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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 16, New Delhi, April 3, 2021

When Truth Defeated Murdoch | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 2 April 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch
by Nick Davies

Publishers: Vintage Books, London; Pages 444; Price: 14.99 pounds

FOR too long he was considered invincible. The Australia-born American media mogul was all too powerful, who thought he could make and unmake governments — if nowhere else certainly in Britain. And his was a vast empire. Murdoch owned (and still does) hundreds of local, national and international publishing outlets including The Sun and The Times in the UK, The Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the US and The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and The Australian in Australia. His UK stable also had the tabloid, News of the World.

Like it often does, the struggle against Murdoch in Britain began with a small story. The Royal Correspondent of the News of the World had been caught in 2006 listening in on Buckingham Palace voicemails. He went to prison and the case was closed. People forgot all about it in no time. But author Nick Davies of The Guardian felt there was a lot more to the story. He began to dig.

Uncovering what went on in Murdoch’s empire, particularly in the News of the World, was easier said than done. Murdoch and his senior journalists enjoyed close proximity to the powers that be in Britain where the popular impression was that no government could be formed without his blessings. Davies quickly learnt that the Royal Correspondent was not a case of a rogue reporter but that the entire news system in the News of the World was based on illegal phone tapping and other clandestine operations.

Among those targeted were the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the former wife of Prince Andrew, Sarah Ferguson. There were many other celebrities too; as for ordinary folks, the list seemed endless. Many people had been reduced to psychological wrecks after their private lives were needlessly exposed. Most unfortunately, the Scotland Yard — Murdoch journalists bribed some police officers, says the book — as well as the government besides watchdogs like the Press Complaints Commission equally did not want the truth to emerge.

But years of dogged persistency paid off. Layer after layer of untruth began to crumble, slowly but steadily. Behind the veneer of official secrecy and public denial, the police knew a very great deal about the crimes being committed by powerful newspapers. Even the Police National Computer had been misused. At the home of one journalist police found 15 internal phone directories from the royal household, all of them confidential, some containing sensitive details of the private phone lines of the royals as well as security plans for the protection of the Kensington Palace.

As it faced the heat in courts where its ways of working could have got badly exposed, Murdoch’s representatives bought silence with huge payoffs. But it did not help. It took more years for the whole truth to come tumbling out. Scores of media victims complained about blackmail, bullying, malice, invasion of privacy and toxic falsehood. There was plenty of rule bending and lawbreaking. A picture emerged of a rogue corporation which thrived because of ruthless unethical practices — all that counted was the bottom line. When the terrible stint became public, it virtually triggered an uprising in Britain against Murdoch, seriously damaging his reputation and forcing him to shut down the News of the World for good. Several of its senior journalists were jailed. Murdoch’s UK firm was forced to pay compensation or damages to 718 victims of its sly journalism.

Davies’ book, which appeared a few years ago, is a gripping and powerful read also because it speaks of the rightwing politics Murdoch’s enterprises are known to espouse. Murdoch journalists constantly called for freedom from regulation. His senior journalists would all sing “from the same song sheet on the virtues of deregulated free markets ... wherever Murdoch owns outlets”. The state, they would say, should cut back and make way for free enterprise.

The author warns that while the ruling elite can abuse power all day long in a tyranny, the rules are somewhat different in a democracy. “It needs concealment like a vampire needs the dark. As soon as a corporation or a trade union or a government or any arm of the state is seen to be breaking the rules, it can be attacked, potentially embarrassed, conceivably stopped.”

What are the dangers of giving in to large corporations who constantly speak of efficient private enterprise? Davies warns: “When you allow global corporations to roam global markets, you make them more powerful than nation states; you ‘roll back the state’, you reduce the power of the people in each nation; when you ‘cut back regulation’, you allow the biggest corporation to dominate and exploit territories; when you break up trade unions and tear up employment laws, you allow those corporations to ride roughshod over those who work for them.” The end result: Life is reduced to labour, violence is justified, funds for schools and hospitals are cut, crime and alienation flourish, and millions are thrown into the deep pit of unemployment.

And while The Guardian started to expose Murdoch’s world, other sections of the media largely kept quiet, till the very fag end. “It is an odd thing about newspapers, that they live by exposure, yet they keep their own world concealed,” he says. In the case of the now dead News of the World, it was worse: “While castigating anybody else who showed any special interest in sex, the News of the World’s own newsroom was bubbling with affairs and outbreaks of sexual harassment... The paper had always been keen to expose orgies, but former News of the World journalists describe some of their own office parties as a model of drug-fuelled sexual adventure.” And this tabloid was part of a media empire which made and unmade governments in Britain!

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