Don't feel bad for Rupert Murdoch. He's having a splendid time with the phone-hacking scandal. Oh, he had to jettison his best friend Rebekah Brooks today after having declared just five days ago that the News International chief executive was his top priority. The press read that as a message of Murdoch's support when they should have seen it for what it was: He was gauging how best to sacrifice Brooks to satisfy the mobs threatening his beloved News Corp.
Crises like this one are what drive Murdoch, John Lanchester wrote in the London Review of Books in 2004. The genocidal tyrant loves taking action at "the point when everything seems about to be lost." Lanchester cites News Corp.'s 1990 debt crisis, in which Murdoch almost lost the company; his relocation of his British papers to Wapping; and the financial disaster resulting from borrowing money from Michael Milken as prime examples of Rupert's tightrope walking. More recently, Murdoch had to scramble all of News Corp.'s fire engines and squad cars to repel John Malone, who had purchased enough of the company's stock on the sly to threaten the Murdoch family's control.
With the sacking of Brooks today, Murdoch began his contrition offense. A full-page advertisement apologizing to the victims of phone-hacking, signed by Murdoch, will run Saturday in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Independent, and his own Sun and Times. Evidence that Murdoch is lying in the ad is inscribed in his parting salutation, "Sincerely." A second ad will run Sunday and Monday, explaining the company's internal investigation and plans to prevent a phone-hacking recurrence. Murdoch also visited the family of Milly Dowler today to apologize. She's the murder victim whose phone was hacked and whose voice mail was deleted by News of the World staff. The deletions gave the family false hope that she was still alive.
Next week, Murdoch and his son James, who paid settlements to phone-hacking victims, will appear before a parliamentary committee after first declining the request. After saying he's sorry, Murdoch will say he's sorry again and again and again. James, who isn't any sorrier than his father, will say the same thing, but it won't work, because he paid hush money and is therefore a part of the scandal. As the Telegraphreported this week, as long as Brooks stayed on the payroll, she shielded James from some of the more vociferous attacks. She, after all, was News of the World editor when Dowler's phone was hacked. But Brooks' resignation exposes James Murdoch to the fury now, which he can't possibly endure.
Rupert knows this, and knows that he must soon sacrifice his favorite son. Murdoch's predicament illustrates why no parent should have only one offspring—a backup unit must be kept at all times in case something dreadful happens to the child you're depending on. It's Murdoch's good luck that he has two children who can replace James while he does his time in Siberia. Both Elisabeth, a media tycoon in her own right, and Lachlan, the eldest son and previous heir apparent, could take James' place in the News Corp. hierarchy. Neither carries any phone-hacking scandal taint, and both are ambitious. Where did Elisabeth stand on the Brooks question? According to a Telegraphreport, she told friends that Brooks had "f***** the company."
Would Murdoch really sack his son? I don't see why we should rule out infanticide in this case. Writing in the Financial Times(subscription required) this week, former media tycoon and * convicted felon Conrad Black held that "Murdoch has no loyalty to anyone or anything except his company. He has difficulty keeping friendships; rarely keeps his word for long; is an exploiter of the discomfort of others; and has betrayed every political leader who ever helped him in any country, except Ronald Reagan and perhaps Tony Blair."
Lachlan is as clean as a Murdoch can be. He was pushed out of the News Corp. executive nest in 2005 after Rupert spent decades preparing him to take the top slot, and he moved back to Australia. Elisabeth, like Lachlan, worked for News Corp. She struck out on her own and in 2001 founded Shine, a TV production company which she recently sold to News Corp. for $674 million. As Murdochs go, she's pretty clean, although some News Corp. shareholders filed suit griping that she had gotten a sweetheart deal from News Corp.
With both Lachlan and Elisabeth by his side, Rupert can claim to have cleaned house, especially now that Les Hinton, former chairman of News International and current publisher of the Wall Street Journal, has just resigned. Hinton gave assurances to Parliament in 2007 and 2009 that phone-hacking was not widespread in the company, which is why Murdoch has been forced to sacrifice one of his most loyal employees.
By shooting his wounded and burying them, Murdoch will live to fight another day. And shoot he must. Besides the parliamentary inquiry and the ongoing criminal investigation, Murdoch must now worry about similar probes in the United States, where the FBI is said to be looking into allegations that the phones of 9/11 victims and their survivors were hacked and members of Congress are calling for investigations. Meanwhile, back in Australia, similar alarms are sounding.
Lest anybody has forgotten the Dominique Strauss-Kahn interval, sometimes the obviously guilty turn out to be not guilty, so let's not reserve a suite at Leavenworth for the Murdoch family and their employees quite yet. I assume Murdoch will avail himself to the umbrage defense when he appears before a parliamentary committee next week, demanding that the MPs not soil the good names of News Corp. employees who didn't break the law. I doubt that any MP will pin Murdoch down. He's good in such forums, in part because he has a natural way of lying and because his 80-year-old rhythms will disrupt aggressive cross-examinations. Rupert will make them look like elder-abusers if they push too hard.