Book review: How Murdoch has spread corruption

October 1, 2012

Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation & the Corruption of Britain
Tom Watson & Martin Hickman
Penguin Books 2012,
360 pages, £20.00

This book provides much needed background information to the Levenson inquiry, which investigated the phone hacking scandal of Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers and its cast of characters.

Thoroughly footnoted and indexed, it is a detailed account of the unravelling of the “web of corruption” spun by the British Murdoch press, a web that spread from London’s police force to Downing Street. It provides a window into how, in the authors' words, “Murdoch's enforcers imposed their will through blackmail corruption and intimidation”.

One of the authors, Tom Watson, is a British Labour MP. In 2009, he was accused by the Murdoch press of being a perpetrator in what was known as the “Damian Gate” affair, a plan to smear Conservative MPs David Cameron and George Osborne with salacious gossip concerning drugs and prostitutes.

It was the second time Watson would experience the full brunt of the Murdoch tabloid machine. It devastated Watson's life and, in so doing, created one of Murdoch's most potent enemies, a politician game to stand up to News International (NI).

Watson was no fan of Tony Blair. In August 2006, together with other junior Labour ministers, he wrote to Blair demanding he set a date to step down as prime minister. Blair was furious, but, with waning support from Labour, finally gave in.

The political editor of Murdoch's Sun newspaper informed Watson that its then-editor, Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) would never forgive Watson for what he did to her friend Tony Blair. The Sun immediately labelled Watson the ringleader of “a plotting gang of weasels”. This was the beginning of her relentless press campaign against Watson.

Blair had a close relationship with Murdoch, later becoming the godfather of Murdoch's child. Before Labour was elected to government in 1997, Blair assured Murdoch that if New Labour won, there would be no repeal of Thatcher's anti-union labour laws.

In office, Blair resisted any regulation of the media by his government and relaxed cross-media ownership. Murdoch's British papers supported Blair and Labour through three consecutive governments. With Blair gone, the Murdoch press put its support behind the Conservatives and Cameron.

Watson returned as a cabinet minister under Gordon Brown in 2007. In 2009, the ill-conceived smear campaign against Cameron and Osborne instigated by Brown's spin doctor, Damian McBride, would soon give NI the ammunition it needed.

McBride's emails were intercepted by a political blogger and leaked to the Murdoch press. One email mentioned Watson, but Watson claims he was never in on the plan.

When the Murdoch press was finished however, Watson had become ringleader again. By now, says Watson, in the public's eyes he was a reviled “Brown toady and a thug”. The Murdoch press clamoured for Brown to sack Watson. Instead, Watson removed himself to the backbench where he could sue NI without conflict of interest.

At the same time, Watson joined the cross-parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport committee. Several months later, the committee would be investigating the News of the World for phone hacking and, by last year, Rupert Murdoch himself.

Murdoch and son James were forced to appear before the committee to answer questions about illegal phone hacking at NoW.

Watson's success relied heavily on the work of investigative journalist Nick Davies, a Guardian reporter. Before the 2007 conviction of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and NoW's reporter Clive Goodman for illegal phone hacking and conspiracy, Davies had written Flat Earth News, a book about Fleet street's use of private investigators like Mulcaire to illegally obtain individuals' bank statements, criminal records and mobile phone records for their stories.

Shortly after the conviction, Davies received information from a Metropolitan Police senior official about the extent of the material and names in Mulcaire's notes. Mulcaire's victims numbered in their hundreds (132 names are listed in the book's appendices).

The influence of NI at the highest levels of the police was such that the police sat on the evidence and did nothing for years, not even to inform the other victims. The book explores compelling information within that evidence of possible criminality at the highest levels of NI and other UK papers.

The official line that NoW gave in its defence of phone hacking was that there was just “one rogue reporter”. Davies would help blow that defence away.

Meanwhile, the government readily accepted NI's excuse while MPs continued their cosy relationships with the Murdochs and NI editors like Brooks.

Another key player was Mark Lewis, a suburban Manchester lawyer. Mulcaire was publicly convicted of illegally hacking the phones of eight people: three victims worked for the royal family, the rest worked in sport, business, politics and fashion.

Lewis contacted the other five hacking victims to see if they wanted to pursue an invasion of privacy civil claim. Only one was interested, Gordon Taylor, a football union executive.

Initially, the police refused to hand over Mulcaire's notes to Lewis who finally had to get a court order. The evidence was damning.

In 2008, NI settled the Taylor case out of court for an enormous sum approved by James Murdoch to keep Taylor quiet lest the public find out there was more than one rogue reporter working for NI papers.

There followed a series of hacking victims' cases against NI, doggedly pursued by Lewis, that finally led to the untenable state of the “one rogue reporter” defence and to the resignation of James Murdoch from NI when his denial of knowledge of phone hacking could no longer be maintained.

The weight of mounting evidence of corruption also forced PM Cameron to set up the Levenson Inquiry into the press in July last year and forced the Metropolitan Police to set up three separate investigations into police corruption. The Levenson Inquiry continues to uncover evidence of the collusion between the Murdochs and the government, notably around the tender for BSkyB.

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt had improperly lobbied for and was ready to approve News Corp's tender for BSkyB, Britain's largest satellite TV network. Owning a majority in BSkyB would have given Murdoch even greater control of British media.

In Britain, Murdoch already owns 50% of the news media and with it was able to heavily influence not just government decisions but also those of the police. In Australia, Murdoch owns 70% of the news, and — since cross-media ownership was significantly relaxed in 2006 under the Howard government pay TV, publishing houses and websites.

The authors point out that Murdoch honed his skills when he took over his father's single Adelaide newspaper, The News. His uncompromising tactics and scant regard for ethics would take Murdoch a long way in the news business.

The authors detail numerous instances that led to Murdoch becoming notorious for breaking promises in relation to business deals. They found it incredulous that Hunt would accept such promises to push through the BSkyB deal.

Truth is not a strong feature of Murdoch's most profitable tabloid papers, which print a daily stream of gossip and sensationalism bound up with a sustained attack on whichever political policies or politicians are on the nose with Murdoch.

In the book, former editors discuss how Murdoch, who has admitted to taking a personal editorial interest in all his papers, calls them daily and how that kind of intimidation influences editorial choices.

The upside of the phone-hacking scandal has been more public awareness of the influence of Murdoch over British politics. The outcome will no doubt lead to a strengthening of the UK media watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission, with beefed-up enforcement capabilities.

Murdoch may not be successful in controlling BSkyB should that remain a possibility after Ofcom, the UK independent regulator and competition authority, hands down its verdict, especially if Rupert is found to be “not a fit and proper person” to hold a media licence. If so, there should be renewed pressure on the Australian government to conduct a proper investigation of News Corporation.

A good place to start would be with a leaked transcript to New Idea in 1993, which was duly published and could, therefore, be legally re-printed in all the Murdoch-owned British tabloids. The transcript was of a very private phone conversation between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles.

No investigation was made at the time into how the Murdoch-owned magazine came to have the transcript. It was obtained by illegal phone tapping and New Idea claimed they had evidence of authenticity.

Former Greens MP Bob Brown called for such an investigation both then and now. To pretend that there is nothing to investigate in Australia beggars belief.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard often attributes her unpopularity to the unrelenting negative coverage given to her by the media, but failed to set up a meaningful inquiry. The Australian, which sets the daily political agenda for the media, has publicly declared war on the Greens, brazenly showing its inherent bias.

Where are the courageous Australian whistleblowers and investigative journalists to tell what they know of corruption in the long history of the Murdoch press in Australia? Please step up.

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