Nobody has had more luck, power, and fortitude, nor has put together a greater network of the cowed and owing than Rupert Murdoch.
He has survived near-bankruptcy, countless business blunders of staggering proportions, a kidnapping attempt, a messy personal life, and, as well, one of the most counterintuitive PR strategies in the history of modern media (brutishness and charmlessness).
Still, as a longtime friend and tolerant observer of my obsession with Rupert reminded me in an email this weekend, if the hacking scandal that has him on his uppers in London had happened in the US, it really would likely—finally—be curtains for Rupert.
“Disappearing evidence, compromised cops, lying executives, big payoffs, a clumsy, still-dangerous enemy that nails him, the prime minister's office involved, etc... Amazing!” declared my friend. “If this had happened in the US, News Corp. would be a piñata, press protections notwithstanding, and threatened execs would point fingers.”
So again Rupert has gotten lucky: There are not quite the equivalent of independent prosecutors and entrepreneurial federal attorneys with free-floating subpoena powers in Britain.
In a way, Rupert’s power is structured to precisely guard against him ever becoming a piñata. This is one of his obvious and yet quite sui generis perceptions: Not just if you own enough of the press you inhibit it, but if you own enough of the press and demonstrate a willingness to use its power in pursuit of your own interests, you inhibit it.
In the UK, Rupert either owns the most potent press outlets, or has used his ownership to make a détente with the other powerful outlets (i.e. the Daily Mail
and the Telegraph
), leaving only his historic enemies to challenge him (the Guardian
, the Independent
, and the BBC)—and allowing him (and his partisans, flunkies, and détente partners) to dismiss them as his historic enemies.
But the magnitude of the current scandal can be judged by the fact that the story line, while occasionally in eclipse over the past two years or so, keeps willing out. Most recently, the New York Times
, that “clumsy still-dangerous enemy” has put it back on page one (although the Times
, clumsy as always, spent heavily on the piece and then tried to bury it in its magazine section.)
Such scandals ultimately kill their perpetrators by a thousand cuts and steady drip. Murdoch’s company faces an ever-rising number of lawsuits by the hacked. It’s like the Catholic Church—each abused person is a big liability and a major PR setback.
Still, once again, Rupert could get away with it. That will depend on the legal mechanisms in Britain for tightening the screws around Rupert’s loyalists and getting them to testify, and about how well the media détente holds. Rupert’s neck is, in some ways, in the hands of the Daily Mail
I have never seen Murdoch in the role of the reactionary political antagonist that most of my liberal fellows have cast him in. Rather, he seems to me the greatest Machiavellian figure of our time, building an elaborate hedge against his enemies and the fates, but, always pressing his advantage, challenging his own fabled luck, as he’s played a cat and mouse game with the rest of us. But he’s caught out now.
Note to non-Murdoch outlets around the world: It’s a juicy story; everybody ought to be telling it.
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 email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
Luck, power, sheer fortitude, and a brilliant network of partisans and flunkies are the elements that protect the rich and powerful from being brought down by the large and small crimes that have made them rich and powerful, or by the ironies and poetic justice that inevitably level them, too.