What will it take for Rupert Murdoch to be held to account?

The media magnate had the British ruling class wrapped around his finger despite his company’s extensive use of phone hacking. When will MPs get angry enough to demand action?

May 03, 2024
Image: Alamy / Prospect
Image: Alamy / Prospect

Let’s imagine a bank—an ethically challenged one. Its staff have been accused of widespread criminality. It first tries to lie about it all, but that doesn’t matter too much because the police and regulator conveniently turn a blind eye. MPs run for cover; the media shrugs.

Eventually, the bad smell won’t go away. When it gets too pungent the cops decide to investigate—but before they can start work, tens of millions of emails are deleted. There’s suddenly less to investigate.

MPs begin to take an interest. The bank is worried and hires investigators to hack into their phone messages to find out what they might be up to.

Private investigators are quietly deployed to dig up any dirt on anyone who might get awkward. If there’s sleaze on a troublesome MP, it’s discreetly slipped to a friendly tabloid. Finish them off.

The timing couldn’t be worse: the bank’s in the middle of a big takeover deal. It hires a lobbyist to cosy up to the relevant big cheeses. Meanwhile, the surveillance continues. Can’t take a chance.

But the whiff gets stronger. The CEO is paid off. A cop or two fall on their swords. A few middle-ranking executives are thrown under the bus.

Fast forward: the deal doesn’t come off. For a while the stink is overpowering, but the bank has deep pockets and can afford to pay off any victims of criminality. Admit nothing: it will pass.

It does, sort of. The CEO is rehired when things calm down a bit. Back to business as normal.

Of course that’s all a fantasy: no bank could possibly get away with such a thing. I mean, the odd top banker has come close to feeling the handcuffs and has, in the end, been cleared. But the thought they would ever be rehired is laughable. There would be a total clean-out of the board. Proper sackcloth and ashes. Society would accept nothing less.

No: such a pattern of total impunity could only happen in a global media company. And, of course, you’ve worked out by now that the above chain of events didn’t happen in the financial sector, but in Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper operation. It’s a plotline straight out of Succession—only it’s for real.

If you’ve only been paying intermittent attention, you probably think the story dried up a decade ago. The Leveson Inquiry surely put paid to all that?

Except it didn’t. The phone hacking went on throughout the inquiry itself. And now—1,600 cases and an estimated £1bn in costs and damages later—potentially damning evidence is emerging into daylight of the true extent of what was going on.

Legal actions shine light in the darkest corners. The paperwork that is emerging shows determined and persistent attempts to destroy what would have been evidence: 31 million emails were deleted—nine million of them permanently.

And it shows a consistent pattern of using criminal methods, not simply to get stories on people’s private lives, but to target anyone who might be an obstacle to the Murdochs’ business ambitions. This was—or seems to be—commercial espionage.

The company claims there is an innocent explanation for much of this. And there may be: we don’t know because the company prefers to settle all the legal cases. The evidence is available, but not yet tested in open court.

We do know that the Murdoch operation had repeatedly hacked the phone of the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, who had oversight of the media. Now we’ve discovered that no fewer than seven MPs on the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee—the ones asking awkward questions—also had their communications intercepted.

It looks as though they hacked the attorney general and the chancellor. They set a private detective to trail one parliamentary critic around for 11 days until they had hard evidence of an affair. They hacked into the voicemail of the business secretary overseeing the big deal—the bid to take overall control of BskyB.

All this has emerged in documents, emails and call logs revealed in court actions, along with the Murdoch protestations that they can explain it all. It’s taken the work of a dogged reporter, Nick Davies, to pull it all together. Thousands of documents on his kitchen table, weeks of forensic joining the dots. It’s the difference between good journalism and rotten grifting.

What price parliamentary sovereignty? If you’re a reader of Mr Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, it counts for everything. That’s why we had Brexit—because, in the end, we wanted our elected representatives in Westminster to be in unchallenged control.

But not too much in control, it turns out. If MPs get above themselves and start asking questions of Mr Murdoch himself there are, apparently, limits.

As for placing MPs under surveillance, the Murdoch press could not be more vociferously against it. Mr Murdoch’s Times has recently been agitating about the possibility that the Chinese have been targeting MPs for surveillance. “It is essential,” the paper recently opined, “that MPs are able to establish whether they may have been targeted themselves.”

But the same paper has shown little interest in the evidence that literally thousands of suspicious phone calls were made from its own building with the apparent aim of keeping MPs under surveillance.

We all have our own version of what contributes to a democracy, or to decent British values. Mine include a free press; a strong system of checks and balances on power; parliamentary sovereignty; a respect for privacy.

Do we have a free press? Up to a point—though it’s abundantly clear that the Murdoch press can never be free of its own proprietor. Ownership matters: that’s why we won’t let the Emiratis get their hands on the Telegraph.

Do we have checks and balances? Sometimes, yes. But here was a company that cowed the regulator, the police (at least initially), other journalists and MPs. People were frightened of this company—and with good reason.

Parliamentary sovereignty? Hardly, when one media company felt free to place MPs under surveillance and to cut them down to size if they dared to stand in its way.

Privacy? Not when a lucrative business model demanded the wholesale trashing of personal boundaries for anyone in public life.

But Murdoch doesn’t really care about what it means to be British or about what it takes to nurture a healthy democracy. He junked his Australian citizenship when commercial imperatives dictated that he should call himself American. His Fox News channel in the US knowingly pumped out lies in advance of the 6th January insurrection because revenues and ideology trumped honesty.

These two ethical catastrophes for journalism have so far cost him around £2bn. And yet you should have read the fawning tributes when he appeared to announce a form of retirement last September.

The Post Office scandal showed how a form of corruption can rumble on for a long time before we collectively take notice. We got angry when it turned out that Murdoch’s finest had targeted the phone of a murdered schoolgirl. If I was an MP, I’d be pretty angry now.