Ever since the News International story broke Rupert Murdoch’s whole approach has been that of a tabloid editor intent on making the story bigger. He closed the News of the World though this was something no one had asked him or expected him to do but which guaranteed that anybody who had previously doubted the importance of the story would now know that it was big. He leaked the story about bribes being paid to the police, apparently in the expectation that this would embarrass the police and divert the story from himself, instead infuriating the police and making the story bigger. He clung on to Rebeka Brooks long after she had been discredited and had himself photographed in a suggestive pose with her that has inevitably excited comment and given the story a salacious twist. He has now been forced to accept her resignation, just as Prime Ministers who his newspapers have hounded were forced to accept the resignations of ministers whose transgressions his newspapers had exposed, thereby calling his judgement into question and ensuring that the story gets bigger still. He has scarcely spoken in public since the start of the scandal allowing every rumour to go unanswered. He first refused and then almost immediately agreed to appear before the House of Commons Committee,thereby simultaneously giving the impression that he has something to hide and that he is on the run. In a word he has done everything possible to encourage the “feeding frenzy” and to ensure that the story just goes on getting bigger.
I am no friend of Murdoch. I consider his exposure utterly essential for Britain’s political health. I totally disagree with an article by Adrian Hamilton in the Independent today that says that criticism of Murdoch is a diversion from the real issue, which supposedly is the lack of transparency in British political life. That sort of logic dangerously underestimates the power and influence Murdoch has exercised until now and risks letting him off the hook leaving the situation exactly as it was before. It is also insensitive to the seriousness of the crimes that we now know have been committed.
At the same time I have to concede that there is something bizarre and even slightly pathetic about a vain old man who has so obviously lost the plot. I suspect that Murdoch has been surrounded by flatterers for so long that he has begun to lose his grip. His assertion to the Wall Street Journal that the matter has been handled “well” is astonishing and shows how out of touch with reality he has become.
Before writing Murdoch off as some sort of latter day Lear a word of caution is however in order. He remains a ruthless and powerful man and one not to be underestimated. He continues to enjoy powerful support from much of the press (not just the press he owns), which is becoming alarmed at the prospect of statutory regulation and of an inquiry into its methods and behaviour. The Daily Mail has for example concentrated its fire not on Murdoch but on the supposed hypocrisy of his critics. Murdoch also continues to have powerful support within the Conservative party. Practically unnoticed have been several statements of support for him by several Conservative MPs some of whom rebelled against their leadership by refusing to support the motion against the BSkyB bid at Wednesday’s debate. His summons to appear before the House of Commons Committee on Tuesday may be the event that finally concentrates his mind and brings him back to earth.