A Not-So-Happy 80th Birthday for Rupert? MEDIA ANALYSIS

Article excerpt

Byline: Roy Greenslade

NEWS CORPORATION is generally considered to be the world's third largest media organisation. In fact, in strictly news media terms, it is the largest because the leading pair, Disney and Time Warner, are much more geared towards entertainment.

News Corp's global span of newspapers, magazines, satellite and cable TV, book publishers and digital ventures place it unequivocally in the first rank. That is a tribute to a remarkable man. From a modest base in the Australian city of Adelaide in the mid-1960s, Rupert Murdoch has built a sprawling global conglomerate with a reach, to use his own phrase, that is unmatched.

In a News Corp annual report 11 years ago, he noted: "We're reaching people from the moment they wake up until they fall asleep."

As one would expect in a volatile industry, he has not enjoyed a smooth progress from tiny to gigantic without a hitch or two. For example, 20 years ago his company was in danger of going bust. He avoided that peril by working with the banks and being prudent.

It demonstrated a rarely acknowledged acumen. At times of crisis, the buccaneering entrepreneur with a penchant for taking risks can be pragmatic. That particular character trait, along with a willingness to play hardball when his back is against the wall, will be essential in the coming weeks and months. For it is becoming more and more obvious that, even if the wheels are not coming off News Corp, the tyres are going bald, the brakes need attention and the company is stuck in reverse gear. Murdoch, less than two months away from his 80th birthday, is facing upheaval on all fronts, particularly in Britain. Most notably, of late, are the once separate -- but now inextricably linked -- matters of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and News Corp's bid to acquire total ownership of BSkyB.

The former, which stems from activities at the paper dating back to the period between 2000 and 2005, has had a new lease of life in the past 18 months, culminating in the collapse of News Corp's defence that voicemail interceptions were carried out only by a single "rogue reporter" working in cahoots with a private investigator, also on the paper's payroll.

The revelation that the paper had to suspend another high-ranking executive, after he was named by the private investigator in court evidence, has opened up the can of Wapping worms to public scrutiny.

Its first high-profile victim was Prime Minister David Cameron's director of communications, Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World. His resignation came amid unprecedented publicity about the increasing number of people who have sued, or are planning to sue, the paper's publisher in the belief that their phones were also hacked.

News Corp probably thought it had drawn a line under the hacking affair in 2007, when Coulson stood down as News of the World editor. That began to unravel in 2009 when a hacking victim -- Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, agreed an out-of-court settlement said to total some [pounds sterling]700,000.

Since then, News Corp has watched helplessly as other alleged hacking victims have lined up to threaten legal action. Suddenly, at a time when the company has sought to appear at its most squeaky clean in terms of journalistic and business ethics in order to avoid regulatory problems over its BSkyB bid, it finds itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. …