scandal-stained wretches

Can Hands-on Boss Rupert Murdoch Plausibly Deny Knowledge of Hacking at the News of the World?

When Rupert Murdoch appears before British Parliament tomorrow, he’ll face questions for the first time about the unfolding hacking scandal that has already derailed News Corp.’s $12 billion takeover of BSkyB while forcing the departure of two of the company’s senior-most newspaper executives, the top two police chiefs at Scotland Yard, and possibly Rupert’s son James (who will also face Parliament tomorrow). The principal question will surely be this: What did Rupert know about the hacking scandal at the News of the World? And when did he know it?

So far, there has been no evidence to directly tie the scandal to Rupert, and he’s attempted to contain it by accepting the resignation of News International CEO Rebekah Brooks and his longtime executive Les Hinton.

Undoubtedly, he will tell the House of Commons that he had no knowledge of the illegal hacking and bribery that was apparently rampant at the News of the World until 2006. As the head of a $40 billion global media conglomerate, Rupert will attempt to cast himself as too busy to have been aware of the journalistic crimes being committed in “a British corner” of his global empire (as a Wall Street Journal editorial that could have been written by Rupert himself put it today).

And yet, much of the Murdoch mythology is based on a far different picture: Rupert is the inveterate newspaperman who derives primal satisfaction from being intimately familiar with his newsrooms and the editors who run them. This was the portrait I saw when I profiled Rupert for New York in February 2010. At the time, he was ramping up to take on the New York Times by launching The Wall Street Journal’s metro section. A parade of sources reflected on Rupert’s love of newspapers and his involvement with them. “Until very recently he was seeing The Sun before it went to press every day,” one person close to Rupert told me then.

The idea that Rupert was completely in the dark about what was going on at the News of the World is contradicted by his long history of talking regularly with his editors, phoning in gossip, and strutting through his newsrooms. “He’s always been in love with newspapers,” former Sunday Times editor Harry Evans told me in 2010. Evans was forced out by Rupert in 1981 when he gained control of the Times of London. “He’s always had an affinity and understanding of what they are.”

This image is confirmed by Ken Auletta’s recent New Yorker profile of Journal editor Robert Thomson. In the article, Auletta reports that Thomson was Murdoch’s “best friend.” One senior Wall Street Journal staffer told me that Rupert would appear at the paper’s morning editorial meeting and sit quietly in the back. “I think people are so accustomed to it that it’s not so remarkable of a thing,” this source told me.

In many ways, Rupert has maintained a reporter’s instinct and uses newspapers to advance his agenda. In Vanity Fair in 2008, Michael Wolff observed Rupert working the phones trying to report on gossip about an aide to Hillary Clinton. Rupert had overheard a rumor at a dinner party that the aide was a partner in an online porn site. “Here was the old man, in white shirt, singlet visible underneath, doing one of the same basic jobs he’d been doing since he was 22, having inherited the Adelaide News in Australia from his father. And he was good at it. He was parsing each answer. Re-asking the question. Clarifying every point. His notepad going. He knew the trade. Of how many media-company C.E.O.’s could that be said? This wasn’t a destroyer of journalism — this was a practitioner.”

Rupert is not a detached executive. In his newsrooms, the culture is set from the top. After the Journal’s senior editorial writer Joseph Rago won the Pulitzer Prize this year — the first Pulitzer for the Murdoch-owned Journal — Rupert met with Rago to congratulate him. In the meeting Rupert also lectured Rago on “how much he hated the Pulitzer and how useless they are,” a source familiar with the exchange said. Rago told me Rupert “was very complimentary and very gracious just like everyone else at News Corp.” A Journal spokesperson followed up by e-mail to say it was “100 percent absolutely untrue” that Murdoch was uncomplimentary to Rago about his Pulitzer.

Whatever the case, Rupert took the time to meet one of his journalists. Whether he knew the journalists at the News of the World is another matter. Rupert is extremely close with Rebekah Brooks, who was editor at the time that some of the hacking and bribery allegations took place. He resisted Brooks’s resignation but ultimately cast her aside last week (with a rumored $5.6 million severance package) when the situation became untenable. What Brooks told Rupert and James about the inner workings of the paper will be an intense topic of scrutiny.

It seems that News Corp.’s strategy will center on isolating and containing the scandal to the News of the World. While there is now a federal probe investigating claims of hacking of 9/11 victims, so far no evidence has emerged. Much of the damage to Rupert’s domestic media properties has been PR fallout, after Fox News suggested the media should move on and the Journal published a bizarre “interview” with Murdoch last week, followed by today’s editorial page shot at the company’s critics.

Tomorrow, members of Parliament will surely challenge the notion that the hacking spree was confined solely to a rogue tabloid actor. Rupert will have to demonstrate that, after a lifelong passion for the newsroom, he detached himself from his journalists’ activities. It will be a hard sell.

Can Hands-on Boss Rupert Murdoch Plausibly Deny Knowledge of Hacking at the News of the World?