From his office in News Corp’s headquarters on Sixth Avenue, New York, Rupert Murdoch might have imagined his appearance before the Leveson inquiry and that of his son James would draw a line under the scandal that has dogged him for more than a year. Not much chance of that. As the champion of the dirtiest tricks in Fleet Street, he must surely know that once a bull’s eye has been pinned on a target’s back, it stays there.
There was no reprieve for Gordon Brown after the Sun’s devastating headline, “Squatter, 59, holed up in No 10”. There was no mercy for Neil Kinnock once Kelvin Mackenzie teased, “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. Now the fickle British public have smelt blood, they will chase the Australian they never came to love like hounds baying after a bloodied fox.
The sense of glee at watching him wriggle in Lord Leveson’s dock is palpable among his political opponents, his commercial competitors, the victims of his smears – even the loyal readers of his comics. But Murdoch is plainly not prepared to suffer alone. Cameron must sense that the price for setting Leveson’s dogs on him last July and for driving James out of the country to twiddle his thumbs in New York will be high. Come the next election and Cameron can expect to reap Murdoch’s whirlwind.
The old man continues to protest his affection for the country that has shunned him. He tweets his love of the landscape and his fondness for the people. But in 140 characters or less, Murdoch unplugged also betrays a bitter outcast who thinks he has been sorely misunderstood, the victim of social snobbery and of jealousy from his business rivals.
When he was at Oxford, something nasty must have happened in the woodshed, because he has persistently articulated a long-held disdain for the “old toffs and right-wingers” he encountered there. The resentment seems to have stemmed first from his father’s failure to convince the British First World War high command they had, through nepotistic incompetence, ordered brave Aussie farm boys to their deaths at Gallipoli.
Newly arrived in 1968, with the News of the World in his back pocket, he griped when London society didn’t drop everything and have him and his wife Anna round to dinner.
Buying the Sun cheap from the Mirror Group boss Hugh Cudlipp the following year was perhaps his greatest coup. It proved a showpiece for his tabloid brilliance and demonstrated the commercial nous he would use to found Fox News in 1996, spotting a gap in the market on the right that begged to be filled. Still the “old toffs” did not rate him. He enjoyed a moment of Schadenfreude when he acquired their house journal, the Times, which came free with the lucrative Sunday Times.
Buying the Times titles needed the help of the government to avoid being referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and he stitched up a sweetheart deal with Margaret Thatcher that ensured the purchase would sail through. Getting governments to fall in with his business plans is the key to his modus operandi – and his ultimate fall from grace. It was on show at Leveson, where emails from Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s office boasted of the Cameron government’s complicity in Murdoch’s plan to buy the 64 per cent of BSkyB he didn’t already own.
He claimed on Twitter he never asked to see “old toff” Cameron, but he surreptitiously visited No 10 nonetheless. “I was asked would I please come in through the back door,” he told the Commons select committee in July last year, as if he had no idea of his toxicity. The visits were arranged by Matthew Freud, the son-in-law he does not rate, who told the Prime Minister that Murdoch wanted to see him and vice versa. James confessed to Leveson he had met Cameron and others, including Brown and Blair, more than 20 times.
For the past 40 years, Murdoch’s hacks have kept tabs on those who stand in their master’s way and when they failed to unearth enough dirt, private eyes with even fewer scruples were hired. Personal foibles, sexual peccadilloes and family secrets were gathered for the day an uncooperative MP or cocky celebrity showed insufficient respect. For those such as Tom Watson MP, who dared question Murdoch’s methods, it was whispered in Gordon Brown’s ear that he was a wrong ’un. For others, such as Mark Lewis, who headed the legal campaign to gain redress for Murdoch’s victims, there was snooping around his private life and Murdoch’s private eyes training cameras on his wife and teenage daughters.
Now the contagion has spread across the Atlantic. Lewis has taken the fight to New York, where victims such as Hugh Grant and Cherie Blair are lining up to cash in on News Corp’s intrusions into their private lives. And if the courts hear of interception of phone messages on American soil, Murdoch must get ready to explain to Congress in person what he knew about the widespread criminality that took place on his watch.
Son wot won it?
Murdoch’s claim to the Commons committee that he blamed the phone-hacking on “people that I trusted to run it, and then maybe the people they trusted” came as a surprise to editors who have worked closely with him. While he claimed to be too busy to pay attention to what was going on under his nose, everyone at Wapping knows it is Murdoch himself who calls the shots, from the political line to the hiring and firing of staff.
Murdoch told the Commons how he got into the newspaper business. “I was brought up by a father who was not rich but who was a great journalist,” he said. “And he, just before he died, bought a small paper, specifically in his will saying that he was giving me the chance to do good.” It makes you wonder whether, in the darkest hours of the night, Murdoch genuinely believes Sir Keith, a well-connected old boy if ever there was one, would think his son had done good.
Nicholas Wapshott is a former senior editor of the Times. His book “Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics”, is published by W W Norton (£18.99).