The humbling of Rupert Murdoch

Murdoch was grilled by British lawmakers on the phone-hacking scandal that has badly damaged the News Corp.’s reputation.

What happened

Calling it the “most humble day” of his life, Rupert Murdoch was grilled by British lawmakers this week on the phone-hacking scandal that has badly damaged his company’s reputation and now threatens Murdoch’s control of his global media empire. Sitting alongside his son James, who runs News Corp.’s European operations, the 80-year-old told a parliamentary committee that he was “shocked, appalled, and ashamed” to discover the scale of wrongdoing at his now-shuttered News of the World tabloid. His reporters are accused of stealing phone messages from 4,000 people, including dead soldiers and a murdered 13-year-old girl, and paying police for information. But the billionaire insisted that as CEO of a company with 53,000 employees, he couldn’t be held responsible for the misdeeds of a few journalists. “People I trusted,” he said, “behaved disgracefully, and it’s for them to pay.”

Murdoch has already paid a heavy price. Last week he accepted the resignations of two of his most trusted lieutenants—Les Hinton, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks. He also scrapped News Corp.’s planned $12 billion takeover of British broadcaster BSkyB. And speculation is mounting that Murdoch might be forced to step down as News Corp. CEO, if the scandal threatens his media properties in the U.S. Under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the company could face prosecution if it were found to have bribed British police. The FBI is already examining claims that reporters hacked the phones of 9/11 victims.

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What the editorials said

“Talk about a hollow apology,” said the Chicago Sun-Times. Murdoch made his fortune running operations that “undercut the notion of journalism as a public good.” So it’s absurd to hear him blame his underlings for this scandal. If he wants to prove that he’s really sorry, he should start by “accepting responsibility—and changing his ways.”

“The schadenfreude is so thick you can’t cut it with a chainsaw,” said The Wall Street Journal. Our “competitor-critics” would like their readers to believe that “the tabloid excesses of one publication” tarnish all of News Corp.’s journalists. That’s rich, considering that many of the outlets now bemoaning our parent company’s standards, such as The New York Times, happily printed WikiLeaks’ stolen government papers.

What the columnists said

“Well, yes, the schadenfreude is pretty darn thick,” said Joe Nocera in The New York Times. “Who would deny it?” Murdoch’s tabloids “have lowered the standards of journalism on three continents.” He’s run roughshod over laws designed to keep media owners from accumulating too much power, and his Fox News has coarsened our political discourse. Now it’s Murdoch’s turn to be blinded by the camera flashes of those feasting on his humiliation, and he deserves every minute of it. During his parliamentary appearance, Murdoch came off not as a “ruthless, daring corporate executive,” said Noreen Malone in New York, but more like an “old, deaf relative.” When a protester tried to splat him with a Burma-Shave pie, the media mogul became even more sympathetic. So was Murdoch “merely playing the confused old man,” or has old age really caught up with him?

It’s telling that the American media is obsessing over this scandal as if it were “the second coming of Watergate,” said Mike Gonzalez in National Review. Leftist outfits like NPR and the Times are now calling for News Corp.’s breakup and the closure of Fox News—a move they claim will help media diversity. But until Murdoch launched Fox, there wasn’t a single conservative TV network. Should these critics get their way, “the choice in media you have now will be gone.”

In fact, the British scandal is unlikely to damage News Corp.’s U.S. properties, said Michael Tomasky in “We don’t do checkbook journalism in the U.S.,” so Murdoch’s New York Post is probably clean. And although Fox News is a “morally corrupt organization,” I’d be surprised if legal corruption has ever occurred to them. “But the delicious thing about the world is that we never know until we know.” And given the flurry of allegations that have emerged about News Corp. in the past few weeks, “well—who knows?”

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