The phone-hacking scandal that is mushrooming in the UK, with arrests, skullduggery and influence peddling, would be a delicious story for the News of the World if it were not about the newspaper itself. Instead, the hunter became the hunted, and last Thursday Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp summarily slid the 168-year-old News of the World under a double-decker bus. Its final issue was on Sunday.
In the US, newspapers have been seen as an expensive hobby for Murdoch, the bane of News Corp’s shareholders, but as it turns out, the newspapers in the UK may end up being more costly to him in the long run.
So useful in wielding influence, if not producing revenues, his newspapers are the very thing that brought his company into the cross hairs, and delayed, at least temporarily, his efforts to expand it by gaining full control of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), the largest pay television company in the UK.
Logic and fairness would suggest that it was folly to concentrate so much power in the hands of someone who already controlled many national media assets. So where was the outrage?
Well, check who owns the megaphone. News Corp has historically used its four newspapers — it also owns the Sun, the Times of London and the Sunday Times — to shape and quash public debate, routinely helping to elect prime ministers with timely endorsements, while punishing enemies at every turn.
Do not take my word for it. After British Prime Minister David Cameron was elected, one of the first visitors he received at 10 Downing Street was Murdoch — discreetly through a back entrance — and Cameron spoke plainly last week about the corrosively close relationship.
“The truth is, we’ve all been in this together,” he said. “The press, the politicians and leaders of all parties.”
To which a dumb Yank like me might say: “Duh.”
The only thing Cameron did not do was point to Murdoch himself. However, he did not really have to after the tactical ruthlessness of Murdoch’s familiars was laid bare for all to see.
Newspapers, as anybody will tell you, are not what they used to be. Part of the reason that News Corp was willing to close down a paper with a circulation of about 2.7 million copies every Sunday was that its revenues were under US$1 billion. (News Corp’s heir apparent, James Murdoch, has always seemed eager to shed some of the company’s newspapers, though I doubt that putting the nail gun to this paper was what he had in mind.)
Still, how did we find out that a British tabloid was hacking thousands of voicemails of private citizens? Not from the British government, with its wan, inconclusive investigations, but from other newspapers.
Think of it. There was Murdoch, tying on a napkin and ready to dine on the other 60 percent of BSkyB that he did not already have. However, just as he was about to swallow yet another tasty morsel, the hands at his throat belonged to, yes, newspaper journalists.
Newspapers, it turns out, are still powerful things and not just in the way that Murdoch has historically deployed them.
The Guardian stayed on the phone-hacking story like a dog on a meat bone, acting very much in the British tradition of a crusading press and goosing the story back to life after years of dormancy. Other papers, including the New York Times, reported executive and police complicity that gave the lie to the company’s “few bad apples” explanation. As recently as last week, Vanity Fair broke stories about police complicity.
Murdoch, ever the populist, prefers his crusades to be built on chronic ridicule and bombast. However, as the Guardian has shown, the steady accretion of fact — an exercise Murdoch has historically regarded as bland and elitist — can have a profound effect. His corporation may be able to pick governments, but holding them accountable is also in the realm of newspaper journalism, an earnest concept of public service that has rarely been of much interest to him.
The coverage last week, on a suddenly fast-moving story that had been moving only in increments, destabilized the ledge that News Corp had been standing on. James Murdoch regretted everything and took responsibility for almost nothing. What looked like an opportunity for him to prove his mettle as a manager of crisis may yet engulf him.
Andy Coulson, the former editor of News of the World, who became the chief spokesman for Cameron, has been arrested.
And Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International and previous editor of News of the World, responded by saying that it was “inconceivable” that she knew of the hacking.
I would suggest it was inconceivable she did not know, given the number of hacking targets. What editor does not know where her stories come from, especially stories chock full of highly private, delicious conversations. Did Brooks think they were borne in through the window by magic fairies?
There are many theories about why she still has a job.
Here is one: A longtime Murdoch associate who spoke to him last week — and who did not want to be identified passing along a private conversation — said: “The more people call for her ouster, the more he will dig in. He is one of the most resilient CEOs on Earth.”
That opportunity may yet arise: On Friday, Brooks met with the staff of News of the World and obliquely told them that a component of the criminal investigation would lead to “a very dark day for this company” and make it clear why the paper had to close.
For the longest time, the phone-hacking scandal was viewed as an intramural affair in which celebrities, royals and the people who hounded them slugged it out, with law enforcement mostly serving as a bystander. Everyone had fun with Fleet Street’s swashbuckling ways, right up until one of the buckles came undone to reveal that a 13-year-old murder victim and the families of dead soldiers were getting the same treatment as those residing in Buckingham Palace.
Only then did the public come off the sidelines, perhaps realizing that it was no longer OK to condemn the gossip gatherers while feasting on their daily morsels. Forget the government inquiries into the conduct of the press, the public itself seems to have had its fill.
The global implications for News Corp are tougher to discern. Will damage jump the pond and hurt the company’s US operations or just be seen as a Piccadilly sideshow?
Americans might see a parallel between Fox News’ willingness to set up sinecures for Republican presidential candidates in waiting — Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum — and Andy Hayman’s trip from head of the hacking investigation at Scotland Yard to columnist for News International, for which he has written in the Times that the phone scandal was confined to “perhaps a handful” of hacking victims.
News Corp’s Wall Street Journal has played it straight and acquitted itself nicely in covering its British siblings. However, there are yet risks on the US side of the Atlantic. Before he became head of the Journal, Les Hinton was chairman of News International, Murdoch’s British newspaper arm, and twice testified before the British Parliament that the company had conducted an internal investigation into the phone-hacking incidents.
In his second appearance before Parliament, he said the company had gone to “extraordinary lengths” to make certain the incidents had been confined to Clive Goodman, who was then the Royals reporter for News of the World.
That did not turn out to be the case.
As someone who has weathered time in the public stockade time and again, Murdoch surely remains confident that he will prevail. He dearly wants the rest of BSkyB and history says he always gets what he wants. However, even for someone who has remained immune to consequence for so long, the hacking scandal has implications that may ripple beyond the shores of England — in part because Murdoch no longer has custody of the story.
In truth, a kind of “British Spring” is under way, now that News Corp’s tidy system of punishment and reward has crumbled. Members of Parliament, no longer fearful of retribution in Murdoch’s tabloids, are speaking their minds and giving voice to the anger of their constituents. Meanwhile, social media has roamed wild and free across the story, punching a hole in the tiny clubhouse that had been running the country. Democracy, aided by sunlight, has broken out in the UK.
Chinese strongman Xi Jinping (習近平) hasn’t had a very good spring, either economically or politically. Not that long ago, he seemed to be riding high. The PRC economy had been on a long winning streak of more than six percent annual growth, catapulting the world’s most populous nation into the second-largest power, behind only the United States. Hundreds of millions had been brought out of poverty. Beijing’s military too had emerged as the most powerful in Asia, lagging only behind the US, the long-time leader on the global stage. One can attribute much of the recent downturn to the international economic
An outrageous dismissal of the exemplary Taiwanese fight against COVID-19 has been perpetrated by the EU. There is no excuse. I presume that everyone who reads the Taipei Times knows that the EU has excluded Taiwan from its so-called “safe list,” which permits citizens unhindered travel to and from the countries of the EU. As the EU does not feel that it needs to explain the character of this exclusive list, perhaps we should examine it ourselves in some detail. There are 14 nations on the list that have been chosen as safe countries of origin and safe countries of destination for
Filmmakers in Taiwan used to struggle when it came to telling a story that could resonate internationally. Things started to change when the 2017 drama series The Teenage Psychic (通靈少女), a collaboration between HBO Asia and Taiwanese Public Television Service (PTS), became a huge hit not just locally, but also internationally. The coming-of-age story was adapted from the 2013 PTS-produced short film The Busy Young Psychic (神算). Entirely filmed in Taiwan, the Mandarin-language series even made it on HBO’s streaming platforms in the US. It is proof that a well-told Taiwanese story can absolutely win the hearts and minds of hard-to-please