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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rupert Murdoch's troika


LONDON — The troika hurtles across the frozen plain. The wolves are close behind, and from time to time a peasant is hurled from the sleigh in the hope of letting the more important people escape.

But nothing distracts the pack for long, not even when the occupants of the sleigh move up the pecking order and throw a couple of minor aristocrats to the wolves.

Wait! What's this? They have thrown a newspaper to the wolves? An entire newspaper, with 200 full-time employees and hundreds more freelance contributors? How do they think that that will help them to get away?

The troika is called News International, the newspaper wing of Rupert Murdoch's globe-spanning media empire. The paper that has just been sacrificed is the News of the World, a Sunday tabloid that claims to have more readers than any other paper in the English-speaking world.

The NoW makes a tidy profit, but last Sunday's edition was its last. After 168 years, the institution that pioneered the art of persuading the emerging class of semi-literate English people to buy newspapers has been shut down by its owners.

Semi-literates were consumers too. If it took a steady diet of salacious and scandalous stories about the rich and/or famous to get them to read a newspaper, the publishers of the NoW were always willing to provide it.

The advertisers flocked in and the "News of the Screws," as the magazine Private Eye dubbed it in the 1970s, flourished like the green bay tree.

It used to get its salacious and scandalous stories by paying celebrities' friends to betray them, or just by going through celebrities' garbage in search of letters, receipts, etc. Starting as long ago as the late 1990s, however, the NoW also started hacking new communications technologies, even though that was against the law.

Over the past decade the NoW has paid various shady characters to hack the voice-mails, emails and other electronic data of literally thousands of people, from members of the British royal family to Z-list celebrities. A few of them, suspecting they had been hacked, launched lawsuits against the paper, and the whole shabby enterprise began to unravel.

The first peasants to be thrown from the troika were the NoW's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and the private eye he had paid to hack into the royal family's phone messages, Glenn Mulcaire. Both men went to prison in 2007.

The management at the NoW insisted that they were just a couple of "bad apples" — but it paid their legal expenses, and probably much more besides, in order to buy their silence about any further hacking.

The stonewalling worked for a while, as the police soft-pedaled the investigation (the NoW had been paying them for stories, after all). But details of the hacking continued to leak out anyway, and during this year several more senior NoW journalists have been arrested for questioning, including former editor Andy Coulson.

James Murdoch, the 80-year-old Rupert's son and heir apparent, was moved from London to New York in March, at least partly to put him beyond easy reach of the British legal system. (He was ultimately responsible for the NoW at the time of the crimes.)

Last week it was revealed that the NoW had been hacking not only celebrities' voice-mails, but also those of a murdered schoolgirl, of the grieving families of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and of victims of the terrorist attack in London in 2005. Public disgust was intense, and it was clearly time to throw the wolves a really big meal.

The obvious candidate was Rebekah Brooks, who was the editor of the NoW in the early years of phone hacking (2000-03). She is now the chief executive of News International, and a close personal friend of Rupert Murdoch, so firing her would create the impression that Murdoch's empire was serious about cleaning house. Instead, Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World itself down.

His son James made the announcement, lamenting the loss of a paper with a "proud history of fighting crime, exposing wrong-doing and regularly setting the news agenda for the nation."

How true. Why, in its last edition it had a front-page story about Florence Brudenell-Bruce's revelation that her new boyfriend, Prince Harry, was "fantastic in bed." The only picture they could find to illustrate the story, alas, showed her in her underwear.

News International isn't really going to lose money by closing the NoW. It will be replaced almost immediately by a new Sunday edition of its weekday stable-mate, the Sun: new Web addresses for thesunonsunday.com and TheSunOnSunday.co.uk were registered last week. As British Justice Secretary Ken Clarke pointed out: "All they're going to do is rebrand it."

But why didn't they just blame it all on Rebekah Brooks and fire her? Because if Brooks goes down, the next person in the line of fire will inevitably be James Murdoch himself. That cannot be allowed to happen, because he is leading News Corporation's bid for control of British Sky Broadcasting, which would give it utter dominance in the British media and huge profits.

So leave Brooks out there to draw fire at least until the British government approves the BSkyB takeover bid. Then, if necessary, she can be thrown out of the troika too.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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