Murdoch corruption scandal back in the news

Trials to begin, WSJ interference confirmed, secret tape fallout serious

The Murdoch hacking scandal is back in the news after a bit of a respite.

Next week, Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand woman and a central figure in News Corp.’s hacking and bribing culture and in the ham-handed coverup, will go on trial for bribing public officials, phone hacking, and obstruction of justice. Alongside her will be former top Murdoch editor and David Cameron spokesman Andy Coulson, who epitomized the corrupt relationship between News Corp. and the British government, and Glenn Mulcaire, who hacked phones for the News of the World and whose silence was bought by the company when the hacking scandal began coming to light.

Brooks could presumably bring the House of Murdoch down if she felt it best served her own interests. It’s worth noting, though, that she too was paid off by Murdoch when defenestrated—with $18 million. But pass the popcorn.

In the meantime, NPR’s David Folkenflik is out with a well-timed book on Murdoch. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it’s made news on a couple of fronts.

First, “Murdoch’s World” reports that Murdoch’s top men at The Wall Street Journal stymied the paper’s coverage of the unfolding hacking scandal story in the summer of 2011.

Folkenflik reports of “stories that were blocked, stripped of damning detail or context, or just held up in bureaucratic purgatory” and notes that the London bureau of the WSJ, still stocked with pre-Murdoch veterans waged a fierce battle against Managing Editor and Murdoch yacht buddy Robert Thomson, who was intent on squashing original reporting that could raise problems for News Corp.

That’s not a surprise if you were reading your Audit back in July and August of that year, much less in 2009. But it’s as close as we’ve gotten to concrete evidence that it was a conscious editorial decision.

The Journal’s coverage of the hacking story was embarrassingly stunted in the first several weeks of the world-shaking scandal. On the day after the Milly Dowler bombshell broke, the paper stuffed a wire brief on A11 with the headline “U.K. Tabloid Accused of Hacking Girl’s Phone.” It followed the next day with a workmanlike story on B1, but dropped it below the fold.

The WSJ’s first major contribution to the hacking story was a piece a month later—that fingered, based on flimsy evidence and without talking to the alleged briber, News UK rival the Sunday Mirror for a minor instance of alleged police bribery more than a decade. I hit my old paper at the time and got perhaps the most livid complaint call I’ve ever gotten, from a WSJer whom it was clear was under tremendous pressure at the time. Now we know the backstory.

Folkenflik also reports that Murdoch’s flacks at Fox News descended into industrial-scale sockpuppetry in comment sections of posts critical of Fox:

Fox PR staffers were expected to counter not just negative and even neutral blog postings but the anti-Fox comments beneath them. One former staffer recalled using twenty different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had one hundred. Several employees had to acquire a cell phone thumb drive to provide a wireless broadband connection that could not be traced back to a Fox News or News Corp. account… “Even blogs with minor followings were reviewed to ensure no claim went unchecked.”

Another long-held suspicion confirmed.

Now, British investigative site ExaroNews, has more bad news for News. This summer, Exaro got hold of a tape of Murdoch’s meeting with beleaguered Sun journalists last year that showed him admitting he had known about his papers’ bribes culture for decades. The tapes showed the old man has learned almost nothing from the last two years of scandal. In addition to his “everybody knew it” admission, he trashed Scotland Yard, and promised jailed Sun journalists “support.”

“I’m not allowed to promise you - I will promise you continued health support - but your jobs. I’ve got to be careful what comes out - but frankly, I won’t say it, but just trust me.”

Exaro now reports that News Corp. executives were in an uproar over Murdoch’s statements leaking out and that they “fear disaster from secret recording.” The tapes make a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecution of News Corp. more likely and Exaro says some think Murdoch may have to step down as an executive at 21st Century Fox to contain the damage.

Perhaps Mr. Murdoch can just pay a Jamie Dimon-style visit to Eric Holder (and his British counterpart), wave a few billion dollars in their faces, and put this whole pesky mess to bed. Such is the life of a plutocrat.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,