London—So it turns out that when Rupert Murdoch told MPs here looking into the phone hacking scandal that it was “the most humble day of my life,” he didn’t really mean it. Had his fingers crossed behind his back. If the revelation that the man behind Fox News, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal might not always tell the truth doesn’t strike you as “hold the front page” stuff, it’s still well worth listening to the tape of Murdoch’s March meeting at The Sun here that surfaced last week on the investigative journalism website Exaro and was later broadcast on Channel Four television.
In it the billionaire tyrant faces a group of about twenty-five journalists, some of whom face charges either because of their role in phone hacking or for making illegal payments to police officers and public officials—the focus of Operation Elveden, which saw two more Sun reporters arrested last month. Only last April, Murdoch told the Leveson Inquiry that “paying police officers for information is wrong.” But on the tape Murdoch can be clearly heard saying, “Payments for news tips from cops: that’s been going on a hundred years, absolutely.”
He continues: “When I first bought the News of the World, the first day I went to the office…and there was a big wall safe.… And I said, ‘What’s that for?’ And they said, ‘We keep some cash in there.’ And I said, ‘What for?’ They said, ‘Well, sometimes the editor needs some on a Saturday night for powerful friends.”
When some of the journalists complain that they have been hung out to dry by the company’s Management and Standards Committee—which reports to former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein—who turned over millions of internal e-mails to prosecutors, Murdoch assures them the company “haven’t given them anything for months.”
Far from the contrite figure he presented at the Leveson Inquiry, Murdoch is defiant, dismissing the scandal—which has so far seen more than twenty of his current or former employees arrested—as “next to nothing.” Nowadays when the police ask for information company lawyers are no longer cooperative, responding “No, no, no—get a court order. Deal with that,” Murdoch tells them. And should any of those arrested be convicted, he assures them “I’m not allowed to promise you—I will promise you continued health support—but your jobs—I’ve got to be careful what comes out—but frankly, I won’t say it, but just trust me.”
Murdoch’s first problem is that they don’t trust him—at least not all of them, since at least one of them secretly taped this meeting and then leaked the tape. That matters because of Murdoch’s second problem—namely that the tape, while probably not admissible in court, is compelling prima facie evidence that Murdoch knew his employees made a regular practice of paying “bungs” (bribes) to police officers and other public officials. Which puts him personally right in the crosshairs of the US Justice Department for multiple violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Only a few weeks ago Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff speculated that one aim of the move, finalized last week, to split Murdoch’s empire into a publishing arm containing his British and American newspapers and the 21st Century Fox entertainment business, was to facilitate a settlement with the Justice Department—paid for out of the $2.6 billion cash hoard assigned to the publishing arm. In order to be politically acceptable, any such settlement would need to be accompanied by exactly the kind of gestures of contrition which the leaked tape have now shown to be completely worthless.
In February 2012 I asked, “When Will the Justice Department Get Serious About Murdoch.” The question remains unanswered—at least publicly. Along with Tom Watson, a Labour MP who had his own troubles this week, fellow MP Chris Bryant, whose phone was hacked by the now-defunct News of the World, called on U.S. authorities to press corruption charges against the media baron. “The interesting question,” writes Ross McKibbin in a fascinating review of Murdoch’s career in The London Review of Books, “is why those in political opposition were and are so reluctant to resist Murdoch.”
A year ago President Obama had an election to worry about—and may have felt that having the owner of Fox News’s balls in a vise was more useful than actually applying pressure. And of course the Justice Department has been very busy chasing whistleblowers and leakers. But now that Eric Holder has promised not to prosecute reporters, perhaps he could spare the time to consider the mountain of evidence against the Murdochs. (In one portion of the tape The Sun’s former managing editor, Graham Dudman, asks: “Will the company’s support vanish overnight if you’re not here?” Murdoch replies, “The decision would be…with my son, Lachlan”—which could make for a certain froideur if Rupert and James end up sharing accommodation at Allenwood.)
Because whatever else it has done, the release of the Murdoch tapes should make a quiet deal with Federal prosecutors political poison. So perhaps I can be excused for repeating the question: When will the Justice Department get serious about Murdoch?