By popular demand (well, OK, two girlfriends asked what I thought) I am putting my reflections about l’affaire Murdoch into print. I don’t think you have to be in the news business to find the latest goings on mesmerizing. I haven’t been as glued to radio and TV since the Army-McCarthy hearings. And that was when I was in high school … so you see how long I’ve had to wait for a comparable drama.
Where to start? Anything Murdoch is such a rich vein to mine. One hilarity is that Murdoch’s premier downmarket American tabloid, the New York Post, has not printed one word about what the Brits would call “the troubles,” i.e., the universal outrage or the Parliamentary hearings about the Murdoch Company’s misbehavior. The Wall Street Journal, the News Corp’s “respectable” paper, had one kid gloves interview with him, and all Fox News has said is basically: Afghanistan is hideous, the economy’s a mess, and we’re talking about a little phone hacking? As Jon Stewart pointed out, the Post hed-writers (famous for great, trashy eye-catchers like “Headless Man in Topless Bar”) must feel emasculated. Stewart is quite certain they would have loved to run “News Corpse,” in 40 point type when the hacking whistle-blower was found dead. (P.S. re the Wall Street Journal: the dysfunctional Bancroft family, who sold the paper to Murdoch, announced they were now sorry they had sold. Had they known what he would do to the paper, yada yada. Well, if I knew what he would do to the paper, why didn’t they? I must say this reminded me of Madeleine Albright “discovering” she was Jewish, when I had the exact same thought: If I knew she was Jewish, why didn’t she?) But I digress.
James, the Murdoch kid who testified with his father, was not meant to be the heir apparent. His brother Lachlan, said to be devoted to his father, felt he could never operate independently, so he took himself to Australia … pretty much as far away as one can get. There, granted, he runs the News Corp media outlets, but at least he is left alone. The kid who is said to be smarter than either of her brothers is Elisabeth (coincidentally in my daughter’s class at Vassar, as long as we are playing Six Degrees of Rupert Murdoch.) Elisabeth got sick of the whole family dynamic and left her News Corp employment. She did, however, accept $650 million of News International funds to start a film company. This is now being looked at because, even though the Murdoch family owns a giant share, they are a public company. Expect some stockholder suits in the near future; they are already in the works. The British position is that the company has been used as a “candy jar” for the family. In addition, bribes to various undesirables are not deductable, so there’s another governance/legal problem.
Another digression: One of the private investigators hired by Our Miss Brooks is – literally – an alleged ax murderer. This especially caught my attention because, for years when I’ve wanted to describe a really terrible person, I would say, “He’s an ax murderer” — admittedly a hyperbolic and metaphorical statement. Well, this person, a Mr. Rees, is now awaiting trial because his business partner, with whom it goes without saying he’d had a falling out, was found in a parking lot with an ax in the back of his head.
People in the news business have long known that Murdoch was cutthroat and disreputable. An odd personal connection (and proof that his reputation had preceded him) is that my mother, the late Ann Landers, was based at the Chicago Sun-Times. She had an unusual contractual stipulation that, were the paper to be sold a second time, she was free to leave the paper (and her contract). When “young” Marshall Field (my contemporary) was essentially forced to sell the paper by his half brother, Ted Field, a group no one had ever heard of bought it. That was a brief proprietorship, and they, in turn, sold to Murdoch. This was in 1984 and my mother was outta there – and right into the welcoming arms of the Chicago Tribune … where, waiting for her, was the revered Mike Royko, who also would not work for Murdoch. (He had left the sister paper, the Chicago Daily-News, for which I worked.)
Regarding the idea that an editor-in-chief could have been in the dark about illegal acts and payments, all the news people I’ve talked to find that declaration somewhere between ludicrous and highly improbable. This leads me to the indelicate accusation of perjury on the part of both James and Rebekah Brooks, she of the much commented on, extremely long Lucille Ball red curls, and not quite the face to go with it. Because the under-the-table payments were in the millions of pounds and dollars, it is a pretty good bet that Rupert knew – not only because he was known as a hands-on manager, but that kind of money is clearly outside a city room’s budget. I liked when Brooks, who is known to be tough as a tank, used the now-famous passive defense: “Mistakes were made.” Somewhere. By someone.
While this is not actionable (I don’t think,) Murdoch Sr. said he “never influences his papers.” Well, please. That’s the reason he has them. And television stations. He did not get to be a big political player, in more than one country, by not “influencing his papers.” There is now talk that Fox News had the listening habit, as well. The FBI is pursuing this. With Roger Ailes being the paranoid and principle-free head of that operation, plus a former employee talking about the basement “brain room,” chances are good that Murdoch will have to throw him over the side – this man he actually loves. That is interesting because the whole family, now including Wendi, she of the swift left hook, can’t stand Ailes (who, by the way, is sure someone wants to kill him.) Either by choice or mandate, there’s a good possibility Fox News may have to be sold. They could also have their license lifted, should the hacking charge be proved over here.
The appearance before the parliamentary committee was most interesting and much analyzed. Most people thought Murdoch, Sr. looked doddering and unsure. There was one film clip where he started to doze. He is 80, after all, and could have lived without being called on the carpet – on television, yet — for paying off politicians, police, and breaking several laws. He wound up saying he “was ashamed and humbled … but not responsible.”
And I am Marie of Romania. The BBC deployed their wicked sense of humor by saying the committee hearing was just a high level “Bring Your Son to Work Day.”
The thing with the “pie” was interesting to me, and I guess a few other commentators. There were an estimated 50 people allowed into the gallery to witness the hearings. Would no one have noticed, say, a man sitting with a pie plate in his lap filed with white shaving foam? A measure of how dodgy the Murdochs are thought to be is that it was immediately thought that the “pie” was a planned action to elicit sympathy, and perhaps disturb the line of questioning. (Another Chicago connection, another digression.) The PR firm (who may or may not have dreamed up the pie thing) representing the Murdochs is Edelman Worldwide, now the largest PR firm in the world. Dan and Ruth Edelman were friends of my parents and I knew them as a teenager. The business is now run by their son, Richard. It is hard to imagine that this small Chicago firm turned into the little PR firm that could.
Maybe because of the work I do, I could not help thinking about Anna Murdoch – his former wife of 31 years. She had been his secretary, for whom he divorced Wife #1. She is the mother of the grown children. I am guessing she is ambivalent about all of this. The old gaffer, now 80, left her for a woman who is now 42. While she may be experiencing schadenfreude about the troubles of her old human Sharpei, it is also her son who has been led into this mess, which, in turn, may lead to jail. It is thought possible that both Rebekah and James may do a turn in Newgate (their Alcatraz).
I have met Rupert Murdoch, and our brief encounter was interesting to me then, and it is interesting to me now. I was living in California, and there was a party at Barry Diller’s house in honor of Murdoch. I do not recall the occasion. Maybe he’d bought Fox Studios? In any case, the informal receiving line was Diller, Murdoch, and an aide to Murdoch who whispered to him who everyone was. When it was my turn, he had clearly been clued in, and said to me, “I believe I work for your mother.” (Her lawyers, obviously, were working on her exit.) Cute, I thought; self-deprecating. And what really amazed me was that his social voice was extremely soft. He just didn’t sound like a ruthless, tough guy mogul and thug. But I knew then, as I know now, he carried a big stick. Whether or not he will have to relinquish it is yet to be determined. Or as we say in the news biz, TK. And God bless The Guardian.