Rupert Murdoch’s Watergate: The Troubling Parallels
Attention, directors, officers, employees, and shareholders of News Corp.: There is a cancer on your business, and it is growing.
I do not use the metaphor of cancer easily or lightly. Once before, I had occasion to offer a similar warning, when I told Richard Nixon that Watergate was going to destroy the American Presidency. I’m offering this warning again now, because the unfolding scandal that is currently hammering the reputation and value of News Corp. so closely parallels the sequence of events that provoked my warning to Nixon.
Today, I know a lot more about scandals than I did when I was living through one, and intuitively tried to get Nixon to take dramatic action to save his presidency. Of course, he did not—and the rest, as they say, is history. As I recently pointed out—on Twitter, a most convenient place to comment upon something as it is happening—when the News Corp. scandal first surfaced, it was immediately clear to me that this was a Watergate-type scandal, with striking parallels.
Murdoch’s Watergate-Like Scandal
Without going too deeply into the weeds of either Watergate or Murdoch’s scandal, the comparison is telling.
Watergate was a political scandal that was provoked by Nixon’s ruthless and shameless manner of doing business. Similarly, News Corp. is mired in a political and business scandal because of the brutal and coldblooded way its chairman and CEO, Rupert Murdoch, has conducted business. Just as Nixon did not undertake the initiating illegality himself (the bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters), nor did Murdoch personally undertake the illegal hacking of voicemails. Rather, both men created norms and standards within their respective organizations where such conduct was not only considered acceptable, but actually encouraged.
Nixon was unable to survive his scandal because he had, after many years, built a remarkable reservoir of public ill will, and had accrued many detractors who wanted to see him removed. Nixon was, in short, his own worst problem.
So, too, with Murdoch. While Murdoch is a bit more of a charmer than Nixon ever was, he has few true friends. Rather, he is surrounded by countless sycophants and retainers—not to mention more enemies than most public figures must endure, enemies who wish him nothing but the worst. In sum, Murdoch himself is News Corp.’s core problem.
The Watergate scandal did not end well for Nixon, and this current scandal will not end well for Murdoch.
The Nature Of Modern Scandals
Although history never repeats itself exactly, it does follow generally familiar patterns. Scandals, in particular, follow remarkably similar trajectories. To better understand scandals, I have continued to examine them, and over a decade ago, I found what has become my scandal bible: Cambridge sociologist John B. Thompson’s work Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age (2000). I turn to Thompson’s work because it tells where a given scandal is in its development, and while his work was not designed to be predictive, in fact, it appears to be highly indicative of any given scandal’s trajectory.
In the course of his research, Professor Thompson has examined countless scandals, including Billygate (the activities of President Jimmy Carter’s brother), Nan Britton’s charging President Warren Harding with adultery, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, Teddy Kennedy’s accident at Chappaquiddick, Iran-Contra, the Pentagon-Papers, the Profumo Affair, Teapot Dome, Watergate, and Whitewater—to highlight only a few.
Modern scandals, Thompson found, do not truly begin with the transgression(s) per se. Rather, the real scandal begins when the unacceptable behavior becomes a subject of public knowledge. Today, scandals are mediated by television, newspapers, and the Internet—becoming truly scandalous only when they attract public attention. Thus, Thompson divides scandals into four predictable and distinguishing phases: pre-scandal, scandal proper, culmination, and aftermath.
I can report that Murdoch’s Watergate-like scandal is taking a very predictable course. It has recently moved from what Thompson calls a pre-scandal phase—that first phase when charges fly but few stick—to phase two, which is a scandal proper. What comes next is either the scandal’s collapse, which is not likely here, or its peak. That peak will not be pretty for those involved, although it can be good theater for those who enjoy seeing miscreants getting their comeuppance publicly.
With this highly compressed summary, let me pause to examine Murdoch’s scandal—its current state and its potential future progress.
Murdoch’s Scandal Proper Is Now Beyond His Control: How the Scandal Began, and Its Current Status
In late May of this year, I read an interesting story in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR): The Guardian newspaper in London had reported in 2009 that Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid newspaper had hacked not only the Buckingham Palace voicemails of the Royal Family, but also the voicemails of thousands of other people. Moreover, the tabloid had paid millions of dollars to keep people from talking about it all.
This was serious wrongdoing, with a conspicuous cover-up. But the public had yawned.
The CJR article also reported that, in 2010, the New York Times Magazine had published another devastating story about Murdoch’s people hacking the phone messages of hundreds of celebrities, government officials, sports stars and the like—essentially, “anyone whose personal secrets could be tabloid fodder.” The Times also noted that even Scotland Yard had been compromised into silence by Murdoch’s operatives, with the investigation largely curtailed.
What most troubled the CJR was that other British newspapers had been strikingly silent about the hacking activity. Murdoch, it seemed, had the scandal under control. A cover-up was in place, and at that time, working effectively.
Actually, this is not surprising. Under Professor Thompson’s analysis, the CJR was describing a typical phase one pre-scandal. Watergate’s course was very similar, in that only the Washington Post covered the story for some ten months. It was a non-story elsewhere, and the public initially had no interest.
Scandals, it seems, must reach a critical mass before they enter Professor Thompson’s next phase, where the transgressions become important to the general public. During phase one of the News Corp. scandal, most news organization were merely dismissing The Guardian and The New York Times stories as the work of Murdoch’s competitors—which of course, these newspapers are, in the UK and USA respectively.
Thus, the Guardian’s and Times’s stories were viewed as the efforts of organizations wishing for their own reasons to bring News Corp. down a few notches. And of course, that was no doubt part of what The Guardian and New York Times had, indeed, hoped to do. But the point that was missed was that the stories themselves were accurate, and what they reported was deeply troubling.
In August 2006, two of the Murdoch men involved in hacking the Royal Family’s voicemails—a news reporter and private investigator from the News of the World—were arrested, charged, and prosecuted. Still, until very recently, the voicemail-hacking story unfolded with minimal press coverage (almost none in the United States), and very little public interest or concern (in either the UK or the USA).
Now, however, the story has resurfaced with a vengeance. It found serious public attention when The Guardian uncovered the fact that the targets of Murdoch’s News of the World hacking were not merely the high and mighty. Rather, thousands of ordinary British citizens, many enduring the worst times in their lives, were also the victims of voicemail hacking.
The Cover-up Has Failed: How the Hacking of the Phones of a Young, Missing Girl, and of a Group of Soldiers Proved to Be the Last Straws for the Public
Public outrage erupted with the report, on July 4 of this year, that News of the World had hacked the voicemail of a missing and murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. In that instance, Murdoch’s men literally removed voicemail messages from Ms. Dowler’s phone while the search was still underway. And heartbreakingly, this activity regarding Ms. Dowler’s voicemail provided her parents and investigators with false hope that she might still be alive.
And, as if that were not enough, it was reported that some 4,000 British citizens had also had their voicemail hacked by Murdoch’s people. To make the hacking even more despicable, it was reported that among those hacked were the families of soldiers serving, injured, and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Understandably, the British public reacted with horror. While unlawfully invading the private lives of Royals, celebrities, and soccer stars may not have offended the public’s sensibilities, the depravity of hacking Milly Dowler’s phone, and the insensitivity of hacking the voicemail of the families of soldiers, merely in order to titillate the public with a “news story,” managed to totally appall nearly everyone.
A Pre-Scandal Becomes a Scandal Proper
Revelation of this information moved the scandal, under Thompson’s historically developed analysis, to the second phase: it became a scandal proper. In this posture, the scandal gains stronger legs.
Accordingly, new revelations have continued to flow, including charges of cover-up, police collusion, and more nefarious and illegal news-gathering techniques. These ranged from reporters’ assuming false identities, to the hiring of mobsters, to the paying of bribes—with callous editors relentlessly pushing for headline stories to be acquired by any means necessary, legal or illegal. Clearly, Murdoch has lost control. The cover-up has been breached, and as scandals proceed from phase to phase, the situation seldom improves for the perpetrators.
As John Thompson has written, and as I can confirm based on personal experience, those at the center of the scandal at this stage are more than likely still inclined to believe that they control their fate, that they can cut their losses, and that “the public will eventually grow weary of [the] story.” In fact, they have limited control of their fate.
In addition, you can be sure that Murdoch and his inner circle are now looking for the time when the scandal is deprived of the new blood of fresh disclosures. And they are doubtless hoping that, when this happens, they can then go back on the attack against their accusers—charging them with unfair competition, muckraking, and any unethical actions they can dream up (one might hope, without hacking anyone else’s voicemails).
When a bona fide scandal exists—and News Corp. is now involved in exactly such a scandal—strategies based on counterattacks, or on waiting for the public to grow weary, seldom work. Thus, sooner or later, this scandal will proceed to its third phase: its culmination or dénouement.
As Thompson describes it, this is “when the scandal is finally brought to a head.” There are admissions of guilt, resignations, sackings, and criminal prosecutions. (Rarely, but occasionally, a scandal at this stage can collapse and charges may dissipate, but that is not likely in News Corp.’s case, for there is hard evidence of guilt there.)
Ending the Scandal
News cycles are faster today than they ever have been—which means that scandals may unfold at a more accelerated rate. If an organization truly wishes to end the scandal, how does it do so? Only one thing can end a scandal like that surrounding News Corp.: Those responsible for the transgression must be removed from power.
Thus, as long as Nixon refused to succumb to the charges relating to his abuses of power, the Watergate scandal continued. When he and all others involved had resigned and been charged with crimes for their transgressions, it ended.
As long as Murdoch and his cronies remain in charge of News Corp., this scandal will continue working its way through phase two, toward a phase-three culmination. This may take years, or it may take mere weeks. But the scandal could be ended in days if Murdoch and his minions (some of whom are members of his family) were to resign. But resignation seems likely in only one scenario: If it is costing Murdoch too dearly to remain in charge.
In May 2004, in Sydney, I had a long conversation with the Australian investigative journalist Bruce Page, who has written about Murdoch for years. At the time, Bruce had recently completed The Murdoch Archipelago and I had been watching Murdoch for years. Thinking about how Murdoch had endlessly pushed Fox News’s right-wing political agenda, I asked Bruce if Murdoch was driven by ideology. That question caused Page to laugh, and he quickly advised me there is only one thing that drives Rupert Murdoch: money. He will do anything, and whatever it takes, to make money.
Bruce Page told me that Murdoch had few if any ideological beliefs, other than those that related to Rupert Murdoch’s making money. So Murdoch is likely to fight to the bitter end with the belief that he can make even more money when this passes. Unless he decides he is going to lose big money.
It would be wonderful it he ended his reign. It is well-known what Murdoch’s style of journalism has done to both American and British politics and public life. Without belaboring that point, for it is not necessary to do so, Rupert Murdoch is, in fact, not merely a cancer on the public corporation that he created—News Corp.—but also a cancer on American and British democracy.
Our political system needs for Murdoch to be gone, along with the cronies he has encouraged to pollute our politics. Nixon’s finest act as president was to resign. There could be no more fitting end to the unfolding saga for Murdoch than for him to do likewise. When this scandal threatens to take away his fortune, if not his freedom, he may actually do the right thing, and resign. For the public good, that cannot happen too soon.
[Editor’s Note: This is the first of what will be at least a two-part series of columns by Mr. Dean on this topic on Justia’s Verdict.]