The brusque old Australian has lived his entire adult life at the centre of the global media, buying and cajoling and manipulating. Only now has he been forced to look back upon his life, like a latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge, and judge its larger worth.
For a few fleeting moments at a British inquiry into media excesses, media mogul Rupert Murdoch admitted something he had been loath to say before: that his reputation, and that of his media empire, may have been permanently damaged by the rot at the core of his British newspapers.
“I think historically, this whole business of the News of the World is a serious blot on my reputation [and]it’s going to be a blot on my reputation for the rest of my life,” he said of the culture of eavesdropping, phone-tapping and bribery at Britain’s largest-circulation newspaper, which he was forced to close down last year amid arrests of editors and reports of hundreds of ruined lives.
“I have to say that I failed,” Mr. Murdoch said. “And I am very sorry about it.”
Yet, almost as soon as he uttered these words of contrition, the famously hands-on media mogul was denying any role in the scandals, or anything more than a passing interest in his British newspapers. Like the Cheshire Cat, he was somehow in the centre of the picture, yet left nothing but a beguiling smile.
The News of the World, he claimed repeatedly, was a paper whose activities were far beyond the horizon of his attention. In fact, British newspapers just didn’t interest him much.
Mr. Murdoch insisted that not only was he not responsible for the culture of subterfuge and illegality that dominated the News of the World and the Sun for many years, but that in fact he was one of the tabloid’s many victims.
There had, he said, been a “culture of cover-up” at the paper, and added that he had been deceived by the paper’s editors and lawyers. “There is no question in my mind that maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that, someone, took charge of a cover-up, which we were victim to and I regret,” he said.
He claimed that he’d had so little to do with the paper that its editor, Colin Myler, and lawyer, Tom Crone, had been able to conceal thousands of cases of spying, phone hacking and bribery from him and cover up his attempts at an investigation. Mr. Crone issued a statement Thursday calling this “a shameful lie.”
Not only that, but at one point Mr. Murdoch complained, without a trace of irony, that he had been “under duress” because of the hordes of “journalists and paparazzi and microphones” following him. “I mean, I was being harassed,” he said of the tabloid reporters who have followed him this week. “I had another 20 or so outside my apartment this morning.”
It’s hardly the Rupert Murdoch the world knew – a man well known for barking down the phone at his editors on a daily basis, dictating the contents of headlines and editorials, choosing the political heroes and villains to be splashed across the front pages. “When I’m around,” he confessed in 1980, shortly after taking control of the Times of London, “I interfere a bit too much.”
And indeed, editors of his tabloids were quick to say it wasn’t the Rupert Murdoch they knew, not even at the height of the period of bribery, political influence-buying and phone hacking at the centre of this inquiry.
“For all of his News of the World black sheep strategy today,” the paper’s former public-relations chief Hayley Barlow said, “is this the same man who once stormed into our editorial conference after we had won a raft of industry awards, fawning all over NOTW execs: ‘Bloody great paper, bloody great journalists, keep it going … it’s just bloody great.’”
Mr. Murdoch’s testimony comes only days before the parliamentary culture committee is due to publish its report into the tabloid scandal. Reports say that Mr. Murdoch and his son James, who ran the empire’s British operations until he quit this year, will face harsh criticism for creating and overseeing a culture of corruption.
Indeed, there were signs of discord within the Murdoch family. At several points, Rupert Murdoch, 81, suggested that James had been “pretty inexperienced” when he was running the British media operations.
In fact, when asked about widespread claims that he had tried to cover up the full extent of the tabloid spying operations, he claimed that his son and other managers had kept him so oblivious to the rot in the papers that it had hit him as a sudden shock, forcing him to abandon a major British TV deal and shut down the News of the World.
When news broke that teenage murder victims and members of the Royal Family had been bugged by the paper, he said: “I could feel the blast coming in through my window, and I panicked – but I’m glad I [closed the paper] I am sorry I didn’t close it years before.”