OFF THE GRID

Can the Brits Get Rupert?

Sep 13, 10 | 7:02 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Even just a few weeks ago, who would have doubted the outcome of a competition between Rupert Murdoch and the New York Times?

The Times' many-months investigation of illegal phone hacking by Murdoch reporters in Britain is a reminder that while everybody is accustomed to quaking before Murdoch's bullying power, the Times' power, which it tends to use in an awkward fashion (all the more so when it's on its own behalf), is quite a bit more formidable. Murdoch can destroy reputations; the Times can move governments (which is why Murdoch so hotly wants to buy the Times).

Still, as the British Sunday paper, The Observer, asked yesterday, what happens in Britain now that the New York Times has gone home, not just shifting its attention, but, in the American manner, refusing to extend Scotland Yard a helping hand by giving up its research and sources?

This is one of the things the Murdochs are still counting on, that, left to their own devices, the Brits are fairly helpless. So many of the people in government and law enforcement have reputations to protect from the wrath of the Murdoch papers, and, indeed, so many people in media have careers that, at some point, will need a paycheck from Rupert (or from his eagerly vindictive son, James) that push quite purposefully never comes to shove.

Long, painstaking, expensive investigations by journalism organizations are ever-rarer in the U.S., and in the U.K. they are rarer still. (One reason phone hacking is so attractive—it's a quick and cheap way to get a story.) The current obsession within the cheapskate Murdoch organization about the cost of the Times' report reflects both a kind of awe at the investment as well as the confidence that it is unique. As tenacious as the Guardian is and as much a thorn in Rupert's side as it can be, it doesn't have those resources.

Rupert himself is very fond of deriding the talents and commitment of British reporters. It is the reason he can never understand why journalists—who he sees as lazy, largely drunk, and invariably slipshod about their work—get so heated about the sanctity of journalism. In the same issue of the Observer with its worries about what happens now without the attention of the Times, there is a column by Henry Porter, a lefty British hack of bewildering longevity, who leads his coverage of the scandal by identifying a Fox Business Channel (although he identifies it as Fox News) interview with Murdoch as happening last week instead of, in fact, more than a year ago.

Sigh.

The point about Porter's harrumphing and knee-jerk piece—a restatement of the way the left has for so long looked at Rupert, helplessly and with the greatest self-pity—is about Murdoch's "malign influence" in Britain, once again allowing Rupert to claim this is all about politics instead of smoking guns. (Elsewhere in the Observer is a more nuanced column, by Peter Preston, about the ways Murdoch's powers have changed in the U.K.) What the New York Times has handed the Brits is an opportunity, a chain of evidence, by which, if the facts can be kept straight (starting with when an interview was actually conducted), the Murdoch organization, and its true influence on British politics, can finally be questioned and deconstructed.

But it's a tale that requires reasonably sober and attentive people to tell it—and, too, a bit of money.

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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