Eight days ago – yes, it really is only eight days – Rupert Murdoch sacrificed his best-selling British Sunday paper in order to shield his chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, and the rest of his empire from the latest ravages of the phone-hacking scandal.
Yesterday, the futility of that gambit was demonstrated for all to see when Ms Brooks' resignation was accepted at the second time of asking. By then, though, it was already far too little, much too late.
Rupert Murdoch has been known for creative, nimble and, above all, timely business footwork. It is a faculty that appears to have deserted him. Since the phone-hacking affair escalated from slow burn to full-blown frenzy, with the claims that Milly Dowler's messages had been intercepted, he and his lieutenants have grievously misread the signals and been left perpetually scrambling to catch up.
Having dismissed the charges against the News of the World as just a little local difficulty, Mr Murdoch was forced to broach the possibility that the consequences might not be so easily contained. Having convinced himself that the bid for BSkyB could proceed, unaffected by everything else going on, he finally accepted it was doomed, but only as Government and Opposition closed ranks against it. Having declined to appear before the Commons committee, pleading full diaries until mid-August, Mr Murdoch and his son, James, suddenly found time to appear next Tuesday.
A week ago, the head of Ms Brooks offered up on a platter might have been sufficient. Now, it risks adding fuel to the fire. As rival papers finalised plans to carve up the News of the World's erstwhile readership, Mr Murdoch and News Corp were drafting an apology to be published in every national newspaper. The very notion of the name Murdoch and "sorry" appearing in proximity, let alone in paid advertising in other people's papers, illustrates how dramatically the climate has changed. Yesterday he apologised to the Dowler family in person, while recognising in his advert that apologising was not enough.
The timing of an apology is all. Get it right, and the damage is limited; leave it too long, and it smacks of empty public relations. That is also true of the apology offered by Ms Brooks in her resignation statement. When the Milly Dowler revelations first broke, Ms Brooks spoke the words, but failed to follow through. To say, as she did yesterday, that she feels "a deep sense of responsibility for the people we have hurt", does not cut it, especially not when she insists – in a striking echo of Andy Coulson's resignation from No 10 – that she is departing essentially because she has become the story, rather than for anything she might or might not have done.
The other reason why Ms Brooks' resignation will not cut it is that this juggernaut of revelations is already moving on. With connections now disclosed between the NOTW and the Metropolitan Police; the fateful detail that the paper's former deputy editor, Neil Wallis, was media consultant for the Met at the same time as its former editor was working for David Cameron; new questions about why James Murdoch approved payments to the first hacked celebrities; and the rising political heat in the US, where the FBI is investigating reports that NOTW reporters hacked into the phones of 9/11 victims, Ms Brooks has already been relegated to a bit part. The scandal has already outgrown her.Reuse content