The current telephone hacking scandal in England has brought on a parliamentary inquiry (still ongoing) into Rupert Murdoch’s media empire practices, the arrests of several of his reporters and editors (and those who actually did the wiretapping or provided police assistance), resignations, interrogations-and-the closing of his 168-year-old News of the World, a newspaper with more than two million circulation. The media practices of Murdoch and his wide-flung News Corp. have been a frequent focus of attention in “Ethicalia: A Compendium of Global Ethical Minutiae” published in this magazine over the years: and this seems to be a good time to excerpt and review some of the more interesting cases involving Murdoch’s empire we’ve brought up during the past dozen years. Summary: It does not appear to be a pretty picture.

 

Popular views reflect the moral hazards of any occupation, but the images cast by media narratives serve to clearly define the virtuous and villainous exemplars in professional realms.  It is not hard to distinguish the sinners from the saints in the case of the News of the World’s sudden demise on July 10, 2011, but the moral lessons that follow the legacy of the great journalism family that controlled this tremendously popular newspaper, are as a rich and varied as the many forms and shapes of the Australian Eucalyptus tree in their homeland.

 

It was the decision of the newspaper’s parent corporation (News Corp.) Chief Executive Officer Keith Rupert Murdoch, to distance his personal involvement in terms of abject humility from News of the World’s putatively criminal interception of voicemail messages known as "phone hacking."   However, it was actually his son, James Murdoch, who headed News International’s European operations, who was given the task of announcing the closure of the newspaper.  In press reports, the younger Murdoch claimed moral virtue uncharacteristic of a newspaper that had favored photos of topless women and had covered London’s brothels longer than any print medium in the Mother Country.  News of the World (NOTW) had been celebrated for its salacious content in albums and lyrics by rockers like the Pretenders, Queen and Beatle John Lennon who commented on its page three girls in the familiar "Polythene Pam" on the Abby Road album.  And yet Murdoch's son James Murdoch looked not to the tropes of popular music but to his paper’s moral permanence when he told the soon-to-be-dismissed NOTW staff on July 7, 2011 that their good deeds had been "sullied by behavior that was wrong; indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company." 1 The younger Murdoch was more than indignant when he told the tabloid staff, "Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued."  Savvy advertisers and publicists, who could use other News Corp. papers, must have been pleased with Murdoch’s decision to purge advertising from the last edition of NOTW and announce that its profits would be donated to charity.

 

Several reports added to the general theme of family woe that occupied much of the news coverage. These included the story of Murdoch’s mother, the venerable Dame Elisabeth Greene Murdoch, who had urged her son not to buy the 168-year-old tabloid prior to his acquisition of it in 1969.  News of the World had been famous since its founding in 1848 when it first covered Jack the Ripper’s activities.  According to reports on National Public Radio, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch urged her son to steer clear of this "tawdry rag" that was clearly not the kind of newspaper that the family name should be associated with as owners.  Her only son countered "that there were tens of thousands of people living in London and around England who had nothing particularly in their lives to redeem them and that was the sort of thing they wanted."2

The Murdoch Family Legacy

Observers in their native Australia consider Dame Elisabeth Murdoch to be the antithesis of the Fox News owner in her sense of decency and propriety.   She has generously contributed to countless charities, giving both time and money to the people of Australia without vanity or fanfare.  Australians also like to point out the ethical contrasts between Rupert Murdoch and his father, Sir Keith Arthur Murdoch (1885-1952) who, like King George VI, overcame a speech impediment and rose to fame early in the 20th century.  He secretly reported from Gallipoli in 1915 on the failures during the World War I Dardanelles campaign overseen by arrogant and egocentric British officers. These military  blunders were largely at the expense of Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) troops.  The senior Murdoch also generously endowed his profession by founding the Australian Journalists Association and the cable service for the Australian Associated Press.  The knighted Murdoch also built a newspaper empire that took root from his days as a reporter on the Herald in Melbourne, but he was not an advocate of sensational journalism.  His biographers note that his editorial policy veered away from murders or sensational crimes and was doggedly directed toward stirring political controversies of the day.  

 

The storied rise of Keith Rupert Murdoch from his father’s legacy embraced the contrasts between parent and son and points toward the global media empire built by the son on a scale far grander than his father’s Australian vision. Biographers also conclude that even though the moral values of the son are in some ways distinctively different from his father’s, both men knew the importance of powerful political connections.  (Rupert Murdoch is said to have paid 26 visits to the prime minister in the relatively short period since David Cameron took up residence at No. 10 Downing Street.)

 

Suspicious Criminal Activity

What makes the NOTW exploits so morally puzzling are the rumors and reports that persisted for years of NOTW reporters intercepting and recording telephone calls and practicing a type of illegal surveillance that wandered beyond aggressive ethical practices and into the territory of criminal activity.  Phone hacking violates a British law found in the Criminal Law Act 1977, Sec. 1(1): "conspiracy to intercept communications," and the first widely publicized incident emanated from a "Blackadder" column in NOTW written in 2005 reporting that Prince William had hurt his knee—prompting Buckingham Palace to ask the London Metropolitan Police to please investigate.  

 

The royal family felt certain that someone at NOTW had illegally intercepted their phone calls or messages. NOTW Royal Editor Clive Goodman must have known something about the wrongdoing, because early in 2007 Goodman was dismissed from his job and began serving a four-month prison term after pleading guilty to intercepting phone messages from Prince William’s royal home in Clarence House.  Goodman apparently had help in the operation. Glenn Mulcaire, a famous British football star turned detective, was also implicated for his role in the phone hacking.  What became suspicious to Londoners about Goodman and Mulcaire’s dismissals was the rather substantial settlement paid to compensate Goodman for the newspaper’s failure to follow its own legal procedures in his dismissal, and the sum paid to Mulcaire as well.  That fact, and the accompanying conviction on these charges would seem to put the matter to rest…but not quite.  

 

A freelance journalist, Nick Davies, writing for the politically liberal Guardian newspaper, began pursuing reports that there was a "culture" of phone hacking at NOTW, and that it had spread beyond just one editor and a detective.  In fact, Davies testified before a British House of Commons select committee in 2009 that Scotland Yard (the popular name for the Metropolitan Police Service) was lax in pursuing the ongoing criminal activity at the NOTW tabloid. Davies’ reporting in the Guardian prompted members of Parliament to call for the dismissal of Andy Coulson, a former NOTW editor, who in 2007 became communications director for the Conservative Party of Great Britain—and the top press aide for David Cameron when he became Prime Minister in 2010.

 

Coulson’s denial of knowledge of the hacking rang hollow when Sean Hoare revealed himself to be a phone hacker for NOTW, and told the New York Times that Andy Coulson "actively encouraged me to do it."  Coulson was arrested and questioned in July 2011 for his role as editor of the NOTW.  The curious thing is that not everyone was willing to applaud the Guardian’s reporting on this subject, or Davies’ allegations made before the House of Commons committee, that British police had fallen prey to corruption.

 

In fact, the one entity charged with preserving the professional ethics of journalism in Great Britain was seen by Londoners as partly to blame for the corruption.  In November 2009, Britain's Press Complaints Commission (PCC) concluded, following its investigation, that there was no evidence of further phone hacking beyond the original convictions of Goodman and Mulcaire, and went so far as to cast aspersion on Davies and the Guardian for implying the PCC could have been misled by Murdoch’s employees at the tabloid.



 

What happened next was an apparent effort by Davies to buttress his veracity in light of PCC criticism. A blockbuster report was published on July 4, 2011 that shook the ethical roots of British journalism.  The Guardian reported that, among other criminal phone hacking, NOTW had invaded the privacy of the victim of a serial killer, Amanda (Millie) Dowler. Her voicemail had been hacked and reporters had deleted messages to allow space for new voicemails and new stories based on their content. These missing voicemails caused Amanda Dowler’s parents to cling to false hopes of their daughter’s survival.  A few days after news broke of the phone hacking, Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp., the parent of News International, promised his full cooperation with the investigation and called the phone hacking "deplorable and unacceptable criminal activity."  Hoare was found dead in his apartment following the publication of the Guardian story.  The PCC had to retract its 2009 report suggesting that Davies and the Guardian erred regarding the widespread phone hacking at Murdoch’s tabloid and Baroness Peta Buscombe stepped down as head of the PCC in view of the widening scandal.

Conclusion

Our initial contention was that media narratives tend to identify personal exemplars by their virtues and vices.  Now we are left to decide, based on such character portrayals, what the public lesson is from this scandal.  For the purposes of moral simplicity, the role of wise seer, inclined to the virtue of caution and prudence, belongs to Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, who warned her son against the acquisition of the paper whose actions and resulting shame brought Rupert Murdoch to the most humble day of his life.  Figuring prominently (but nobly) in the coverage was Rupert's father, Sir Arthur Murdoch, beloved in Australia for the virtue of courage in his reporting from the Dardanelles, and the lasting legacy he gave to Australian journalism. The most obvious victim is Sean Hoare, who served as the insider whistleblower whose mea culpa led to the public perception that he was dragged into the scandal and met his own fate as a result.  Was the PCC part of the problem rather than the solution, or was it simply a dupe for corporate greed?  Had not the hero exemplar, the Guardian’s Nick Davies, pursued this story following his reprimand from the PCC, then NOTW might have continued to discourage truth seekers and truth tellers and invade the communications privacy of the famous and not-so-famous newsmakers of the world.

  • William R. Davie is on the faculty of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

References

1. “Rupert Murdoch to Close News of the World” http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/rupert-murdoch-close-news-world/story?id=14019151)

2. http://www.npr.org/2011/07/22/138596187/murdochs-mom-foreshadowed-tabloid-troubles