It doesn’t stop. Won’t stop. Can’t stop. Rupert Murdoch is going to be run out of Britain.
His is a worst-case scenario: a powerful political opposition moving against him, and a chain of evidence moving toward him.
I find myself feeling deeply and helplessly sorry for the man: he’s cornered. He is not only “not fit” to run his company, but he’s been “wilfully blind” about the company’s crimes. He made a conscious and calculated decision to look the other way. Enron’s former chief, Jeffrey Skilling, is in jail for innumerable years exactly for that reason.
No doubt, as I write (at 8am in New York), News Corporation is preparing a statement saying that Tuesday’s damning parliamentary report is a partisan show, which, dividing 6-5, it is. And in a broader sense, too: Murdoch is as good a Labour party issue as it gets.
But that’s merely identifying the problem – one of the problems. The reality is that the cost, real and psychic, of operating in the UK far outweighs the rewards. On top of that, the constant paralyzing media and legal distractions, make it virtually impossible for the company to function in the UK. Management can’t manage.
Rupert Murdoch is as finished in the United Kingdom, like Conrad Black and Robert Maxwell before him. The only difference is that they can’t quite get him into jail. This, in a sense, means his agony is going to be prolonged.
Understanding that Britain is a lost front, he will retreat to his US stronghold. From New York, the process of disposing of the British papers, which, by reliable insider accounts, has begun, will hasten (meaning less qualified buyers will be considered, hardly a good outcome for British journalism); and the fate of BSkyB will be weighed.
Should they stand and fight? Can they hold on? Or is the cost insuperable, and the task impossible? They – the Murdoch family, and News Corp executives – still regard themselves as safe in New York. The seventh floor of 1211 Sixth Avenue is their bunker. Nothing less than a direct hit will take them out.
A curious thing about the various British investigations is that no American-based New Corp executives have been called to testify. While it is true that the British papers operated as remote outposts, with, often, only Murdoch himself as their connection to company headquarters, it is the people in New York – probably, only the people in New York – who can establish what Rupert knew and when did he know it.
Even to the extent that figures in the UK might testify about their direct conversations with Rupert, he will be able, as he did before the Leveson hearing last week to brush them off, and counter-accuse. (This is especially easy because, for most of the period of the phone hacking scandal, Rupert did not receive email and was still only dealing on the phone.) It’s only the people in New York who can’t be dismissed as cover-up participants out to save their skin. (They would know what Rupert was thinking because he is something of a non-stop monologist. If it’s on his mind, he’s talking about it.)
It is not clear if there is even a way for the Brits to get the Americans to Britain to testify. Indeed, it is possible to imagine a scenario where people from News Corp never go to United Kingdom again. Surely, Les Hinton, whom the parliamentary report identifies as a scandal linchpin, and whom Murdoch himself seemed ready last week to blame for the cover-up, will not be planning a British vacation any time soon.
There is a great deal of solace at News Corp in the fact that phone hacking and the problems in Britain remain a largely special-interest story in the US. Even Tuesday’s charge that Murdoch might have wilfully ignored what his company was doing in the UK is not so bad because few people in the US actually know what it was his company was doing.
A big danger, perception-wise, is if James Murdoch is indicted in Britain, or, if Rebekah Brooks testifies against the Murdochs. But James’ retreat from the UK has been a careful one – a clean enough break, they hope, for him to slip the noose.
Another variable is BSkyB. What happens to the News Corp share price if they are forced to sell their cash-rich 39% position? News Corp watchers point to the fact that News Corp shares significantly advanced after the company abandoned the effort to acquire the rest of BSkyB. (What’s more, in 2007, Rupert Murdoch was forced by John Malone, who had triangulated voting shares, to sell DirectTV, an asset then even more significant than BSkyB – and managed to spin it as an advantageous strategic sale.)
Indeed, as long as they can keep the share price stable, and stay out of the short reach of British justice, then Rupert and the Murdoch family can stay safely in control of News Corporation – as many US News Corp supporters (and there are many) believe. Even if the share price wobbles, the Murdochs have enough control to tough it out.
Unless the US government gets involved. Well, that would be another battle. They would fight that one, too.
They may know by now at News Corp that, against all of their crafty defenses, determined plans, and certain assurances to themselves (and their board), it doesn’t stop and it won’t. The negative pile-up has become a force of nature.
But what can they do? They don’t really have any other instincts or business approach or way to respond but to resist.
• This article is not open to comment for legal reasons
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