OFF THE GRID

Here’s What the Murdochs Are Talking About Today

Feb 26, 10 | 7:59 AM   byMichael Wolff
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I ran into James Murdoch last night at Minetta Tavern, the movie star joint in the West Village. Murdoch’s chagrin upon seeing me soon passed and he was very gracious toward my son, who had just finished a star turn in his high school musical.

Murdoch is in town, along with all the other big shots from News Corp’s far-flung newspaper empire, at the behest of his father. Murdoch Sr. is hosting a summit to address the problem he seems to have committed his declining years to solving: How to get people to pay for his newspaper articles on the Internet.

He has been trying, without much success, to come up with a good answer for more than a year now. The latest plan, not yet announced, is a Hulu-like strategy which will aggregate content from a wide variety of different publishers (News Corp. people are saying that the New York Times is on board for this). It will be a one-stop destination for news, which sounds a lot like…well, Newser, which, since Rupert has never been online, he does not know exists.

Anyway, his summit on charging for content is not likely to be any more productive than the president’s on health care. This is not, however, because there is dissension in the Murdoch ranks. It is not possible to be a Murdoch news executive and not to be firmly on the side of charging for content. Indeed, almost everybody at News Corp.’s newspapers has adopted a tone of the greatest moral indignation about the Internet (a stance which is usually not so helpful in solving a commercial problem).

The moral indignation is especially jarring because News Corp.’s British arm, News International, run by James Murdoch, is now the subject of a scathing government report outlining its systematic program of phone tapping (or “phone hacking,” as the Brits say). The Murdoch people are also indignant about this, not so much denying the charge as regarding it as an obsession of the Guardian newspaper (which favors free content) and of the Murdoch empire’s enemies in government (who are always trying to take money from him, too). Rebekah Wade Brooks, who runs Murdoch’s British newspapers, and reports to James, was seething about this terrible libel yesterday, as she clutched the Guardian with a picture of her and other Murdoch executives just having emerged from a funeral (a tabloid touch, using a photograph from one context for another, worthy most of all of Murdoch papers).

The Murdoch people seem indignant, too, that the story persists even though they have paid out a fortune to settle various lawsuits about it.

So, lest we take our eyes off the ball: The discussion this morning at News Corp. (weather permitting) is about the dastardliness of the Internet for making freely available news that comes from listening in, without benefit of legal standing, on other people’s phone calls.

The last point about who exactly listened in is important. If editors at the paper knew, then did Rebekah Wade Brooks know? If she knew is it likely that James Murdoch, for whom Brooks is a kind of eyes-and-ears factotum, knew? If James knew, is it likely that his father—with whom he speaks constantly, and who is pleased and placated by nothing so much as gossip and purloined secrets—knew?

Anyway, in the realm of moral indignation, and of News Corp.’s uncharacteristic race to the high ground, it is good to have some perspective and to keep in mind the nature and moral basis of the content that they want you to pay for.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.

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OFF THE GRID is about why the news is the news. Here are the real motivations of both media and newsmakers. Here's the backstory. This is a look at the inner workings of desperate media, the inner life of the publicity crazed, and the true meaning of the news of the day.

 

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