Margo Howard on “News Corpse”

Parliamentary hearings! Shaving cream pies! Accused axe murderers! Our inimitable columnist weighs in on the summer’s juiciest scandal yet

By popular demand (well, OK, two girlfriends asked what I thought) I am putting my reflections about l’affaire Murdoch into print. I don’t think you have to be in the news business to find the latest goings on mesmerizing. I haven’t been as glued to radio and TV since the Army-McCarthy hearings. And that was when I was in high school … so you see how long I’ve had to wait for a comparable drama.

Where to start? Anything Murdoch is such a rich vein to mine. One hilarity is that Murdoch’s premier downmarket American tabloid, the New York Post, has not printed one word about what the Brits would call “the troubles,” i.e., the universal outrage or the Parliamentary hearings about the Murdoch Company’s misbehavior. The Wall Street Journal, the News Corp’s “respectable” paper, had one kid gloves interview with him, and all Fox News has said is basically: Afghanistan is hideous, the economy’s a mess, and we’re talking about a little phone hacking? As Jon Stewart pointed out, the Post hed-writers (famous for great, trashy eye-catchers like “Headless Man in Topless Bar”) must feel emasculated. Stewart is quite certain they would have loved to run “News Corpse,” in 40 point type when the hacking whistle-blower was found dead. (P.S. re the Wall Street Journal: the dysfunctional Bancroft family, who sold the paper to Murdoch, announced they were now sorry they had sold. Had they known what he would do to the paper, yada yada. Well, if I knew what he would do to the paper, why didn’t they? I must say this reminded me of Madeleine Albright “discovering” she was Jewish, when I had the exact same thought: If I knew she was Jewish, why didn’t she?) But I digress.

James, the Murdoch kid who testified with his father, was not meant to be the heir apparent. His brother Lachlan, said to be devoted to his father, felt he could never operate independently, so he took himself to Australia … pretty much as far away as one can get. There, granted, he runs the News Corp media outlets, but at least he is left alone. The kid who is said to be smarter than either of her brothers is Elisabeth (coincidentally in my daughter’s class at Vassar, as long as we are playing Six Degrees of Rupert Murdoch.) Elisabeth got sick of the whole family dynamic and left her News Corp employment. She did, however, accept $650 million of News International funds to start a film company. This is now being looked at because, even though the Murdoch family owns a giant share, they are a public company. Expect some stockholder suits in the near future; they are already in the works. The British position is that the company has been used as a “candy jar” for the family. In addition, bribes to various undesirables are not deductable, so there’s another governance/legal problem.

Another digression: One of the private investigators hired by Our Miss Brooks is – literally – an alleged ax murderer. This especially caught my attention because, for years when I’ve wanted to describe a really terrible person, I would say, “He’s an ax murderer” — admittedly a hyperbolic and metaphorical statement. Well, this person, a Mr. Rees, is now awaiting trial because his business partner, with whom it goes without saying he’d had a falling out, was found in a parking lot with an ax in the back of his head.

People in the news business have long known that Murdoch was cutthroat and disreputable. An odd personal connection (and proof that his reputation had preceded him) is that my mother, the late Ann Landers, was based at the Chicago Sun-Times. She had an unusual contractual stipulation that, were the paper to be sold a second time, she was free to leave the paper (and her contract). When “young” Marshall Field (my contemporary) was essentially forced to sell the paper by his half brother, Ted Field, a group no one had ever heard of bought it. That was a brief proprietorship, and they, in turn, sold to Murdoch. This was in 1984 and my mother was outta there – and right into the welcoming arms of the Chicago Tribune … where, waiting for her, was the revered Mike Royko, who also would not work for Murdoch. (He had left the sister paper, the Chicago Daily-News, for which I worked.)

Regarding the idea that an editor-in-chief could have been in the dark about illegal acts and payments, all the news people I’ve talked to find that declaration somewhere between ludicrous and highly improbable. This leads me to the indelicate accusation of perjury on the part of both James and Rebekah Brooks, she of the much commented on, extremely long Lucille Ball red curls, and not quite the face to go with it. Because the under-the-table payments were in the millions of pounds and dollars, it is a pretty good bet that Rupert knew – not only because he was known as a hands-on manager, but that kind of money is clearly outside a city room’s budget. I liked when Brooks, who is known to be tough as a tank, used the now-famous passive defense: “Mistakes were made.” Somewhere. By someone.

While this is not actionable (I don’t think,) Murdoch Sr. said he “never influences his papers.” Well, please. That’s the reason he has them. And television stations. He did not get to be a big political player, in more than one country, by not “influencing his papers.” There is now talk that Fox News had the listening habit, as well. The FBI is pursuing this. With Roger Ailes being the paranoid and principle-free head of that operation, plus a former employee talking about the basement “brain room,” chances are good that Murdoch will have to throw him over the side – this man he actually loves. That is interesting because the whole family, now including Wendi, she of the swift left hook, can’t stand Ailes (who, by the way, is sure someone wants to kill him.) Either by choice or mandate, there’s a good possibility Fox News may have to be sold. They could also have their license lifted, should the hacking charge be proved over here.

The appearance before the parliamentary committee was most interesting and much analyzed. Most people thought Murdoch, Sr. looked doddering and unsure. There was one film clip where he started to doze. He is 80, after all, and could have lived without being called on the carpet – on television, yet — for paying off politicians, police, and breaking several laws. He wound up saying he “was ashamed and humbled … but not responsible.”

And I am Marie of Romania. The BBC deployed their wicked sense of humor by saying the committee hearing was just a high level “Bring Your Son to Work Day.”

The thing with the “pie” was interesting to me, and I guess a few other commentators. There were an estimated 50 people allowed into the gallery to witness the hearings. Would no one have noticed, say, a man sitting with a pie plate in his lap filed with white shaving foam? A measure of how dodgy the Murdochs are thought to be is that it was immediately thought that the “pie” was a planned action to elicit sympathy, and perhaps disturb the line of questioning. (Another Chicago connection, another digression.) The PR firm (who may or may not have dreamed up the pie thing) representing the Murdochs is Edelman Worldwide, now the largest PR firm in the world. Dan and Ruth Edelman were friends of my parents and I knew them as a teenager. The business is now run by their son, Richard. It is hard to imagine that this small Chicago firm turned into the little PR firm that could.

Maybe because of the work I do, I could not help thinking about Anna Murdoch – his former wife of 31 years. She had been his secretary, for whom he divorced Wife #1. She is the mother of the grown children. I am guessing she is ambivalent about all of this. The old gaffer, now 80, left her for a woman who is now 42. While she may be experiencing schadenfreude about the troubles of her old human Sharpei, it is also her son who has been led into this mess, which, in turn, may lead to jail. It is thought possible that both Rebekah and James may do a turn in Newgate (their Alcatraz).

I have met Rupert Murdoch, and our brief encounter was interesting to me then, and it is interesting to me now. I was living in California, and there was a party at Barry Diller’s house in honor of Murdoch. I do not recall the occasion. Maybe he’d bought Fox Studios? In any case, the informal receiving line was Diller, Murdoch, and an aide to Murdoch who whispered to him who everyone was. When it was my turn, he had clearly been clued in, and said to me, “I believe I work for your mother.” (Her lawyers, obviously, were working on her exit.) Cute, I thought; self-deprecating. And what really amazed me was that his social voice was extremely soft. He just didn’t sound like a ruthless, tough guy mogul and thug. But I knew then, as I know now, he carried a big stick. Whether or not he will have to relinquish it is yet to be determined. Or as we say in the news biz, TK. And God bless The Guardian.

For more on the resignations, arrests, and convictions of the News Corp. phone hacking scandal, click here

25 comments so far.

  1. avatar Jane2 says:

    God bless The Guardian indeed, and its independent board that runs the paper. And the Guardian itself gives credit to the New York Times, who kept the story alive when other papers were ignoring it.

  2. avatar calgal says:

    I’ve been following the phone hacking story on the Guardian’s website for years. I always wondered what the big deal was. Now we know. I echo the sentiment “God bless the Guardian”. How long has it been since we’ve seen good journalistic perseverance on an important political story? Do we have to go back to Watergate’s Bernstein and Woodward? I’ve lost faith in our press as an instrument of enlightenment. But the Guardian is giving me new hope. They turned the spotlight on the dark corners of their own industry. Britons and Americans may, as a result, finally wake up to the stupidity of letting any one person control so much media. You’re right, Margo. We all saw the consequence of letting Murdoch buy the Wall Street Journal. Why couldn’t the owning family, a family raised on journalistic ethics? Why couldn’t our government, supposedly on guard against undue influence? Oh, right, the government at the time was Republican, who eat up the one-sided garbage Murdoch dishes out through his Fox News. If there is justice, Murdoch’s empire will crumble in the UK and America, and there will once again be an ethical and free press.

  3. avatar Rain says:

    Just hoping that a woman doesn’t take the fall while the males walk free.

  4. avatar Bonnie O says:

    I beg to differ.  There has been widespread coverage of the Murdock hacking scandal on Fox News.  The hearings were covered live on Fox News as well as on MSNBC and CNN.  A reporter from The Guardian was one of several guests on The Charlie Rose program last evening.  He most certainly WAS NOT a non-biased participant … which should be acknowledged …as The Guardian is a Labor party newspaper.  However, this reporter towards the end of the show, did indicate that little was uncovered in the hearings and that knowledge or proof of the phone hacking (dating back to 2002)  cannot be linked to either of the Murdocks, personally, and certainly not to Dave Cameron, the PM.

    The story of the 2002 phone hacking is heartbreaking.  A murdered girl’s parents were given the false hope that their young daughter might still be alive because a NEWSCORP reporter was able to hack into the girl’s mobile phone, delete some of the messages in order to free up space in her voice mail … all in order to “listen” for any new incoming messages.  I wonder what punishment could fit this crime?  I could think of a few.

    As for the shaving cream pie incident …. whoever was that girl seated behind the Murdocks? She must have been a great athlete while in school.  She leaped to her left and was able to divert the pie from hitting Rupert Murdock in the face (some of the shaving cream landed on his suit jacket) but she also apparently really walloped the intruder.  And how did that guy get pass security into a Parliament building?   Hmmm.

    I know the political hungry are out there in hopes of harming the new Prime Minister.  Cameron did hire a NEWSCORP reporter who resigned in 2002 (about hacking???) as his press relation guy.  Bad judgment?  Perhaps.  But those on the LEFT want more, much more.

    It is healthy to remind ourselves the Britsh press and British politics are considered  ‘blood-sports’ in England.  Look what happened to former PM Tony Blair.  Shameful.

    • avatar Margo Howard says:

      Bonnie O – “the girl behind the Murdochs” was Mrs. Rupert Murdoch – Wendi Deng. She is 42.

      • avatar Bonnie O says:

        Thanks Margo.  As one who is very critical of married guys who divorce their wives of 20+ years in order to obtain a ‘trophy wife’, I read little of Mr. Murdoch’s divorce and remarriage to a much younger woman.  However, I do not think Wendi Deng could be categorized as a ‘trophy wife’.    She moved quickly at those hearings to defend her husband and she succeeded!  If that pie-thrower had a knife or a gun, I daresay Wendi would be headlined as a heroine.  Yet my personal sympathies are with the former wife.  Many an aging wife has had to contend with an aging husband who can too easily set aside family and honor to put into his bed a younger wife.  The first Mrs. Murdoch is not the first nor the last honorable wife to face this too frequent human condition.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        Oh, please. There probably is a pre-nup and he probably hasn’t paid the bills for the month. These things do matter, you know. Esepcially when you have the step-children she has. “Mini-Me” in particular. 

      • avatar Bonnie O says:

        Just more supposition on your part, Snooks.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        Just more tongue-in-cheek sarcasm about the “sleazeball du jour” although in this case it is the “sleazeball family du jour.”

  5. avatar pris says:

    OMG, this may be the best and most informative article I have read about Murdockgate. ‘Bring Your Son To Work Day’ is such an apt metaphor for the hearings. Thanks for the memories!

  6. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Rupert Murdoch is proof positive that the cosmos gets us all in the end if we don’t mind our manners so to speak. Hopefully the cosmos will get him 5-10 in Newgate.  Along with Mini-Me.”

    I am amazed and then appalled by the likes of Rudy Guiliani telling us all not to jump to conclusions. After all these years of absolutely documented evidence of a man hell-bent, and not doubt headed for hell, on obtaining as much power as possible by any means possible we don’t have to jump too far to come to the obvious conclusion.

    This is Rupert Murdoch’s second time at the rodeo at Parliament. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

    • avatar phyllis Doyle Pepe says:

      Rudy Gulliani once upon a time sang the praises of Bernie Kerik, the police chief now behind bars for corrupt dealings with corrupt thugs. Murdoch had many peckers in his pockets, and Rudy was one of them. Rumor has it that Bernie could give us a lot of skinny on Rubert.

      And wasn’t it Charlotte who spun “Humble Pig” into her web? Who knew she would be this prescient?

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I found it interesting that Rudy Guiliani cautioned us not to jump to conclusions which of course he expected every grand jury and every subsequent jury to do – presenting himself as Mr. Law Order while his “Right Hand Man” was Mr. Law and Disorder and part of the Mafia. And some people still admire him. For his “law and Order.” 

        He is a perfect example of what has happened to our system and how the system is used to connect vendettas against people either in retaliation or simply to provide a path to political position.  And the best example is the Helmsleys. Leona in particular. Didn’t believe in lining politician’s pockets. And was, sadly, quite honest as he found out when he hauled her in front of the Van Cleef & Arpels grand jury. She paid a flat price for her jewelry. It was their responsibility to pay the taxes. Not her responsibility to report them if they didn’t. And with that, well, he had hit pay dirt as they say. And played dirty.

        Neither the grand jury nor the jury were ever told that no IRS audit had been conducted. Or that when it had been conducted, the Helmsleys had overpaid their taxes by around $15 millon. Rather hard to evade around $1.5 million in taxes if you have overpaid your taxes by around $15 million. But, well, what are little details. No one liked Leona anyway, you know?

        Of course that leaves us wit the real legacy of Rudy Guliani and his “Law and Order” and what is known as trial by tabloid.  She was crucified in the tabloids. And when she began to counter what was being published, which tainted the jury pool, Rudy Guiliani got the judge to slap a gag order on them. While allowing the tabloids to conitnue to try her. The judge of course was George HW Bush’s cousin.  Gotta love the Bushes. There’s always one of them around whenever you need them, you know?

        No doubt one of them is around in this. Making sure no one goes too far with investigations. Something might pop out of the Pandora’s Box if it’s actually opened finally.

  7. avatar JCF4612 says:

    Fascinating … Amused by notation of Rebekah’s face not being quite in league with the tresses. But given her meteoric rise, can we assume she has talents other than a way with words? But then they always say that about women, not so much about men. 

    Margo, your mom was quite sage to change horses when she did, during that moment in time. What’s happened to Tribune Company since then would raise her eyebrows, no doubt, to the top of the Tower.
    .   

    • avatar pris says:

      Word on the street is that Rebekah looks remarkably like James Murdock.-minus the tresses, of course.

  8. avatar Laurie Deer says:

    It’s great to hear a non-pulverized media view on this situation. I chuckled when reading “He’s an ax-murderer” and how convoluted the Murdoch affair has become.

  9. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    This is one of those news stories that I am choosing to follow closely and feel the need to take a shower after hearing about it, again and again. It leaves me feeling as if I am swimming in slime. If it wasn’t for the deep and disturbing aspects to this soap opera, I would find it amusing, as so many others do.

    Rupert Murdoch from all I have read and seen is a despicable man. Forget his wealth, the fact that he is a serial cheater on his spouses is enough for me to dislike him! His under-handed business deals, how he became a U.S. citizen with ease, compared to the millions of others that could not…..that too gives me pause.  I don’t bemoan his acquiring so many news and media outlets, if I had the funds and business savvy I would too! Yet it is how he runs them that I find objectionable.

    So when I look at this story as it relates to the tapings, it isn’t something I write off as “Ha! Some rich guy finally getting his comeuppance”  Innocent lives have been ruined because of this. Careers have been ruined and tarnished. Guilt by association is now placed on the shoulders of those not deserving of it.  People are dead (both directly because and indirectly) because of this scandal. Vast amounts of money has been lost because of it. And worst of all, the paranoia that so many may have felt when it comes to whether or not “someone is listening in…..” now has some teeth to it.  I equate it to that feeling when you come home and you don’t know why, but there is this strange feeling someone has been in your home.

    Well now we all know not only can that actually happen, but it does happen.  It’s like the feeling we had September 10, 2001. “Those poor people over there have to deal with terrorists attacks….all those dead bodies and mayhem, thank God we never have that kind of stuff here in the U.S.” And then the next morning on September 11th and everything changed on a dime. How we thought about our safety, secuirty and trust changed in the blink of an eye. Its the same with this Murdoch situation. How do our reporters get the inside scoop on news stories? Who is really listening in on our calls and reading our emails? Can we really shrug it off and say no one?

    Nope, this story isn’t amusing for me. For me it is quite disturbing.        

  10. avatar nancy_b says:

    I urge every thinking person to inundate Fox News–How dare their staff and “guests” (usually somehow connected to the Murdoch empire) maintain that this scandal is not “newsworthy?” And–O’Reilly cutting off a World News employee who detailed the fact that, yes, people affected by the hacking incidents (like the parents of a murdered girl) might very well be upset by these practices. Please! Write! Tweet!

  11. avatar Deborah Key says:

    @Bonnie:

    Murdoch left Wife #1 for Wife #2.  He left Wife #2 for Wife #3(Wendi Deng).  So I wouldn’t feel too sorry for Wife #2.   She also remarried six months after the divorce. 

  12. avatar alice ruth says:

    I hope the investigation expands to Fox News and all other U.S. news outlets that have Murdock’s hand print on them.

  13. avatar Myndy says:

    How nice that all of you are so non-judgmental.