On July 4, 2011 Rupert Murdoch’s world changed forever. On that day The Guardian reported that a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, employed by the News of the World, had hacked into the mobile phone of an abducted teenage girl, Milly Dowler, who was later discovered to have been murdered.
The story was the work of investigative reporter Nick Davies, who had broken his first story on the phone-hacking scandals two years previously. The first visible tip of what eventually proved to be a large iceberg had come with the convictions in January 2007 of Mulcaire and the Murdoch tabloid’s royal reporter, Clive Goodman, for hacking into the mobile phones of members of the royal family and their household. News International dismissed it as an isolated act, the work of a single rogue reporter, and that defence held for the next several years.
By mid-2011, the scandal had been building on a number of fronts, but had not grabbed the attention of other media, politicians or the reading public. The Milly Dowler story opened the floodgates. Veteran journalist and newspaper historian Roy Greenslade called the next two weeks “the most astonishing 14 days in British press history, with daily shock heaped upon daily shock”.
A series of dramatic events unfolded in quick succession. The Murdochs closed the News of the World, which had been labelled a “toxic brand” by James Murdoch and abandoned by many advertisers. Several journalists associated with the paper, including its former editor and former prime ministerial adviser Andy Coulson, were arrested. Prime minister David Cameron cut short an overseas trip to confront the crisis, and announced two judicial inquiries. With majority support from all parties, the House of Commons declared its opposition to Murdoch lifting his stake in the satellite broadcaster BSkyB from 39% to 100%, despite the fact that communications minister Jeremy Hunt had declared his approval just weeks before. News International was thus forced to withdraw from what would have been the single biggest deal (£7.8 billion) of Murdoch’s career. On successive days London’s chief police officer and one of his deputies resigned. And Rupert and James Murdoch were forced to appear before a parliamentary committee, televised live, in what Rupert called the most humble day of his life.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
When Murdoch had belatedly jetted into Britain, he failed to understand the strength of the storm he was facing. Amid all the outrage, his declaration to the TV cameras that his main priority was to save the head of News International (and former editor of the News of the World and theSun), Rebekah Brooks, hit a discordant note. His attempt was useless anyway; days later she resigned, and a short time after that she was arrested.
But just as astonishing as the momentous events of July 2011 is the fact that the scandal’s intensity has continued throughout the past the year and looks as if it will dominate Murdoch’s life for the coming year as well. As the police probes, the court actions and the inquiries continued with their own relentless logic, the revelations still threaten to have profound consequences — including prison — for some of those involved.
The most prolific source sustaining the scandal over the past year has been the Leveson inquiry, conducted by Lord Justice Leveson assisted by the QC Robert Jay, whose public hearings have brought before TV cameras an unprecedented cross-section of prominent Britons. The prime minister and three former prime ministers, a series of other prominent politicians, journalists and editors, celebrities, sporting personalities, police, crime victims and, of course, Rupert and James Murdoch and some of their most senior executives, have testified and been cross-examined under oath. A total of around 500 people and organisations have made submissions and/or appeared as witnesses.
The hearings in particular have provided material for many headlines and provoked much commentary. Sometimes the revelations have seemed less than dramatic — who would have thought that senior News International people met so often with senior political figures and discussed so little? But the testimony offers a rich vein that analysts will be able to mine for undramatic but significant disclosures of many of the nether regions of British politics and media. Leveson began sitting on November 14 last year; his public hearings are almost at an end, and his report is expected in October or November.
The other major public forum to produce telling testimony has been the House of Common select committee, one of the few means by which the scandal had been pursued before 2011. The committee hearing at which Rupert and James appeared in July last year — having initially refused to attend, but then been ordered to do so — provided an early climax of attention.
Most importantly, on May 1 this year the committee issued a report which concluded that Rupert Murdoch was not a fit person to exercise stewardship of a major international company. News Corporation seized on the fact that the main finding against Rupert was not unanimous but passed along party lines, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats supporting and the Conservatives opposing. Much legislation is also passed along party lines, but this does not stop it becoming law. But more importantly, it would have been unthinkable a year earlier that a group of Labour and Liberal-Democrat MPs would have unanimously reached such a conclusion. The Conservatives dissented partly because they thought such a finding was beyond the committee’s mandate.
Many of the committee’s other major findings were unanimous, and strongly critical of News International’s behavior. Members unanimously agreed that News International lawyer Tom Crone, former editor Colin Myler and former News International executive chairman Les Hinton had misled the committee and demanded that they be censured by parliament. Although James Murdoch’s testimony was strongly criticised he escaped this fate.
The report was a personal triumph for Labour’s Tom Watson. The MP’s ministerial career had been destroyed and his personal life almost destroyed by News International vendettas. His account of that persecution and the personal cost it wrought, and his later pursuit of Murdoch’s wrong-doings from the parliamentary backbench, are recorded in hair raising detail in his book, Dial M for Murdoch.
Although they haven’t so far made the same kind of headlines that these two public inquiries have generated, the most ominous developments for Murdoch are on the legal front, involving both civil and criminal actions.