Rupert Murdoch: hall of fame or den of infamy?

Jude Law's claim that his phone was hacked on US soil haunts Murdoch as he prepares for TV honour

Charles Laurence

NEW YORK – Has Jude Law rained on Rupert Murdoch’s parade? The octogenarian media magnate is due to be inducted into America’s Television Academy Hall of Fame in a Hollywood ceremony six weeks from now.

Murdoch will be honoured on 11 March alongside five others including Jay Leno, the talk show host who will have just retired from decades hosting The Tonight Show, and the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star of Seinfeld and Veep.

Academy chairman Bruce Rosemblum explained the reasoning: "The six individuals being inducted into the Hall of Fame have all made a profound impact on the landscape of television, leaving their own mark within our industry and with audiences around the world.

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"Their groundbreaking contributions will last for generations, making them true icons who could not be more deserving of the Television Academy's highest honour."

Murdoch has without doubt made a “profound impact on the landscape of television” since he followed Columbus over the Atlantic in the early 1970s. Whether he should get an award for it is a matter of contentious debate.

On one side, he gets credit for creating Fox TV as America’s fourth television network, muscling his way into the company of the Big Three, CBS, NBC and ABC. This is no mean feat.

On the other side, he gets brickbats for creating Fox News, a money-spinner that has gone to the top of the ratings in a manner familiar to British newspaper readers – by pandering to the lowest common denominator. Fox News, the Tea Party trumpet with its astonishingly cynical claim to be “fair and balanced”, has unarguably become a cancer in the American body politic.

And Murdoch gets honoured for this?

This is where Jude Law comes in. Yesterday, the English movie star appeared at the Old Bailey in London as a prosecution witness in the trial of Rebekah Brooks and other News International employees, charged with misconduct in public office and illegal phone hacking.

Law's evidence made the overnight headlines for the shocking revelation that a member of own family had been paid by the News of the World to leak information about his girlfriend Sienna Miller's affair with Bond actor Daniel Craig.

But what will have sounded the alarm for Murdoch in America was Law's claim from the witness box that his phone was accessed on American soil.

As the Daily Beast reports, “Law told the court that while he was in the US filming Cold Mountain and Alfie, the phone numbers of his American agent and cell phones he had been given by the film studio appeared in the notebooks of a private investigator working for the News of the World.”

The actor told the court how he had been shown the list of numbers by police officers. "One of the numbers that appeared on the notes was an agent... and several other numbers I'd been loaned," he said. "They were able to follow me not just in this country but abroad as well.”

This has special significance for Fox and all Murdoch’s operations on this side of the pond. If it is proved that his companies engaged in illegal activity and that Murdoch can be held responsible for the culture of those companies, there is a chance that Fox could lose its operation licences.

All broadcasting in America is regulated through licencing by the Federal Communication Commission, the FCC. Murdoch is no stranger to wrangling with it.

One of their rules is that you cannot own a broadcast station and a newspaper in the same “market”. He was forced to sell the New York Post, his beloved tabloid, in order to get Fox on the air in New York, and he never forgave the Democrat majority on the Senate committee that refused to bend the rules for him.

But this could be a different level of war altogether. If there are convictions in London, the FCC might be persuaded that Murdoch is not an owner of “good character”, and therefore withdraw all his US licences.

Last year, the organisation Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) challenged the renewal of licences for two Murdoch stations in DC and one in Baltimore, Maryland. They argued that as the law demanded owners of “good character” who acted “in the public interest” and spoke with “candour”, News Corp, as the parent company of both Fox and News International, no longer qualified.

In its petition CREW stated: “It is well established that News Corp has been involved in one of the biggest media scandals of all time. Its reporters hacked voicemails and bribed public officials while top executives — including Rupert Murdoch — either approved the conduct or turned a blind eye. To say those responsible are not of good character is a colossal understatement – ‘despicable’ and ‘loathsome’ are more apt.”

Last May, the FCC turned down the CREW petition and renewed the licences. But as The Wrap reported, the decision left the door wide open by specifying that it could act only after a British court had established that the alleged misconduct had indeed taken place. “Serious questions have been raised regarding non-FCC misconduct by News Corp subsidiaries,” the FCC decision said.

A combination of expensive lawyers, company restructuring and a very great deal of power and influence in Washington makes Murdoch a hard man to take down.

But the long-running phone-hacking trial will not have concluded by the time he attends the Hall of Fame ceremony on 11 March. The threat of guilty verdicts will hang over his night of glory.

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Charles Laurence is a US correspondent for The He is a former New York bureau chief for The Daily Telegraph. He divides his time between Manhattan and Woodstock, upstate New York.