Earlier today, Rupert Murdoch’s mighty media conglomerate, the News Corporation, withdrew its $12-billion bid for BSkyB (the British Sky Broadcasting Group, which is the largest pay-TV broadcasting company in Britain). Murdoch, it seems, is suddenly a little less mighty than he was a mere week and a half ago, when he seemed like the modern media mogul version of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Chase Carey, News Corporation’s deputy chairman, president and chief operating officer, explained the company’s withdrawal of its bid this way: “We believed that the proposed acquisition of BSkyB by News Corporation would benefit both companies but it has become clear that it is too difficult to progress in this climate.”
“Too difficult to progress in this climate” sounds a lot like a way to say, “You haven’t heard the worst yet.” The scandal that’s resulting in the current pushback against Murdoch’s empire began with the shocking revelation that The News of The World, a Murdoch-owned tabloid that was suddenly closed last week (after more than a century and a half of being in business) had hired a private detective in 2002 who broke into the voicemail of a 13-year-old girl who had been abducted and murdered—listening to messages and even deleting some of them, before the police knew she had been murdered.
The outrage increased once it was learned that this wasn’t an isolated incident, involving a single rogue detective or journalist, but rather part of a larger pattern of spying on private citizens. There was a cozy loop joining Murdoch executives and journalists, politicians friendly to Murdoch and his ventures, corrupt police, and who knows how many yet-to-be-named others. Unethical reporters apparently gained access to voicemails, cellphone conversations and private records of thousands of people, ranging from celebrities and royals to soldiers’ families and families of terrorist victims. They even gained access to the private records of Gordon Brown, the former prime minister of Britain.
As the scandal has progressed over the past 10 days, it’s become increasngly difficult to figure out who all the players are, or even follow the main story line. The question at the end of the day will be an old one, however: “Who knew what and when did he (or she) know it?” The scandal isn’t necessarily confined to Britain, by the way. Senator Jay D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has asked for an investigation into whether Murdoch’s News Corporation used illegal methods here in America.
A lot of people loathe Murdoch, and would like nothing better than to see the man and his edifice come crashing down—especially if it came with a finale like that in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (a thrilling tale of corrupt 19th-century capitalism that tracks the rise and fall of a brilliantly imagined financial giant, Augustus Melmotte).
Yet I hope that the revulsion at unethical journalistic practices at the News of the World doesn’t result in making it harder for reporters to do hard-hitting, investigative reporting. When Seymour Hersh reported on the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, or Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward revealed the extent of Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal, they had to dig deep and dig hard, in ways that were not always transparent or pretty, in order to get at the truth.
A final note: It strikes me that the public that’s now so outraged at Murdoch and his empire is pretty much the same public that most of the time laps up tabloid news. Heaven knows, there aren’t many clean hands or pure hearts to be found anywhere.