January 29, 2020

The Media Equation: A Tabloid Shame, Exposed by Earnest Rivals

In America, newspapers have been seen as an expensive hobby for Mr. Murdoch, the bane of the News Corporation’s shareholders, but as it turns out, the newspapers in Britain may end up being more costly to him in the long run.

So useful in wielding influence, if not producing revenue, his newspapers are the very thing that brought his company into the cross hairs, and delayed, at least temporarily, his efforts to expand it by gaining full control of British Sky Broadcasting, the largest pay television company in Britain.

Logic and fairness would suggest that it was folly to concentrate so much power in the hands of someone who already controlled many national media assets. So where was the outrage? Well, check who owns the megaphone. The News Corporation has historically used its four newspapers — it also owns The Sun, The Times of London, and The Sunday Times — to shape and quash public debate, routinely helping to elect prime ministers with timely endorsements while punishing enemies at every turn.

Don’t take my word for it. After David Cameron was elected prime minister, one of the first visitors he received at 10 Downing Street was Mr. Murdoch — discreetly through a back entrance — and Mr. Cameron spoke plainly last week about the corrosively close relationship. “The truth is, we’ve all been in this together,” he said.

“The press, the politicians and leaders of all parties.” To which a dumb Yank like me might say, “Duh.”

The only thing Mr. Cameron didn’t do was point to Mr. Murdoch himself. But he didn’t really have to after the tactical ruthlessness of Mr. Murdoch’s familiars was laid bare for all to see.

Newspapers, as anybody will tell you, aren’t what they used to be. Part of the reason that the News Corporation was willing to close down a paper with a circulation of about 2.7 million copies every Sunday was that its revenue was under $1 billion. (The News Corporation’s heir apparent, James Murdoch, has always seemed eager to shed some of the company’s newspapers, though I doubt that putting the nail gun to this paper was what he had in mind.)

Still, how did we find out that a British tabloid was hacking thousands of voice mails of private citizens? Not from the British government, with its wan, inconclusive investigations, but from other newspapers.

Think of it. There was Mr. Murdoch, tying on a napkin and ready to dine on the other 60 percent of BSkyB that he did not already have. But just as he was about to swallow yet another tasty morsel, the hands at his throat belonged to, yes, newspaper journalists.

Newspapers, it turns out, are still powerful things, and not just in the way that Mr. Murdoch has historically deployed them.

The Guardian stayed on the phone-hacking story like a dog on a meat bone, acting very much in the British tradition of a crusading press, and goosing the story back to life after years of dormancy. Other papers, including The New York Times, reported executive and police complicity that gave the lie to the company’s “few bad apples” explanation. As recently as last week, Vanity Fair broke stories about police complicity.

Mr. Murdoch, ever the populist, prefers his crusades to be built on chronic ridicule and bombast. But as The Guardian has shown, the steady accretion of fact — an exercise Mr. Murdoch has historically regarded as bland and elitist — can have a profound effect.

His corporation may be able to pick governments, but holding them accountable is also in the realm of newspaper journalism, an earnest concept of public service that has rarely been of much interest to him.

The coverage last week, on a suddenly fast-moving story that had been moving only in increments, destabilized the ledge that the News Corporation had been standing on. James Murdoch regretted everything and took responsibility for almost nothing. What looked like an opportunity for him to prove his mettle as a manager of crisis might yet engulf him.

Andy Coulson, the former editor of News of the World who became the chief spokesman for Mr. Cameron, has been arrested. And Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International and previous editor of The News of the World, responded by saying that it was “inconceivable” that she knew of the hacking.

E-mail: carr@nytimes.com; Twitter.com/carr2n

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f9961617e8a9650eeae72a26aea622f7

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