The Murdoch melodrama has taken a summer break but the background music lingers on, and when the show is back there will probably be more surprises, as in any good long-running production of its kind.
Rupert Murdoch has gone home to New York, the British Parliament has adjourned until Sept. 5 and Prime Minister David Cameron has been freed to go off on his annual holiday. The only participants still at work on the script are the press and police, but their numbers have been thinned by arrests and resignations, part of developments keeping the audience titillated.
The next important phase of what is more commonly known as the phone-hacking scandal at the Murdoch-owned and lately interred News of the World newspaper is an official inquiry headed by Judge Brian Leveson.
He has promised to get to work right away and interrogate witnesses in open session. First he will look at questions of press regulation and the relationship between the media and politicians. Then, when police investigations are completed, he will turn to criminality at the News of the World and possibly other newspapers. He may be at it for a couple of years.
So far the only really positive development for the Murdoch family in this affair has been the crouching tiger role played by Wendi Deng, Rupert Murdoch’s wife. When she sprang to her feet at a parliamentary hearing to slap down a young man trying to hurl a plate of shaving foam at her husband, she sprang to worldwide prominence and general acclaim.
Other developments in the melodrama have revealed much about the principal players.
Rupert Murdoch has come across as the semi-detached leading figure, too busy running his worldwide empire to pay much attention to his best-selling British newspaper even when evidence emerged that it was engaged in widespread criminality.
Asked about a man who was once chief reporter of News of the World, Neville Thurlbeck, he rejoined: “Never heard of him.” There was almost nothing that Mr. Murdoch knew about the newspaper. It somehow escaped his notice that Mr. Thurlbeck was arrested last April.
His son James emerged as a man quick with answers and clearly anxious to take the heat off his father, but seemingly ignorant of some crucial facts. Two former News of the World executives then accused him of failing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Rebekah Brooks—former chief executive of News International, former editor of the News of the World, evidently the most cherished of Rupert Murdoch’s British employes and, finally, a woman arrested—was cool under fire but wholly ignorant of how her staff kept coming up with scoops about various people’s private lives. And, apparently, not wishing to appear nosy by asking.
She was the subject of one of the best lines of off-stage dialogue to come out of the whole affair, courtesy of the New York Times. It reported that Lady Rothermere, wife of the owner of the Daily Mail, denied that the Mail had engaged in illicit activities, to which Mrs. Brooks was said to have responded: “Who do you think you are, Mother Teresa?”
Prime Minister Cameron, who came to office boasting that his government would be the most open in the world, proved to be a slippery performer in revealing less than the full facts about his 26 meetings with Murdoch executives—particularly whether he had discussed the Murdoch bid for full ownership of British Sky Broadcasting. After his parliamentary performance drew some negative reviews, his aides admitted that he had—but he had done nothing improper.
He said nothing to dispel a widespread conclusion that he was guilty of monumental misjudgement in hiring Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World, as his communications chief.
One of his fellow Conservatives, former Thatcher minister Norman Tebbit, wrote in the Guardian: “This affair has shown up the prime minister’s lack of ability, or will, to think things through...There is a lack of critical assessment of what may look like a good idea at the time but turns out to have rather more complications. The time, energy and political capital needed to then get the decision right is far too great.”
Mr. Cameron extended the scope of the coming inquiries to include the BBC, which is one of Britain’s great international assets and has not been accused of any criminality.
“Above all we need to ensure that no one voice, not News Corporation, not the BBC, becomes too powerful,” the prime minister intoned. No doubt, somewhere in London, Rupert and James Murdoch were applauding. The BBC with its dominant role in British broadcasting has long been their bête noire.
Mr. Cameron, eager to be even-handed, said the left in Britain sometimes overestimates “the power of Murdoch,” while the right “overdoes the left-leanings of the BBC.” So that settles that. The BBC’s proud claim to impartiality may have some validity but it needs investigating anyway.
Conservative parliamentarians have expressed relief that the melodrama has been suspended, claiming the public was suffering phone-hacking scandal fatigue. They may be right but, after an intermission, the public may be ready for more.
At this point we are left with the dead body of a once major newspaper, 10 people who have been arrested, a London police force mired in evidence of corruption at very high levels, politicians and the press generally in disrepute. And questions galore still to be answered in the next act.
But for some in the audience, the most important questions may be these: Who will play Rebekah Brooks in the film that is sure to come out of this drama? And will Hollywood cast it as farce or tragedy? Or a little of both?
Stand by for the next installment.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.)