Murdoch's Watergate

By Bernstein, Carl | Newsweek, July 18, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Murdoch's Watergate


Bernstein, Carl, Newsweek


Byline: Carl Bernstein; Bernstein's most recent book is A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

His anything-goes approach has spread through journalism like a contagion. Now it threatens to undermine the influence he so covets.

The hacking scandal currently shaking Rupert Murdoch's empire will surprise only those who have willfully blinded themselves to that empire's pernicious influence on journalism in the English-speaking world. Too many of us have winked in amusement at the salaciousness without considering the larger corruption of journalism and politics promulgated by Murdoch Culture on both sides of the Atlantic.

The facts of the case are astonishing in their scope. Thousands of private phone messages hacked, presumably by people affiliated with the Murdoch-owned News of the World newspaper, with the violated parties ranging from Prince William and actor Hugh Grant to murder victims and families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arrest of Andy Coulson, former press chief to Prime Minister David Cameron, for his role in the scandal during his tenure as the paper's editor. The arrest (for the second time) of Clive Goodman, the paper's former royals editor. The shocking July 7 announcement that the paper would cease publication three days later, putting hundreds of employees out of work. Murdoch's bid to acquire full control of cable-news company BSkyB placed in jeopardy. Allegations of bribery, wiretapping, and other forms of lawbreaking--not to mention the charge that emails were deleted by the millions in order to thwart Scotland Yard's investigation.

All of this surrounding a man and a media empire with no serious rivals for political influence in Britain--especially, but not exclusively, among the conservative Tories who currently run the country. Almost every prime minister since the Harold Wilson era of the 1960s and '70s has paid obeisance to Murdoch and his unmatched power. When Murdoch threw his annual London summer party for the United Kingdom's political, journalistic, and social elite at the Orangery in Kensington Gardens on June 16, Prime Minister Cameron and his wife, Sam, were there, as were Labour leader Ed Miliband and assorted other cabinet ministers.

Murdoch associates, present and former--and his biographers--have said that one of his greatest long-term ambitions has been to replicate that political and cultural power in the United States. For a long time his vehicle was the New York Post--not profitable, but useful for increasing his eminence and working a wholesale change not only in American journalism but in the broader culture as well. Page Six, emblematic in its carelessness about accuracy or truth or context--but oh-so-readable--became the model for the gossipization of an American press previously resistant to even considering publishing its like. (Murdoch had already accomplished a similar debasement of the airwaves in the 1990s with the--tame by today's far-lower standards--tabloid television show Hard Copy.)

Then came the unfair and imbalanced politicized "news" of the Fox News Channel--showing (again) Murdoch's genius at building an empire on the basis of an ever-descending lowest journalistic denominator. It, too, rests on a foundation that has little or nothing to do with the best traditions and values of real reporting and responsible journalism: the best obtainable version of the truth. In place of this journalistic ideal, the enduring Murdoch ethic substitutes gossip, sensationalism, and manufactured controversy.

And finally, in 2007 The Wall Street Journal's squabbling family owners succumbed to his acumen, willpower, and money, fulfilling Murdoch's dream of owning an American newspaper to match the influence and prestige of his U.K. holding, The Times of London--one that really mattered, at the topmost tier of journalism.

Between the Post, Fox News, and the Journal, it's hard to think of any other individual who has had a greater impact on American political and media culture in the past half century.

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