Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks are gone. Will Rupert Murdoch now sacrifice his own son?

Media criticism.
July 15 2011 4:55 PM

Release the Lachlan!

And the Elisabeth! How Murdoch will get out of this jam.

News Corporation Chief Rupert Murdoch. Click image to expand.
What's Rupert Murdoch's survival plan?

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.

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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.

Having run out of friends that he bought (see David Cameron run!), Murdoch must purchase new ones. But whom? Nobody will want his money in the short term, not even policemen who were pocketing News of the World payoffs. The police officers and government officials whom Murdoch has systematically co-opted over the years must tread softly. If they're too tough on him, he'll happily dump his dossiers on them. And why not? They have reputations to defend. He has none.

It will also fall to Murdoch's advantage if the public begins to echo calls for increased government regulation of the press. Other publishers hate Murdoch, but not so much that they're willing to be punished for his sins. They'll have to cash any rhetorical checks he issues on this topic.

Today, Reuters Breakingviews spotted another landmine the old man must defuse: Its reading of the powers of the "special committee" appointed at Dow Jones after Murdoch bought it (including the Wall Street Journal) in 2007. The sellers, the Bancroft family, worried that Murdoch would turn the newspaper into a whorehouse, so the special committee was given powers to investigate not just Dow Jones shenanigans but News Corp., too. "[I]f the committee of five chooses, it can hire investigators, lawyers and accountants to conduct their own investigation, with full access to News Corporation's books, records and people," Breakingviews contends. The special committee embarrassed itself when Murdoch ignored it and pushed out Journal editor Marcus Brauchli, so Murdoch should be wary, lest it assert itself.

One thing out of Murdoch's control is the snowpack of resentment against Murdoch that is now melting. Everybody who ever had a grudge against Murdoch for his journalistic crimes, his battles against unions, his acts of political skullduggery, and his brilliant business innovations has sharpened and fixed bayonets to oppose him. He's getting the treatment his newspapers routinely meted out. As the smart guy wrote last fall, this is Murdoch's Watergate.

Olly Grender of the New Statesman has a dozen pearls of advice for how Murdoch might have better handled things, and he seems to be belatedly acting on a couple of her suggestions. In the coming week I expect a tour de force performance out of Murdoch as he replays the Watergate drama but avoids resignation and the trip to San Clemente. He sends James into exile, elevates Lachlan and Elisabeth, pretends to play the emeritus role, and waits all of the bastards out.

Believe me as I say it once again: Murdoch is enjoying this. "Rupert Murdoch is probably at his best when he is cornered or when he does have great adversity going against him," former News Corp. executive Barry Diller is quoted in Lanchester's London Review piece. "And maybe it's his moment of greatest pleasure."

* Correction, July 16: This article originally stated that Conrad Black is currently in prison. He is out on bail after serving 29 months but will return to prison in September to serve 13 more months. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

******

Thanks to the Twitter hordes who have kept me up on Murdoch news: @buddhawisdom, @mediaguardian, @Reuters@murdochgate, @BrianCathcart, @ MatthewWells, @arusbridger, @Edgecliffe, @ericuman, @DRoseTimes, @dansabbagh, @felixsalmon, @jeffbercovici, @tunkuv, @MayneReport, @nytjim, @newsbrooke, @MarionManeker, @amonck, @rafat, @dvnjr, @sarahlellison, @alexmassie, @MichaelWolffNYC, @AntDeRosa, and many other, including @lizzieohreally for giving me the strength to go on. Don't bother sending email to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Just tweet something with @JackShafer in it and let Twitter do the rest. (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.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For email notification of errors in this specific column, type Lachlan in the subject head of an email message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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