Leading article: On the press, let's pause and think

Click to follow

The crisis of the Murdoch empire is a cautionary tale of hubris. A tycoon whose vast media company seemed the most powerful in the world has been reduced to taking grovelling full-page advertisements in the British press saying "Sorry" and: "I realise that simply apologising is not enough."

Suddenly, Rupert Murdoch seems old and close to broken. A few days ago, all British leaders, and many politicians in America and Australia, were in awe of him, eager to pay their respects to him or to anyone who claimed to represent him. Last week, all three parties in Britain combined to condemn his attempt to strengthen his hold on Britain's most successful private-sector broadcaster.

Not only has the emperor no clothes, it would seem, but he is in danger of having no empire either. The illusion of total control of an ideologically unified corporation (all of its 247 editors around the world supported the Iraq war, for example) has been exposed. Mr Murdoch's family holds about 24 per cent of the shares in News Corp and, for a majority, he relies on allies such as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud, the billionaire who gave an interview to the BBC's Newsnight from his yacht in Cannes, wearing sunglasses and shorts. It is now possible that the shareholders would decide that the "Murdoch discount" is too heavy a price to pay and that they should install a CEO from outside the family.

Thus is Mr Murdoch's arrogance brought to account. He treated a public company as a family fiefdom, trying out first one son and then the other as his possible successor, and spending a possibly inflated sum on buying his daughter Elisabeth's company, Shine, so that she might also be available. He may also have closed the News of the World to save Rebekah Brooks, calculating that her fate was tied to his son James, who signed the cheques to settle some of the phone-hacking legal cases.

After 11 days, Mr Murdoch was driven to what he should have done in the first place – letting Ms Brooks go and issuing a full apology – which makes it look as if a newspaper has been closed down unnecessarily and in haste.

The arrogance of the Murdoch court was matched by the cowardice of the politicians and the over-confidence of the police. We do not condemn political leaders for trying to gain a fair hearing from Mr Murdoch's newspapers. It was understandable that Tony Blair should fly to Australia to give a speech to News Corp executives in 1995. We would expect David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to speak to Mr Murdoch, his executives, editors and journalists now. While we welcome openness about such contacts, the – incomplete – lists published by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister last week raise many questions of definition. What about social contacts? Telephone calls? Should every email or text to or from any journalist be logged? Where to draw the line?

These are distractions from the problem, which is that politicians went too far in their attempts to appease the Emperor, who was not as well-dressed as they pretended. Jeremy Hunt's "quasi-judicial" role as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in assessing the terms of News Corp's bid for BSkyB had a flaky feel to it. But the important failing was in politicians' reluctance to force a thorough investigation of the phone-hacking scandal. Gordon Brown's speech last week was a feeble excuse for his own failure to order a judicial inquiry. Ed Miliband deserves credit for his role in blowing that deference wide open.

The police, too, have been found wanting by the sudden spotlight on their relationship with parts of the press – not just News International – which casually crossed the line into corruption. Money for tip-offs, in the absence of a strong public interest defence, ought to be unacceptable, yet it seems to have become accepted because it had been the way of the world for two or three decades.

The danger of such a sudden implosion of the Murdoch mystique is that of a rush to rules and regulations as a substitute for a change of culture. The Independent on Sunday welcomes the Leveson inquiry, but it should not result in the flagellation of all the press. Genuine investigative journalism in the public interest must be defended from the threat of statutory regulation or new rules to give the rich and powerful the right to censor stories before publication.

The lesson of this cautionary tale of arrogance must not be to restrict the freedom of the press.