When legendary editor Kelvin MacKenzie ran Rupert Murdoch's London Sun in the 1980s and early 1990s, he would incite his reporters into tabloid action by ordering them to "put a ferret" up the trousers of the powers that be. As Neil Chenoweth writes in Rupert Murdoch: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Media Wizard:
[MacKenzie] would do this until the moment it became clear that in the course of making up stories, inventing quotes, invading people's privacy, and stepping on toes, the Sun had committed some truly hideous solecism—like running the wrong lottery numbers—when he would rush back to the newsroom shouting, "Reverse ferret!" This is the survival moment, when a tabloid changes course in a blink without any reduction in speed, volume, or moral outrage. In the midst of a disaster of its own making, it pulls a ferret out of a hat and sails on.
Murdoch's entire business style may be characterized as a reverse ferret. Time and again when his plans have gone awry and he has found himself facing calamity, his superb survival skills have saved him. Just before he hits the wall, he does a little dummy, he feints this way and that, and then he sets off with undiminished speed in a new direction. This is Murdoch's genius: not that he gets into a jam, but that he is able to walk away afterward, an implausible winner.
Today, as Murdoch's son James announced that News Corp. is shuttering its besieged News of the World, the voice you really heard was Rupert Murdoch, running away from the paper as fast as his 80-year-old legs would carry him, howling "reverse ferret" at full power.
The dramatic closure of the 168-year-old newspaper is Murdoch's way of deflecting attention from not just the paper's scandalous phone-hacking ways but its destruction of evidence in the Milly Dowler murder case, its payoffs to police, its role in the cover-up of the scandal, and lord knows what other crimes it committed. By killing the newspaper, said by the Guardian to be the company's most profitable venture, Murdoch hopes to create the illusion that justice has been done. By abruptly closing the paper, Murdoch also scatters a potentially incriminating paper- and computer-trail.
Although the 2.66 million circulation News of the World will die after its last edition Sunday, the newspaper's ferret is still very much alive and may soon have a new home. The Guardian, whose investigations under reporter Nick Davies uncovered the phone-hacking outrages, has already spotted the furry creature migrating to another Murdoch-owned London tabloid. The Guardianreports, "There are already industry rumours that the News of the World's stablemate the Sun could be turned into a seven-day operation." When asked by the BBC if a Sunday edition of the Sun was in the works, a company spokeswoman answered cryptically, "What happens to the Sun is a matter for the future."
When the subject is financial crimes, this sort of artful shifting of assets is called "money laundering."
The cover story Murdoch has advanced from the beginning and continues to push is that rogue operators were responsible for the scandal. That's the line James Murdoch observed today, when he told the News of the World staff the paper must die so the company could live.
"Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued," James Murdoch said.
In a BBC interview today, James Murdoch was all regrets and apologies, but he continued to stand up for Rebekah Brooks, who was News of the World editor when Milly Dowler's phone was hacked and now serves Murdoch as chief executive of News International. Brooks, it should be noted, is one of Rupert Murdoch's favorite people on the planet. To believe the young Murdoch, he, his father, their company, and Brooks are the victims of the phone-hacking crimes, not the sponsors. "She has a good standard of ethics and her leadership is the right thing for the company," he said of Brooks.
What rot. As this Guardiantimeline of statements made by Murdoch executives over the past four-and-a-half years reveals, the company had ample notice that "wrongdoers" were running amuck inside its newsroom as well as the executive suite. "All of these irresponsible and unsubstantiated allegations against News of the World and other News International titles and its journalists are false," the company claimed in July 2009 in response to Nick Davies' first phone-hacking report in the Guardian. "The Guardian coverage, we believe, has substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public," wrote Brooks that same month.
The torching of News of the World by Rupert and James Murdoch is a confession, but of what? Surely it is not a confession of personal guilt or even corporate guilt. As James Murdoch told News of the World staffers, the current staff isn't responsible for the "mistakes" and "egregious behaviour" as he calls them, committed by the company and the paper. "I can understand how unfair these decisions may feel," he told the staff without ever explaining why he was punishing them for something they didn't do.
Like all reverse-ferret maneuvers, the closing of News of the World is designed to scatter and confuse the audience. It looks like the sacrifice of something very special to him, seeing as it was his first U.K. newspaper acquisition in 1968. But it's not. It looks like atonement, but it's not. It's supposed to change the subject, but it's too late for that. The most shocking thing to me about the paper's closure is what an empty gesture it is. I expected much better from the genocidal tyrant.
The tricky thing about the reverse ferret is that unless you nab the beast the moment it bursts out of a pant leg, it can be impossible to apprehend. From the way News Corp. is acting, it looks to me as if the Murdochs have lost control of their precious ferret. If I were Rupert Murdoch, I'd start wearing my socks over my cuffs. Ferrets will eat anything that looks and smells like meat.
Now if the Murdochs closed Fox News Channel in an act of expiation, I would be more receptive. What Murdoch operation should Rupert close next? Send ideas to email@example.com. If Murdoch shuts Fox News, I shut my Twitter feed. Also, in a contest between the honey badger and the reverse ferret, which would win? Email me your views on that, too. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)