empire. It provides the back-story in easily digestible form, and concludes that this could easily bring down top management up to, and including, the heir apparent, James Murdoch.

Cockburn considers father Rupert to have serious dynastic ambitions; if so, that would be quite a blow. It would also be quite a blow to Murdoch’s attempt to take over full control of “the enormously profitable BSkyB network” in the UK. (For more on Murdoch, David Cameron and BSkyB, see here. It tells you why this is not just a Murdoch story, but a Cameron story as well.)

Here’s a taste of the Cockburn article (subscription required for the online version, though the print version is available; my emphasis). It opens:

What began in Britain in 2005 as “a third-rate burglary” of voicemails, supposedly limited to a criminal invasion of privacy by a News of the World reporter and a private investigator, has flowered beautifully into a Level 7 scandal that threatens the careers of two of Rupert Murdoch’s top executives, not to mention the heir apparent to the News Corp. empire, James Murdoch. It even laps at the ankles of the 80-year-old magnate, threatening the final financial triumph that was scheduled to usher him into Valhalla.

At issue originally are two people at Murdoch’s New of the World, one a reporter, Clive Goodman, who “ran the royal beat,” and the other a private investigator named Glenn Mulcaire. Both were convicted of “hacking into the phone messages of members of the royal family.” News of the World is a sex-and-scandal rag, something that Cockburn describes as providing the “efficient distribution of raw sewage into the prurient hands of about 3 million Britons every Sunday”.

Scandal-rag scandals are low-end stuff, so with the two perps in jail and Goodman’s editor, a man named Andy Coulson, having resigned, most at News International (Murdoch’s firm) figured the lid was firmly on the pot.

That was 2005; now Andy Coulson is media adviser to David Cameron (Hi, Rupert; kisses from David), and Cameron’s culture minister is about to rule on whether the BSkyB deal “merits a full inquiry by the Competition Commission”.

The interstitial pieces connecting the low-level 2005 events with the top of the Murdoch empire make great reading. They include actor Hugh Grant’s car breaking down in the vicinity of a pub owned by a former NoW reporter Paul McMullan, and Grant’s accepting the pub owner’s invitation to come back. Grant did indeed go back — wearing a wire.

The ex-reporter told Grant that top executives at News International almost certainly knew about the bugging, all the way up to Rebekah Brooks, former editor of NoW and now chief executive of News Corp. Remember, the perps are in jail, so they can’t say it’s not a crime.

Cockburn concludes (my emphasis):

As [journalist Peter] Burden speculates on his blog, “If Ian Edmondson [a former NoW editor] was involved, so was Andy Coulson. If Andy Coulson was involved, so was Rebekah Brooks. If Rebekah Brooks was involved, so was Master James [Murdoch]. And if they were, it’s very likely that Les Hinton, CEO of [Dow Jones and Company] (the brightest bird in Rupert Murdoch’s bush), was involved, too, because he was Executive Chairman of News International at the time.”

On April 10 Guardian columnist Steven Barnett expressed sentiments widely shared in Britain, writing in favor of a full review of the BSkyB deal: “The issue is that every aspect of Sky’s output will be driven by the same uncompromising corporate culture which has given us the News of the World’s criminality.” … Will Rupert himself be enmeshed? Bruce Page, author of a fine book on Murdoch, suggests to me that what could drag the dirty digger into the swamp would be the disclosure of any deal he may have made to stem the scandal when Gordon Brown was still PM. Brown won’t confirm or deny that Murdoch approached him.

This could also blossom into a Cameron story. The pub owner, McMullen told Hugh Grant that he thought Cameron “probably knew as well.” Remember, Cameron has hired Coulson, ex-NoW editor, as his media adviser.

As I wrote earlier about Murdoch and his business model:

We think of him as a propagandist, but he’s so much more. And he’s not primarily a propagandist; he’s a media monopolist whose market product is propaganda. Here’s his business model — he semi-monopolizes media in whatever country he gets into, and then sells propaganda services to government officials and hopefuls in exchange for increased monopoly control after they get elected.

He sells propaganda services to government officials in exchange for monopolies. The government official he’s currently corrupting is David Cameron, who would probably deny that allegation. But the man before him, Gordon Brown, has not yet denied he cut a deal with Murdoch over the scandal. Stay tuned.

Articles like this make The Nation a good subscription, and they could use the help.

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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