Inside Story

The Digger and the dirt

The next casualties of Britain’s phone-hacking controversy could come from the media, politics or the police. But whoever falls next, it probably won’t be good news for the business interests of Australia’s most influential American citizen, writes Frank Bongiorno in London

Frank Bongiorno 2 February 2011 2105 words

Rupert Murdoch, whose News of the World is at the centre of the growing phone-hack controversy. World Economic Forum

THEY still call him “the Digger” here in London, more often the “Dirty Digger,” so it just wouldn’t ring true if he were called an American media tycoon. But in that respect, the British are not so very different from Australians.

After all, the ABC’s annual Boyer Lectures are, according to its website, an occasion when the board “invites a prominent Australian... to present six radio lectures expressing their thoughts on major social, cultural, scientific or political issues.” Yet the Boyer Lecturer for 2008 was a United States citizen. “I appreciate that many Australians will debate whether I still have the right to call myself one of you,” Rupert Murdoch (almost) apologised.

But it is neither the Australian nor the American province of the Murdoch empire that has become the biggest media story in recent weeks – even if the role of the unlovely Fox News in US public life haunts every debate about News Corp’s global power. Rupert was in London last week, having cancelled a plan to attend the latest Davos talkfest (the World Economic Forum). In a rare appearance, he even attended the morning editorial conference of the Times at Wapping.

Rupert is here because all is not well. Indeed, all has not been well at the Murdoch rag, the News of the World, for some years. Back in early 2007, the paper’s royal reporter, Clive Goodman, received a four-month gaol term. He and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who also went to prison for a few months, were found to have intercepted the phone messages of three courtiers in the royal household. Mulcaire was being paid more than £100,000 a year for this dirty work but News Corp maintained that the hacking was an isolated incident, a bad apple in a wholesome barrel.

In order to underline just how truly wholesome the News of the World was, its young editor at the time, Andy Coulson – working-class Essex lad made good – announced that the paper would make a large donation to charities nominated by the two princes, William and Harry, whose private affairs were of such intense interest. Coulson subsequently resigned, but was quickly picked up as his director of communications by none other than the opposition leader at the time, David Cameron. Eton Boy evidently believed that Essex Boy would help the Tories reach tabloid-reading types – and, incidentally, that having the former Murdoch lieutenant aboard the Good Ship Cameron would be a very useful line of communication to Rupert and family. Coulson seemed to have done his job well when the Sun, the most popular of the “red tops” – as Britain’s execrable scandal sheets are called – announced in September 2009 that it would be supporting the Tories in the general election.

The story that the phone-hacking affair was the work of a “rogue reporter” sounded rather like what the British so evocatively call “bollocks.” But the News of the World and its parent company stood by its convenient fiction; and, unlike the rest of us, it had the finance to give this self-serving version of events some legs. Some of the aggrieved, such as the publicist Max Clifford and the chief executive of the Football Association, Gordon Taylor, reputedly received out-of-court settlements of many hundreds of thousands of pounds. But others refused either to go away or to keep their mouths shut: Sienna Miller, the actress, and Paul Gascoigne, the footballer, are among those suing for invasion of their privacy. Every day brings new claims from people who believe their messages have been hacked, Miller’s stepmother Kelly Hoppen even claiming to have been targeted during the last twelve months. Some estimates now run to between 1000 and 2000 possible victims.

Just before Christmas, court documents came to light that blew apart the claim that phone-hacking had been the work of a single rogue. These showed that News of the World’s assistant editor, Ian Edmondson, was also involved. He was suspended; and News International, News Corp’s subsidiary company, belatedly announced an internal enquiry. Edmondson has since been sacked but the private investigator, Mulcaire, has appealed a court decision forcing him to reveal the names of journalists who paid him for his phone-hacking.

The scandal has been dripping for years – largely as a result of investigative reporting by the Guardian – and occasionally threatening to turn into the great gush that has now swept so much debris before it. Given Murdoch’s domination of the British media, the exposure of illegal activity by his company’s reporters would be a big story in its own right. A few Labour politicians, a journalist here and there, clearly fantasise about putting Digger himself in the dock, or at least before a parliamentary inquiry. And even if either of those prospects seems rather dim, that the scandal has the potential to do Murdoch considerable damage is now beyond doubt.

It has already damaged Cameron and his government. While Coulson took responsibility for the royal phone-hacking by resigning as editor, he has consistently denied that he had any knowledge of what his reporter – or the well-paid private investigator – were up to. Even now, no evidence has come to light that Coulson knew what was happening. But the Guardian cites anonymous sources at the News of the World who claim that Mulcaire was a significant and admired figure at a newspaper notorious for a “whatever it takes” approach to breaking stories.

For as long as the tale that this was an isolated case of woeful behaviour by a single journalist was the official version, it was possible for Coulson to argue that he could not really be blamed for what went on. But after it emerged that a senior news editor such as Edmondson was also involved, this position became untenable. When he resigned as Cameron’s director of communications on 21 January, Coulson explained that “when a spokesman needs a spokesman it’s time to move on.”

The Guardian clearly regards Coulson as its scalp, and hopes that it will be one among many. But what’s fascinating about this story is that it’s so hard to predict from where those scalps will come: the media, politics or the police. Or perhaps from all of them.

That the Metropolitan Police is entangled in this scandal is due in large part to what seems a rather casual attitude to investigating complaints about the phone-tapping. At a time when police have been revealed to be so conscientiously infiltrating peaceful protest groups with undercover agents – young patriots so devoted to the prevention of crime that some were prepared even to have sex with their targets in the line of duty – the Met’s interest in pursuing News of the World seems just a little lackadaisical. Senior executives appear not to have been questioned; complainants were brushed off and told to take up the problems with their phone companies; evidence pointing to the involvement of Edmondson, while apparently available to Sienna Miller’s lawyers and the Guardian, somehow managed to elude Mr Plod. In fact, it has been revealed that police had in their possession evidence pointing to many victims, not the few they claimed existed, as well as to the involvement of journalists other than Goodman. Yet they made no attempt to warn the targets that their phones had been hacked. Nor did they pursue others involved in hacking.

The police failed even to follow up the implications of the judge’s summing up in the Mulcaire case. The latter was found guilty not only of having hacked the phones of royal household members, but also of hacking five others. The judge concluded that in these instances, Mulcaire “had not dealt with Goodman but with others at News International.” Yet alarm bells apparently failed to ring at Scotland Yard. On the most benign reading, the matter went into the too-hard basket. Or else someone decided the News of the World and Murdoch were too useful or too powerful to be trifled with, especially when a scapegoat in Goodman had become available.

FOR Murdoch’s business interests, the explosion of the scandal is very poorly timed. It comes as News is attempting to persuade the British government that it should be permitted to buy the 61 per cent of the pay-television British Sky Broadcasting Group that it does not already own. This highly profitable company would be a cash-cow for Murdoch but the government needs to be convinced that his ownership of the company would not damage media plurality.

Murdoch’s chances of convincing the government appeared to receive a considerable boost before Christmas when the business secretary, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, was secretly recorded by two women posing as constituents – really reporters from the conservative Daily Telegraph – boasting, “I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we’re going to win.” Murdoch’s bid was still being considered by the regulator Ofcom, but Cable would eventually be the minister responsible for deciding whether to allow it. Having been publicly humiliated, Cable was stripped of responsibility for the matter, which was handed to the Tory culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Apparently the government didn’t regard Hunt’s own previous statements sympathetic to Murdoch’s bid as a case of his having pre-judged the issue in the way Cable had with his hostile comments.

This turn of events seemed very good for Murdoch. That might have been one reason why the Telegraph itself, which along with several other British media companies was lobbying against Murdoch’s bid, failed to break the story. It published other details of the interview with the two undercover journalists but for some reason neglected to mention Cable’s explosive comments about Murdoch. A disgruntled Telegraph employee, however, leaked them to the BBC, causing some observers to wonder whether, in all the attention given to Cable, two more important stories about the British media had been overlooked. One concerned the low ethical standards of the reporters. The other – and perhaps more serious – turned on the apparent willingness of a newspaper to bury a major story when it conflicted with its commercial interests – although the Telegraph hastened to add that it had intended breaking the story on another day.

Hunt has recently issued a public statement that News Corp’s bid for the rest of BSkyB “may operate against the public interest” but he has not referred it to the Competition Commission. Instead, he is seeking undertakings from News Corp that would preserve the independence of the company’s news service, rather as News promised when it acquired the Times back in the early 1980s.

The scandals of recent weeks make the Sky issue even more sensitive than it might otherwise have been. It has been revealed that David Cameron had a cosy dinner with at least two of Murdoch’s local lieutenants – son James and Rebekah Brooks – in Oxfordshire over Christmas. At a time when both the BSkyB and phone-hacking controversies were becoming more highly charged and, despite it all, Coulson remained at Number 10, the prime minister’s involvement in this “social” engagement appears astonishingly poor judgement.

And as if there were not already enough mines set to explode for these masters of the political and media universe, Sky was also in the headlines this week after two of its football commentators, Andy Gray and Richard Keys, were suspended for making sexist remarks about a female assistant referee. Footage also later came to light showing Gray inviting a female co-presenter to help him place a microphone down the front of his trousers. He was sacked.

In the editorial meeting at the Times attended by Murdoch – that’s the same Times whose independence from proprietorial interference was guaranteed in 1981 – the Digger responded to the latest farce by remarking that “this country has lost its sense of humour.” When someone pointed out that Sky had sacked Gray, Murdoch replied, “There are other reasons for sacking Andy Gray.” These “other reasons,” News Corp representatives later explained, were the microphone incident.

Their sensitivity to any possible misunderstanding is entirely understandable. Gray is suing the News of the World over the alleged hacking of his phone. •