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.