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[Commentary]

As the News of the World Turns

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We Murdochophiles were shocked — shocked — to learn that the News of the World was gathering information by unethical methods. We were even more shocked by the response of News International’s top management. In the wake of reports that the News had been hacking its sources’ telephones, Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, closed the paper down after 168 years of publication.1

1 My heart goes out to the 2.5 million News of the World readers abandoned by the summary execution of their beloved journal: where will they get their weekly dose of cheeky scandal, smut and illegal reporting? There’s always the Internet.

Marvin Kitman’s latest book is The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O’Reilly. He was the media critic at Newsday from 1969 to 2005, and wrote “Murdoch Triumphant” for the November 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

When a news organization is caught pants-down, the response typically includes sackings, suspensions, and Proper Journalism Practices workshops for the perpetrators. Mea culpas or theya culpas are expected, too. But to close the paper down? Bit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, wot? Two hundred and eighty employees gone — everyone but the person at the top. One would think that if Rebekah Brooks, the editor of the News of the World until she became chief executive at News International (and the winner of journalism’s hairdo-of-the-century award), truly didn’t know how her staff was getting its hair-raising scoops, the inattention to detail would be worthy of a firing. Instead, the News of the World 280 stand collectively tarred.

The News of the World was the quintessential statement of Rupert Murdoch’s attitude toward journalism. His world was divided into popular and unpopular papers. His populist papers, he said, were aimed at real people — working-class stiffs who didn’t want long, boring articles filled with truckloads of facts — who wanted fun: sex, scandals, soaps, the Royals. Shirt-lifters in the Palace. Celebs. Gossip, gossip, and more gossip. He learned this classic English formula from the twin gods of the Fleet Street tabloids, Lord Beaverbrook and the quite-mad Lord Northcliffe.

The News of the World was Murdoch’s first U.K.-born baby, and though he also loved its sibling, the Sun, it remained the paper where his heart and pocketbook dwelt. (His other U.K. publications, like the Sunday Times and the Times of London, were designed to provide gravitas — to give him influence among politicians, regardless of party.) The logic that saw him close an entire populist paper down in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal should send fear throughout the Murdoch world. His signature tabloid in the United States, for example, is no less noteworthy for its questionable techniques.

Recall the New York Post’s 1996 front page featuring Murdoch’s rival media mogul, Ted Turner, wearing a straight jacket beneath the headline “Is Ted Turner Nuts? You Decide.” Governor Cuomo the First called the paper’s treatment of him “an experience like being pounded in the ring for ten rounds.” The Post also famously twisted stories in the 2008 election to favor the next President of the United States, America’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Given such examples — not to mention the still-gross trumpeting of Fox News as “Fair and Balanced” — the notion that phone-hacking allegations could cause shutter-worthy shame seems wildly implausible. (More likely, anything less than the News of the World’s closure would have endangered NewsCorp’s attempted takeover of British Sky Broadcasting.)

U.K. prime minister David Cameron has now called for two public inquiries, one into the phone-hacking scandal itself, and one into the state of British journalistic ethics. One wonders whether the ethics probe will ask who created the climate that made the News’s unthinkable journalistic crimes thinkable in the first place. The Brits need look only as far as earlier public inquiries for an answer. In 1993, for instance, Her Majesty’s Monopolies and Mergers Commission investigated accusations of editorial interference in stories about China at the Times of London, which would have breached the terms of Murodch’s 1981 takeover of the paper. Despite Murdoch’s declarations that such interference would never have happened, it did take place, according to Good Times, Bad Times, the memoir of Sir Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times and the Times.

We can expect similar assurances from Murdoch that today’s crimes are history. As Evans observed, “Murdoch issue[s] promises as prudently as the Weimar Republic issued marks.”


To read Marvin Kitman’s account of how Rupert Murdoch and Fox News infiltrated U.S. media, click here. You’ll be taken to a page where you can subscribe to Harper’s Magazine, at $19.97 for twelve issues. By subscribing, you’ll gain full access to Kitman’s story, and to more than 160 years of Harper’s.

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