Business/Finance

Murdochgate redux

There have been any number of further developments since our last post, and this shows signs of accelerating to the point of being out of Murdoch’s control entirely. Well, let’s face it—in the UK, it pretty much is. Rebekah Brooks resigned on Friday, and was arrested on Sunday. Murdoch’s long time deputy Les Hinton, who ran News International at the time of peak phone hacking, and more recently ran Dow Jones for Murdoch, also resigned. Brooks’s arrest means her testimony to Parliament tomorrow may be compromised—how convenient for someone, maybe the police?

Let’s not forget that in all the unseemly haste to somehow pin this all on PM David Cameron (of whom I am not a fan, by the way, but still), that all of this pretty much happened while Labour was in power, and Labour pretty much did nothing. And that the Metropolitan Police force has been deeply compromised, as evidence by the head of the MPC, Paul Stephenson, resigning yesterday. And the Assistant Commissioner, John Yates, resigning today. And there are more resignations in the Met Police to come, I imagine. There are reports this evening that both Stephenson and Yates, as well as several other members of the Metropolitan Police, are under investigation. Stephenson and Yates have been the subject of considerable discussion this past week as it has become clear that the original police investigation into News International phone hacking, which Stephenson supervised, was woefully inadequate, and the question is whether this derived from incompetence or something a bit more nefarious.

Murdoch, if he plans on saving his empire, has a couple of things he needs to do now. First, make damn well sure that the allegations of attempted hacking of the phones of 9/11 victims are not true. If they are true, he’s toast, as is News Corporation. Fox would likely lose a number, perhaps all, of its broadcast licenses in the event that these allegations turned out to be true, and these, along with Fox News, are really what drives the profits at News Corp. At present, the FBI is investigating, and the Justice Department has taken an interest, as have a number of Democratic elected officials, and at least one Republican—Peter King of Long Island, who has closely aligned himself with the 9/11 victim families, as well as the firefighters and police victims, often to the extent of being at odds with the Republican party Which is one reason why we’re starting to see a furious counterattack from the US right now, led by Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, both of whom are wondering what the big deal is. Murdoch understands the stakes here, one assumes; but you have to wonder, though, given his misreading of the mood in the UK.

It’s rapidly evolving—several weeks ago, of course, his empire was thriving. In the space of two weeks, his political power in the UK is gone, and it shows some signs of being threatened in the US. His top lieutenants in the UK and the US have resigned, and one, at least, has been arrested, somewhat to her surprise, apparently. There will probably be more arrests.

The other thing Murdoch needs to do is take a clear read of the business landscape now, given his misjudgments in the UK, and how they affect his dynastic ambitions. Murdoch has gone to great lengths to ensure that News Corp management remains in the family, and son James was being set up to take over, clearly. This may now be in doubt, given the potential exposure James now faces in the UK to questions of how much he knew. It’s not at all clear that the clear path to succession that existed up to a couple of weeks ago still exists. The main issue that James Murdoch faces is the issue of the earlier payments to several people whose phones were, yes, hacked—and the question of what he knew when these payments were made.

And of course, there were more developments the past two days, mainly the resignation of the Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Both claim to have done nothing wrong, and both claim to be leaving with their integrity intact. Well, integrity, perhaps, but there is widespread questioning of their competence in overseeing what is clear at this point is a deeply compromised police department. It’s this that has been the most distressing aspect of this whole controversy to many—people more or less expect politicians to be compromised by definition, and the press to some extent by nature. But the police are supposed to be above all this. Instead, what we have instead is the prospect that a criminal investigation was compromised by payments from the object of the investigation to the police over previous years.

Tomorrow should be interesting, in any event. Not only do Rupert and James Murdoch testify to Parliament over who knew what when, but also Rebekah Brooks, and Stephenson, and Yates, and various lawyers. One irony here is that when this parliamentary inquiry was set up last week, all these people had jobs—many of them today do not. Of course, no one is covering themselves with glory these days. Cameron continues to be hammered for his hiring of Coulson, in spite of significant warnings not to do so. Cameron, though, is something of a victim here—and I’m hardly a supporter. But I gather that he was in touch with Murdoch, and Murdoch gave assurances that Coulson was clean–as did Coulson. Whether Cameron should have trusted Murdoch is another issue. Whether anyone should ever have trusted Murdoch, given his track record, is something that there should be sufficient history on at this point.

There’s a bit of a frenzy in the press, of course—The Guardian, to its credit, sustained its own investigation into the phone hacking allegations when everyone else said there was no there there. And I mean everyone—News International and the Metropolitan Police in particular, but the other media as well. But a little historical perspective is always useful. These events span much of the past decade, and there’s no question that a number of Labour politicians probably had as little enthusiasm for a detailed investigation then as the coalition government does now. Tony Blair actually took a flight to Australia to meet with Murdoch; Gordon Brown sucked up too. Politicians have been corrupt forever. The corruption of the British political system by Rupert Murdoch was thorough, but it was not at gunpoint. Only the Liberal Democrats are clean here.

And the press itself appears to be confirming Murdoch’s most enduring legacy—turning everything into a tabloid scandal, as Mrs W has pointed out. For all the kudos The Guardian justifiably deserves for seeing this story through, their coverage of Cameron, as if this was all his fault, leaves a bit of a sour taste. As do the misleading tabloid-style headlines in The Independent (now owned by a Russian oligarch). The dumping on Cameron by Ed Miliband is to be expected—it’s politics. The dumping on Cameron by a media that also claims to be shocked, shocked by the behavior of Rupert Murdoch’s employees doesn’t wash very well.

Final note (for now)—every time I think this can’t get more bizarre, I am proven wrong. Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.

Update: Then there’s this. Good lord.

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