OFF THE GRID

Is Murdoch Berlusconi? And Is Britain Italy?

Sep 9, 10 | 7:30 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The Brits are terribly confused.

The scandal that they thought had run out of gas is suddenly, as though by a deus ex machina, back full-steam. And yet it is the same scandal, with relatively few new details, being covered by the same news outlets. Nothing on the face of it has changed.

The Media Show on the BBC’s Radio 4—in a discussion of the phone hacking charges and of Rupert Murdoch’s and his company’s involvement in it, and of the New York Times’ recent upstart coverage of it—was world-weary in its sophistication. The scandal was still, in Britain, only being covered by the same old Murdoch foes, the Guardian, the Independent, and the BBC itself. Whatever the merits, the country was up against the fact that this was about Murdoch and Murdoch controls most of the media. So get real.

The show’s presenters, together with much of the general commentariat, seemed unable to process that the New York Times, while not a direct player in the British media, had in effect made Britain itself the story—Britain and its relationship to the Murdoch family. The nation itself was now under the microscope. Murdoch had become Berlusconi, who, owning the nation’s media, will not cover himself, and Britain had become Italy, with the larger world watching with incredulity and fascination (and condescension). Indeed, everything was the same, and yet the story was somehow algebraically larger and ever expanding.

Still, in the British bubble, a senior member of the government, taking note of the obvious change in tone of a newly aggressive non-Murdoch media, was able to say to me that he believed Andy Coulson—the Murdoch editor who is accused of knowing about and encouraging the phone hacking, and who is now the prime minister’s communications director—is safe because there is nothing substantively new in the charges. No new bodies. He seemed not to be able to appreciate that it is precisely the point at which the subtleties of the scandal recede and the coverage expands that is most dangerous.

Indeed, Coulson himself seems, in the last few days, to have been thoroughly rebranded. He can never not be the hacking scandal symbol. Worse, he is a press spokesperson who can no longer talk to the press. It’s at best an existential future.

Still, this is Britain, and, like Italy, there is, in everyone’s mind, a sure reality: The guy in charge holds all the cards. This is a scandal that is more than a year-and-a-half old. Murdoch and News Corp. shut it down once before; everybody assumes that by turning the same screws, they will shut it down again. The smart money doesn’t want to bet against that.

Except that, unlucky for Murdoch, there are no paywalls around this scandal anymore. It’s broken free. He can’t control it. It’s everywhere. The whole world is watching—the whole media world, anyway—with quite a bit of undisguised glee.

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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