Andreas Whittam Smith: Bullies and cowards who have killed a newspaper – for nothing

I believe that Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch and even Rupert Murdoch himself will find themselves in court
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The Independent Online

At its heart, News Corporation, for all its immense global interests, is a family company.

The Murdochs may not control all the voting rights in the group, but they run it as if they did. It is not a place where shareholders come first. Nor do employees (see the plight of the News of the World staff), nor old servants (see Andy Coulson thrown to the wolves). First, second, third, and last come Rupert Murdoch and his children. Not Rupert's wives, as it happens, because they can be let go – as they have been. Rebekah Brooks isn't a family member and that is why she should remain apprehensive.

For everything and anything will be sacrificed to maintain the family's position. It is not so much the Murdochs' financial interests that weigh heaviest in the balance, though they are important, but their power. Essentially they say to the world: this is ours and we are not going to let it go.

Rupert and his son James are bullies with the characteristic that often accompanies a ruthless manner – there is something cowardly about them. They won't face their staff in meetings when they have bad news to deliver. Rupert Murdoch wouldn't say a word when confronted by TV reporters in the US on Thursday evening. Rebekah Brooks, who apes the Murdoch manner, hurried away from the News of the World newsroom after announcing the closure of the newspaper on Thursday, only addressing shocked staff yesterday. This former editor doesn't appear on television in case she stumbles over her words.

To understand the News of the World decision, we first have to establish what is the problem that has to be solved. It is the troubling question of whether the Murdochs are "fit and proper persons" to own media companies. This is not a financial issue, so the relatively small proportion of the group's assets held in the United Kingdom doesn't ease the situation.

The acute difficulty is this. If one major publishing territory in the English-speaking world declares that the Murdochs are not fit and proper persons, as might very well happen in the United Kingdom in relation to the delayed bid for BskyB, then this will have an international impact. For wherever there is media regulation, as there is in the US, Australia, India, and so on, it almost always incorporates, whether explicitly or implicitly, a "fit and proper" test. If a group of American citizens, for instance, wanted to protest against some expansion of Murdoch interests in the US, they would have a strong argument in pleading that the Murdochs were not considered fit and proper in Britain.

At the same time, the Murdochs must have come to understand that a sort of doomsday machine is operating against them, a destructive process that cannot be stopped. One line of police enquiry leads to another, one revelation produces a fresh disclosure, the pace quickens, examples of bad practice multiply, and parliament becomes concerned.

Since the first day, the Murdochs have made attempts to stop the machine's momentum. First they thought that the conviction and jailing of a reporter and his sidekick in 2006 would do the trick. They would be able to claim that the issues were confined to just two people. Then they made out-of-court settlements with troublesome claimants. That didn't work either. Something much bigger was required; hence the closure of the News of the World.

This still astonishes me. Take it first in business terms. I know of no other example of a valuable brand being suddenly extinguished. Still 2.6 million people buy it every Sunday. It could have been cleaned up, re-positioned, and re-established. In Colin Myler it had a perfectly good editor, uninvolved in dirty deeds. I have never before met a newspaper manager who would willingly throw away millions of pounds of revenue and some profit, nor one who would suddenly declare hundreds of people redundant and break an expensive printing contract if he or she didn't have to.

There is a further consideration of a less tangible nature. Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of the News of the World in 1969 was his first act in creating a global business outside Australia. While we know that sentiment doesn't have much of a place in Murdoch circles, it is nonetheless rare for a successful tycoon to cut the taproot of his business empire. When the late Robert Maxwell, the owner of the Daily Mirror, sold his original company, Pergamon Press, I immediately thought that the group's problems must be much greater than I had realised. And thus it turned out.

So have the Murdochs succeeded in halting the doomsday machine before it reaches into their boardroom under Section 79 of the The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000? Section 79 is entitled the "Criminal liability of directors etc.", which I think gives a sufficient indication of what could be involved. The short answer is No – No, even though I assume they will avoid the mistake of re-starting the News of the World as the Sun on Sunday or some such title. If they did this, they would have been seen as having perpetrated a fraud on the public, for their contrition would have been shown to be false. No, because the police inquiries cannot be stopped and the doomsday machine will continue to do its work. Imagine what each new suspect will do under questioning – attempt to throw the blame on others. If you run an organisation, as the Murdochs have done, where all is hardball, where it is each person for him or herself, where there is no love lost between bosses and subordinates, then the consequence is that the police will have to spend a lot of time sorting out accusation and counter-accusation. I believe myself that Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch, and even Rupert Murdoch himself – if he can be extradited from the United States – will find themselves in court answering charges under Section 79 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

They will thus have killed off a once-fine newspaper for nothing. The Murdochs should sell the News of the World to somebody else. Come to think of it, The Independent and the News of the World would make a fine pair, the one on the high road, the other on the low road. What a combination!