Dial M for Murdoch and Mayhem – The Feminist Wire

Dial M for Murdoch and Mayhem

The pathways into the Murdoch scandal are so numerous that a single writer knows from the outset of any attempt to address it that his or her efforts will be partial, if not futile, at best; with that acknowledgment on the table, I hope to provide here a prolegomenon to TFW’s first forum to come in the next few weeks, when several members of the magazine’s Editorial Collective and guest writers examine the problematic from varied angles. “Dial M” initiates play.

And the enormity of ground to cover in the matter is simply daunting, as multiple strands of entanglement, cable strong, link these events to the global order. In fact, the Murdoch case may be thought of as paradigmatic of today’s corporate form and the ways in which it leaps national borders and tends to “eat” them for breakfast. The Murdoch empire, the world’s second largest media outfit after Disney, we understand, shows a vivid example of what wealth accumulation, contemporary style, looks like and might be taken as a laboratory instance of unchecked corporate power and influence. As of this writing, Rupert Murdoch—the head of News Corporation that owns several subsidiaries around the world, among them, the British subsidiary, News International, and its stable of newspapers and the name most intimately associated with the phenomena in question—his son, James Murdoch, as well as Rebekah Brooks, right-hand man and former editor of the now-defunct News of the World and CEO of News International, have all just appeared before a select committee of British Parliament—the Committee on Culture, Media, and Sport, chaired by Conservative MP, John Whittingdale.  The proceedings were widely covered by U.S. media, as one of my sources of reportage for this piece comes from C-Span.

For an American audience, the closest historical analogy to these events in terms of scale and complexity might be the original “Watergate,” the bungled break-in that brought down the Nixon Presidency and wrought such profound changes in the nation’s political character that we can directly measure its myriad effects still today. But we will have to wait and see what actual impact, if any, the case will yield not only on Britain’s future, but also on the performance of news gathering and reportage well beyond its shores. So much depends on the rigor of the investigations now afoot in the U.K. and whether or not the human actors can summon the courage “to speak truth to power.” The mass of detail that converges on the Murdoch story is indeed comparable to a labyrinth, but as many observers have noted, its three principal elements meld Press, Police, and Politician in an unholy alliance of fear, bribery, and intimidation. Think of either of these clusters of The Big Three as a kind of Ariadne’s thread through this layered maze of malice and concocted filth.

Perhaps the first thing that the reader needs to do without delay is find out what his/her mobile PIN is, if he/she does not already know, and try to determine if your carrier obeys rigorous rules concerning access to it.  As a technological “idiot,” I will have to check with my niece about the fine points of the PIN, although unless one is a royal, or a “celebrity” of whatever kind, a public person, or one who is simply known for being “known,” there is a good chance that no one will be overly concerned about the status of your sex life, or the state of your pots and pans, but still. . . The Murdoch story in its most ostensible plot-line is a story about phone “hacking”—someone learns your PIN and from there gains access to your telephone messages—which situates it in the very heart of today’s material culture and its technological ways and means. It is doubtful that what happened in this case could have occurred before the turn of the century and the wide availability of the cell phone. But it is also tied to the undeniable significance of ratings, market share, and the rage for titillation and gossip; in that way, it matches precisely the induced psychic needs of overdevelopment, untrained, insatiable appetite, and the thrills of the superficial encounter. Is it too much to say now that there would have been no there there if the public had been otherwise engaged?

Related to the latter query, The Guardian Weekly reports a very interesting set of facts about Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World: At its closing two weeks ago, it was the “biggest-selling Sunday newspaper in the English-speaking world, with 7.4 million readers each week.” According to the paper’s owners, “News of the World” was read by fifteen percent of adults in Britain. Established in 1843, its first edition published on 1 October that year, the paper cost 3 pence, as its publisher, John Browne Bell, “was clear about who its readers were, and what they wanted to read”—tales about “crime, sensation, vice.” The recent incarnation of the paper was notorious for what was known as “page three,” which is said to have featured the photograph of a topless beauty every week. Apparently, News of the World remained faithful to its first calling to provide “fast, titillating news, with an emphasis on sensation and, as often as not, sex—that most clearly characterized the paper’s journalism and propelled it to commercial success.” Most of the actors in the Murdoch case had News of the World in common, one way or another, from Scotland Yard to 10-11 Downing Street. In that regard, News of the World acts as the hub of a big wheel with spokes emanating from it.

Just so, Sean Hoare reported on show business for News of the World and was found dead at his home in Hertfordshire on the morning of 18 July, the day preceding the Murdochs’ appearance before the select committee. While Hoare’s death has been described by police as “unsuspicious,” the very mode of description renders his dispatch altogether “suspicious.” After all, Hoare is the man who alleged that Andy Coulson, former head of communications for the Tories and shortly thereafter “spin meister” for Prime Minister David Cameron, was well aware of the widespread practice of hacking at News of the World, where Coulson served as editor of the paper in 2006. Hoare told his story to three New York Times reporters in the fall of 2010, which details propelled allegations of hacking to the forefront of public notice once again; an anatomy of the practice, especially at News of the World, is provided in reportage by Don Van Natta, Jr., Jo Becker, and Graham Bowley in “Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond,” the New York Times Sunday Magazine feature that week.

While the NYT post is too long to definitively unpack here, the jist of it, put together with the Milly Dowler story, brings us current and may explain why, on this side of the Atlantic, at least, some people may be wondering what is going on in Britain. What unfolds in the NYT piece is nothing short of a saga of wrongdoing and concealment, or, we might say, the secretion of sins of commission and omission. In 2005, aides to the royal family of Britain were alarmed when intimate messages that had passed between Princes William and his brother Harry turned up as headline news in—you guessed it—News of the World. Upon investigation, Scotland Yard fingered two suspects—Clive Goodman, who covered the royals for NOTW, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who worked with Goodman. In time, the investigative trail led Scotland Yard to the offices of NOTW and Goodman’s desk only, as well as Mulcaire’s home in a London suburb, where officials seized a treasure trove of intelligence—some 91 PIN codes, dozens of notebooks and a couple of computers that contained no fewer than 2,978 mobile phone numbers! Both Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested that day in 2006 and “charged with conspiracy to intercept communications without lawful authority.” Editors at NOTW claimed to be “stunned” by the arrests and “vowed to conduct an internal investigation.” As for the pair of defendants, each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy “to intercept communications of the royal aides.” Sentenced to several months in prison, Goodman and Mulcaire were let go by NOTW and later sued the paper for “wrongful dismissal.” Interestingly, NOTW paid up—some 80,000 pounds to Mulcaire and “an undisclosed amount” to Goodman.

The Goodman-Mulcaire case, from a public relations viewpoint, offered both NOTW and Scotland Yard an economy of means, so to speak, insofar as it became isolated as the malfeasance of two ethically-challenged bad apples; for all intents and purposes, the data recovered in the Goodman and Mulcaire raids were buried almost absolutely, as the police bothered to contact only a select few of the identified victims of the couple’s hacking. The police would later allege that because the investigative team assigned to the Goodman-Mulcaire case was simultaneously busy with terrorist alarms raised in Britain since 2005, they had neither the time, nor the resources to exhaust the quantity of information that their search and seizure had divulged. In a word, the Goodman-Mulcaire revelations and subsequent prosecution were supposed to have settled the hacking matter forever and might have done just that, except that successful law suits (resulting in quiet in- and out-of-court settlements for the plaintiffs) kept popping up against NOTW after the convictions, certain British newspapers, like “The Guardian,” one of Murdoch’s fiercest critics, continued to doggedly pursue the “industry” of hacking, and then the Milly Dowler case from 2002 reclaimed headlines.

That News of the World reporters would hack the mobile phone of a 13-year old abducted school girl was just a little bit more than the British public could stomach.  On 21 March 2002, Dowler was intercepted on her way home from school in Walton-On-Thames, Surrey, and never seen again; because the messages on her mobile, apparently recovered by police, were erased, Dowler’s family believed that she was the one erasing them, which gave them hope that she was still alive.  The Guardian recently reported that Scotland Yard investigators, in a new inquiry into phone hacking, called “Operation Weeting,” discovered evidence of interference by reporters from NOTW in the vast collection of 11,000 pages worth of notes taken from the Mulcaire trove five years ago. It was this story that brought the Prime Minister high-tailing it back to the capital, cutting short his trade talks in Nigeria and South Africa, and confronting the cameras in high English dudgeon. This was also the story that brought expressions of apology from the Murdochs, from Ms. Brooks herself, and disgust from former PM Gordon Brown, whose family’s medical records were broken into by News of the World reporters.

Over the next several months, we will likely hear that everybody did it, does it, and therefore. . . No one is guilty, of course, let them tell it, as already that proverbial passive locution is making its way up and down the backside of official public “speak”—“mistakes were made.” (We’ve already heard it at least once from our Ms.Brooks.) Introduced to political discourse by an American President, I believe, “mistakes were made” translates into: “But I didn’t make them. They just happened.” But removing the actor from the sentence exactly parallels the vicious and material acts of irresponsibility that have brought about the death of millions of people over the last century and now threatens this planet—the only home we have ever known or likely will know—with extinction. What we await now, with debt default knocking like a poltergeist in the midnight hour, is whether or not somebody with power in his or her hands is going to muster the courage to change that sentence by making it active.