Andreas Whittam Smith: The buck stops with Rupert Murdoch himself

The successes have been his alone, so have the failures. The scandals that tumble out daily are his doing

Andreas Whittam Smith
Thursday 01 March 2012 01:00

Imagine that James Murdoch understood the meaning of the statement made by his father, Rupert, on Monday and saw his own fate. For commenting on the exposure of corrupt practices on an industrial scale at The Sun, the tycoon said: "The practices... described at the Leveson Inquiry are ones of the past and no longer exist at The Sun."

Essentially, this is Rupert Murdoch's method of dealing with the crisis. What did happen won't happen again because what was no longer exists. The News of the World no longer exists. Rebekah Brooks as a former editor and executive no longer exists apart from occasional references to her in the media. To all intents and purposes, she is dead. And now the same thing has been visited upon his son, James.

It was on James's watch that all the dreadful things happened at the News of the World and on The Sun, and weren't successfully hidden away. So he must no longer exist. Or, to put it in the polite words of yesterday's announcement: "James Murdoch... has relinquished his position as executive chairman of News International." Then followed a list of all the wonderful things he had done – except that there was no mention of the company's newspapers. In that world, he no longer exists. Did he ever exist, he must wonder?

It is now widely realised that the entire media company is at risk because in most markets a condition for obtaining and continuing to hold a broadcasting licence is that the people running the show are "fit and proper" persons. Moreover, the non-broadcasting properties will become tarnished. Mr Murdoch senior has seen this from the first day. That is precisely why he must get himself into the position I describe above: "What was the case is so no longer."

It is the same logic that sees News Group steadily providing the police with evidence against its employees on The Sun. Mr Murdoch couldn't close down The Sun as he had done the News of the World. It has a valuable six-days-a-week franchise and, as we have just seen, can take the slot left vacant by the News of the World on Sundays. Instead, the corrupt journalists have to be rooted out. They, too, must no longer exist.

In an extraordinary way, the Metropolitan Police are acting as Mr Murdoch's agents in this process. The company has neither the resources nor standing to do the work itself. So, thinks Mr Murdoch, give the incriminating files to the police and let them clear out the guilty journalists. But, in taking this path, he is running great dangers for himself. He is forgetting that the police and journalists share at least one technique in common: the jigsaw puzzle approach. That takes advantage of the fact that slotting seemingly minor facts into a big picture often provides major insights.

Meanwhile, the Leveson Inquiry rolls on. Some Murdoch groupies have recently criticised it, "useful idiots" as Lenin is supposed to have called such people, but to no effect. Think what was disclosed on Tuesday at the Inquiry. It was alleged that a News of the World executive mounted a surveillance operation on a detective chief superintendent and his detective constable wife to frighten them off from pursuing murder enquiries . Ludicrously, the newspaper was hoping to expose an affair between the two whereas, in fact, that they had been married for four years and had two children.

I see the story from now onwards as the hunting down and cornering of Rupert Murdoch himself. It is well understood that the ethos of organisations is established by the founders and by those who follow them as leaders. In the case of News Corporation, Mr Murdoch did indeed inherit the original business from his father. It was a small, Australian newspaper group. Nonetheless, News Corp is Rupert Murdoch. He has single handedly built it up. Nothing important takes place without his approval. He runs it his way.

From which it follows that if the successes have been his alone, so have the failures. The disgraceful scandals that now tumble out daily are Mr Murdoch's doing. He is famously hands-on.

That is why he has been prepared to spend five or six weeks in London at present nursing the injured Sun newspaper. He has chosen every senior executive. The way things are done requires his assent. The triumphs are his – and so are the evil practices that we now see so clearly. He won't retire, but he will be removed.

For faced with serious allegations of the kind that have recently been made, the only logical response, using Mr Murdoch's own approach, would be that he himself should no longer exist. If the empire is to be saved, then there has to be somebody who can say – "Yes, disgusting stuff indeed, but that was really the old man's fault, and he has resigned from all his positions and sold his shares."

Rupert Murdoch will soon "no longer exist".

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in