British politics and culture with an American accent.
London—1. What is Leveson and why should I care? Set up in response to the phone hacking scandal in Britain, Judge Brian Leveson’s independent “inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press” was the first time Rupert Murdoch and his good-for-nothing son James ever had to face serious questions about the way they run their media empire. Indeed James’s pathetic performance, and his monumental lack of curiousity about the way News International employees hacked the phones and computers of private citizens, slandered the company’s enemies in its papers, and routinely bribed public officials is the main reason Murdoch minor was ousted from the family newspaper business and packed off to New York in disgrace. More broadly the inquiry, which began in July 2011 and has just published its final 2,000-page report, offers a fascinating, detailed look at the what can happen when corporate power and influence are allowed unchecked and unhindered access to politicians desperate to curry media favor. Americans inclined to feel it can’t happen here should imagine—or just remember—a country where Fox News has a Republican administration in the White House.
2. So why have the British suddenly got their knickers in a twist? Because having set up the inquiry, picked the chairman and set his terms of reference Prime Minister David Cameron has now refused to back Leveson’s conclusions. Cameron claims that following Leveson’s recommendation for a system whereby voluntary self-regulation of the press by a truly independent body (unlike the current Press Complaints Commission, widely derided as a toothless club run by and for the big press barons) would be underpinned by new legislation giving the new body standing in law (and allowing Britain’s notorious libel courts to recognize the new arbitrator’s decisions) would amount to crossing “the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land.” Labour leader (and former Nation intern) Ed Miliband disagrees, calling on the government to implement Leveson’s recommendations in full. As it happens, so does Deputy Prime Minister (and former Nation intern!) Nick Clegg, who took the unprecendented step of making his own speech to Parliament setting out his disagreement with his coalition partner.
3. Crikey! Does this mean the government might fall? Probably not. But the rift between Clegg and Cameron is serious, and if Clegg had been looking for an excuse to flounce out of the coalition Leveson is a better cause than most. But Clegg knows his party would be wiped out if an election were held anytime soon; his only hope is to hang on till 2015 and hope either (a) the economy turns around and he gets some of the credit or (b) the economy is still flatlining but voters love the idea of coalition government only with Labour as the senior partner. Siding with Miliband over Leveson is the political equivalent of a “meet cute” between two people unhappily married to others: it gives them an excuse to talk, and a small sense of whether they might actually run off together someday.
4. But doesn’t Cameron have a point about press regulation? Index on Censorship thinks so. The former cold war scolds have been groping for relevance for decades (and sometimes, as in their Libel Reform campaign, actually finding some.) But the group’s warning that any action by Parliament “could be the start of a slippery slope of government interference in the media” is frankly, idiotic (but immensely useful for Cameron). Article 19, a group equally committed to free speech, welcomed Leveson’s conclusions, saying: “Statutory underpinning of self-regulation, proposed by his report, does not contradict international standards on press freedom.” It’s true that without a written constitution, Britain has no easy way to give the press protection comparable to the simple “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But Americans also have a constitutional right to privacy. Britons currently have neither, encouraging a prurient, gossip-obsessed tabloid press to hound the powerless while giving it neither the power nor the protection which would allow it to hold the powerful to account.
5. This “statutory underpinning”—is it some kind of weird foundation garment? No. The idea is that the press would regulate itself, setting up a body to arbitrate complaints, find facts and impose fines (up to £1 million) on offenders. Most members of this regulator would be drawn from the general public (instead of press owners or their employees); politicians would not be allowed to serve. However the body itself would be “underpinned”—given some standing—in law, which would allow the courts to treat its findings as conclusive evidence. It would also allow the courts to treat news organizations who refused to join (as the proprietor of the Daily Express, which published scurrilous lies about the McCanns, a Northern Irish couple whose daughter Madeleine disappeared in 2005, simply refused to join the Press Complaints Commission) differently from those who offered a chance of cheap, speedy redress through the new regulator. For example Leveson suggested that news organizations who stayed outside the new self-regulator would be unable to recover their own legal costs in libel actions—even if they won. Which would be a powerful incentive for joining. He also said that given the press’s history of failed self-regulation, the current broadcast regulator Ofcom would serve as a “backstop” able to step in if the new self-regulator fails to perform as it should. This places the state not just at arm’s length from regulating the press, but as Brian Cathcart of the Hacked Off campaign put it “at two arms’ length.” It is also worth emphasizing that Leveson says that Parliament should enshrine freedom of the press in any new law—not as an afterthought, but as a principal aim.
6. So what happens now? The government will prepare a draft bill turning Leveson’s recommendations into law. The Tories claim that they are only doing so to demonstrate why they can’t work—but given the real divisions between the coalition partners the process is hard to control, and harder to predict. Cameron may be gambling that by the time of the next election in 2015 this will all be forgotten. But defying such a groundswell of public support for hacking victims also has its risks. Miliband is clearly gambling that newspaper proprietors no longer have the power the break politicians. Meanwhile Cameron’s former spokesman Andy Coulson, and his BFF Rebekah Brooks both appeared in court yesterday on charges of conspiring to bribe public officials. If either of them are convicted, or decide to cooperate with prosecutors, those commentators who claim that Leveson let the Murdochs off easy—yes, Michael Wolff, I mean you—may have to change their tune.
Rupert Murdoch is under fire again, for claiming the “Jewish-owned press” was “anti-Israel.” Check out Eric Alterman’s coverage here.
Manchester—Is the United Kingdom ready for its first Jewish Prime Minister? The last time Labour held its annual Conference in this northern metropolis the question would have seemed not just parochial but preposterous. I remember watching Former Nation intern Ed Miliband looking distinctly uncomfortable at a Labour Friends of Israel reception just a few days after his come-from-behind 2010 victory as party leader. Despite the kvelling, there was still a palpable reluctance to embrace this newly-anointed Jacob so soon after he’d elbowed aside brother David’s embittered Esau. But then the whole Labour party seemed too consumed by internal anguish to notice that behind the mask of coalition and compromise the Conservatives were pushing forward an aggressive program of cuts and privatization that no one had voted for.
Part of the problem was that during a disastrous election campaign Labour, too, had embraced a version of the austerity narrative that became the coalition government’s founding myth. For months after their defeat Labour remained too obsessed with fiscal rectitude—and fratricidal drama—to offer any real alternatives.
All of which made this year’s Conference seem like Ed Miliband’s coming out party. Although never one to deny his heritage, Miliband is a thoroughly secular Jew. But having decided to use his leader’s speech this year to tell the nation “Who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country,” he needed to get up close and personal, outing himself not just as a Jew, but as the son of immigrants—even an unabashed intellectual.
Speaking without notes or teleprompter, Miliband told the delegates he was “a person of faith, not a religious faith but a faith nonetheless”—going on to use the f-word a total of 12 times in his remarks. The only concept that got more of an airing was a piece of deft borrowing from another speech in Manchester, given 140 years earlier by Benjamin Disraeli, in which the leader of the Conservative Party called for a “One Nation” Toryism.
In tracing a line from Disraeli, the Victorian Prime minister whose Reform Act gave British working men the vote, through the victory over fascism in the Second World War to the postwar Labour government of Clement Atlee, which created the National Health Service and the modern welfare state, Miliband was doing more than just stealing the clothes of David Cameron’s now discarded compassionate conservatism. By reminding his own party of their duty to build a country “where prosperity is fairly shared” he finally put a stake through the heart of New Labour. Yet in reaching across the aisle to Disraeli he also rejected the narrow tribalism of those who yearn for a return to old Labour.
Instead of the politics of nostalgia, or neo-liberal accommodation with the machinations of finance capital, Miliband’s “One Nation” Labour offered a left populism that embraced both economic justice and what Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher who spoke to a huge, and occasionally bemused audience here two days before Miliband, referred to as “what money can’t buy.” But the choice of Disraeli, born a Jew but baptized at the age of 12, was also a way of turning his own “otherness” into a source of strength rather than shame.
“I think he cracked it,” Sally Gimson, a Labour councillor from Highgate in London, told me afterwards. Judging by the rapturous applause most of the other delegates agreed. Even the national press, which has long derided Miliband’s adenoidal accent and geekish tendencies, called the speech a “game changer.”
My own verdict is a little more restrained. As an orator Ed Miliband, on his best day, is no Bill Clinton—or even Tony Blair. The few times he had to stop for applause came not in response to policy proposals or personal revelations but after blistering attacks on an “incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, u-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable … Prime Minister.”
With the next election not expected until 2015, political debate here often seems more a matter of symbol than of substance. So when Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, said that if his party were in power today he would take £2.5 billion due from the sale of 4G mobile phone licenses and use it not to pay off the national debt—as Gordon Brown did with the proceeds of the 3G auction—but instead to finance the construction of 100,000 affordable homes, critics hastened to point out that Labour isn’t in power, and even if they win the next election the money will already be gone.
But symbolism sometimes wins elections. Whatever chancellor George Osborne actually does with the 4G windfall will now be compared with those shiny new—if entirely imaginary—houses. Lately the symbols have been running Labour’s way. Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s fracas last month, in which he cursed at police officers and called them “plebs” after they refused to let him cycle through the gates at 10 Downing Street, confirmed an image of his party as sneering snobs. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s comment last week that abortion ought to only be legal up to 12 weeks was promptly disavowed by David Cameron—but the impression of a party who want to turn back the clock was not easily dispelled.
As mood music, Miliband’s invocation of “One Nation Labour” is already a hit. But Maurice Glasman, a Saul Alinsky-style community organizer who was the new Labour leader’s first appointment to the House of Lords, hopes for a more substantial change of tune. “Capitalism cannot be regulated at arms length,” he has written. “It needs to be domesticated at source.... The redistribution of power is as important as the redistribution of wealth.” The architect of “Blue Labour”—a strategy sometimes described as a blend of economic radicalism and social conservatism—Glasman, like Jon Cruddas, the MP in charge of Labour’s policy review, is neither an old fashioned statist nor a neo-liberal preaching accommodation to market values.
Instead Glasman, who describes his own politics as “Bundist”—a nod to the Yiddish socialist rival to communism—has long called for the kind of synthesis suggested by Miliband’s “One Nation” vision. “It’s about strengthing and supporting associations and institutions that aren’t defined by the market,” he told me. “That isn’t how liberals see it. They efficiency, choice, progress. But Labour politics is rooted in the democratic resistance to the commodification of human beings.”
At ground level that means forging links between trade unions and religious groups. It means campaigning for a living wage so that cleaners and cooks and security guards can earn enough to support their families without having to work two jobs—or to rely on state benefits. And it means acknowledging that working class fears about immigrants undercutting wages have some basis in reality.
In his speech Miliband admitted “the last Labour government didn’t do enough to address these concerns.” But he went to explain that his own approach would not be to demonize migrants, but to crack down on employers who refused to pay the minimum wage, or recruitment agencies who only hire overseas—a neat left-hand turn on an issue that his predecessors seemed afraid to grapple with.
On the night after Miliband’s speech there was a panel devoted to the American election, where a packed room received a brief induction into “swing states” and the mysteries of the electoral college. Ronald Reagan admired Margaret Thatcher, but on the left the intellectual current across the Atlantic has lately been west-to-east. Ed Miliband spent a summer at the Nation and three semesters teaching at Harvard. But if he can manage to flesh out the sketchy, if seductive, parameters of his “One Nation” speech into a politics that genuinely redistributes power along with wealth, and does so while offering an economic policy that goes beyond “austerity lite,” it will mark more than just a turn in the intellectual tide. And that really would be something to kvell about.
Hamlet: Or did you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That's a fair thought, to lie between maid's legs.
London—The Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, to give the proceedings unfolding in the Royal Courts of Justice their full title, has rewarded its faithful followers with an ample supply of low farce and even, in the accounts of some of the victims of phone hacking, some moments of high tragedy. But this week’s testimony by Prime Minister David Cameron was the first time your correspondent felt impelled to brush up his Shakespeare.
Thursday’s grilling went on for five hours, none of which is likely to be remembered as one of Cameron’s finest. He gave an account of the 1,403 meetings he had with journalists as leader of the opposition. He claimed, with a straight face, that he hired Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who resigned over the phone hacking scandal and has since been arrested, because he was the only tabloid editor available at the time. He squirmed a bit when Robert Jay, the Inquiry counsel, read out an October 2009 text message from Rebekah Brooks, a former Sun and News of the World editor promoted by Rupert Murdoch to run the parent company News International. Even though we already knew that Cameron was wont to sign his own texts to Brooks “LOL”—until she informed him that wasn’t an abbreviation for “Lots of Love”—the cloying tone of this communiqué reached a crescendo with Brooks’s declaration that she would be “so rooting for you tomorrow [during Cameron’s speech at the Tory party conference] not just as a proud friend but because professionally we're definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam.”
So that’s what he meant by “We’re all in this together”—the Conservative party campaign slogan. Still, as I watched Cameron give what my Tory journalist friend Andrew Gimson aptly termed “a masterclass in the mellifluous deflection of blame,” I couldn’t help worrying over an earlier part of Brooks’s text message, where she suggested that any froideur remaining between the Times and Cameron over his failure to appear at a News International party the previous evening could be dispelled “over country supper.”
It has been a mostly unspoken—because universally understood—aspect of the phone hacking scandal that every time Rebekah Brooks appears, the story gets new legs precisely because her own are so shapely. The photographs of Brooks in a Peter Pan collar, raven tresses streaming, that decorated the front pages after her arrest last month were like Christmas in May on Fleet Street. Ed Milliband’s eminently sensible suggestion, on Tuesday, that there should be a legal limit on how much of the British media market one person should control was simply no competition.
Even if Brooks was knowingly alluding to Hamlet’s bawdy pun in her text to Cameron, the element of sex scandal has been sadly lacking throughout the Murdoch saga. Rebekah Brooks may be a world-class toadie, but her claim on David Cameron’s attention was as the wife of one of his oldest friends, his fellow Old Etonian Charlie Brooks. Hopeful readers might protest that even a nodding acquaintance with the novels of Jilly Cooper suggests an awful lot of neighing and whinnying among the horsey set. However, Cameron’s lunchtime telephone call to his wife yesterday, in which he asked her help in calculating just how often he’d met with Rebekah Brooks and then relayed the results to Judge Leveson, indicates a man with a clean conscience—at least where country matters are concerned.
He was easily able, therefore, to deflect the innuendo in Robert Jay’s query as to whether a “country supper” was “the sort of interaction you often had” with Brooks by a brusque “Yes. We were neighbours.” David Cameron met with Rupert Murdoch ten times as leader of the opposition. He met James Murdoch fifteen times and Rebekah Brooks nineteen times. After the election, in December 2010, he met James at a Christmas dinner at Brooks’s house where the Murdochs’ bid to take control of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB was discussed. When Vince Cable, the business secretary in charge of deciding on the BSkyB bid, revealed that he was prejudiced against the Murdochs, Cameron removed Cable from the process and replaced him with Jeremy Hunt, whom he knew was prejudiced in their favor. Cameron also showed himself willing to do Murdoch’s bidding on any number of issues, ranging from reining in the BBC to hobbling the independent communications regulator Ofcom.
But it seemed pretty clear on Thursday that David Cameron did not have sex with that woman. If only he had.
Does it matter who wins today’s election for mayor of London? To the candidates, certainly. If Labour’s Ken Livingstone loses his bid to return to the office he held from 2000 to 2008, that will probably mean the end of a political career that began in the Greater London Council, where Livingstone proved such a thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher that she abolished municipal government all across Britain just to get rid of him. When Tony Blair returned self-government to London, Livingstone returned to the political stage, proving just as annoying to Blair.
Livingstone was a brilliant mayor. It wasn’t just getting through the congestion charge (a toll on cars entering central London)—something Mike Bloomberg and all his billions couldn’t manage in Manhattan. Or the successful introduction of the Oyster travelcards. Or his opposition to Blair and his successor Gordon Brown’s idiotic (and ruinously expensive) devotion to Public-Private Partnerships to finance capital projects. Or the brilliant redesign of Trafalgar Square from death-spiral traffic island to one of the world’s great public stages. Or even the truly statesmanlike way he kept the city together in the wake of the July 7, 2005, bomb attacks. Livingstone understood, more than any other British politician, the way cities worked, what they needed to grow and prosper and why people came to live in them—sometimes at great cost and across enormous distances.
Livingstone was a genius at leveraging the minimal powers granted the office—chiefly over public transport, urban planning and police numbers. He pushed through the congestion charge, he once told The Nation, because it was his only chance for revenue that didn’t depend on Whitehall’s largesse.
But like Ed Koch, the urban politician he resembled in so many ways (apart from their actual politics, which were poles apart), his abrasiveness eventually cost him re-election. Boris Johnson, the American-born, Eton-educated Tory who replaced him four years ago had the great advantage of not being taken seriously. When Livingstone called a Jewish reporter “a concentration camp guard” you could hear the wailing from Westminster to the Upper West Side. When it emerged that Johnson had written an article describing the Queen being greeted by “flag-waving piccaninnies,” everyone just said “Oh, that’s just Boris.”
Yet Johnson’s term has been far from the expected disaster. His self-appointed role as tribune of the plutocrats can be galling, and Londoners who depend on public transport have had to pay more than they might under Livingstone, but as a cyclist I’ve been glad to see the end of the notorious “bendy busses”—sixty-foot-long juggernauts perfect for Amsterdam’s segregated transit lanes but terrifying on London’s narrow streets. Johnson has also proved willing to defy his party on immigration and housing policies that would force the poor to leave London.
Brian Paddick, the gay former assistant police commissioner running on the Liberal Democrat line, managed just under 10 percent of the vote last time around—before his party got into bed with the Tories. This time he’s expected to finish barely ahead of the right-wing fringe UK Independence Party and the Greens.
The result has been a two-man race that has been compared, all too appropriately, with a pair of drunks at a wedding. Although only one of us can vote here, The Nation’s London bureau is divided on which would be worse—four more years of Boris braying on behalf of Britain’s oppressed bankers or four more years of Ken’s overweening arrogance. It wasn’t just the way Ken talked out of one side of his mouth about “rich bastards” who avoid paying their fair share of taxes—and then turned out to funnel his own considerable media earnings through a corporate shell. There was also his long track record of high-handed contempt for even constructive criticism—as borne out most recently, and most painfully, in his disastrous meeting with Jewish Labour supporters desperate for a few encouraging words.
Livingstone’s proposals to cut bus and Tube fares, buy energy in bulk (and pass the savings on to Londoners) and build affordable housing are all clearly preferable to Boris Johnson’s platform of trickle-down economics in which a supposedly resurgent financial sector serves as the engine of prosperity for the whole country. But elections are about more than policy choices—particularly mayoral elections.
For me the Jewish Question proved decisive. I just can’t support a candidate who views me and my kind with contempt—or even calculated disregard. Besides, if Boris does win, the politician with most to fear would be David Cameron.
But the bureau’s British member held her nose and voted for Livingstone, saying she couldn’t bear to help re-elect a Tory mayor. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
According to SEC filings, James Murdoch’s base salary as chief executive of News Corporation’s Asian and European operations was $3.4 million. He was also eligible for a performance bonus of between $6 and $12 million. And a further signing bonus of 400,000 shares of company stock—presumably to secure his services from the many rivals bidding for the talents of the Harvard dropout and failed hip-hop record producer.
Those figures are worth bearing in mind when considering Murdoch minor’s response to the admirably precise summary of Robert Jay, the attorney acting as lead inquisitor to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture practice and ethics of the press, which was set up in response to the scandal last summer over revelations that reporters on the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of various celebrities, politicians and figures in British life. At the time the hacking took place James Murdoch was busy running the British broadcaster BSkyB, but one of the first tasks he faced when he took over News International, the family’s British newspaper interests, in December 2007 was to settle a lawsuit by Gordon Taylor, head of the British football players’ union, whose phone had been hacked. The Taylor claim was significant because it exploded News Corp.’s claim that phone hacking, which first hit the headlines here with the January 2007 arrest of News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman, had been limited to a lone “rogue reporter.” And in agreeing to a settlement of over $ 1 million James Murdoch was paying way over the odds, leading to suggestions that the payment was “hush money” to keep the scandal under wraps.
In July James told a parliamentary committee he had no idea what he was paying for when he signed off on the Taylor settlement. He stuck to his non-denial denials even after they were contradicted by the company’s former counsel and the News of the World’s former editor—and despite revelations that the company had sought to destroy millions of potentially incriminating e-mails.
“Either you were told about the evidence that linked others at the News of the World…and this was in effect a cover-up,” said Robert Jay, in which case Murdoch’s persistent denials amount to perjury. “Or you weren’t told and there was a failure of governance within the company.”
Jay’s day-long grilling of James Murdoch amounted to an elegant, and progressively restricting, series of variations on that theme. Watching both Murdochs bob and weave their way out of the inept grandstanding that too often characterized the parliamentary committee’s questions during the summer, it was impossible to avoid the thought that this was a job for a prosecutor, not a politician. And though there were few fireworks today—apart from the revelation of a secret back channel between the company and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, which will probably cost Hunt his job—the forensic constriction of Jay’s questions left precious little room for Murdoch minor’s pretensions to either competence or probity. He may just about stay out of jail by claiming to be an idiot—which is not an option available to his father, who begins two days of testimony tomorrow morning.
The fundamental question for both Murdochs remains, What did they know, and when did they know it? But since the summer the list of crimes to be covered up just gets longer and longer. Besides invasion of privacy and perjury (in maintaining the “one rogue reporter” defense long after Murdoch executives were aware that the hacking culture was pervasive within the company), there is also extortion (muscling singer Charlotte Church out of her £100,000 fee to sing at Rupert’s wedding), destruction of evidence, bribery of police officers and other public officials, intimidation of witnesses and possibly even a connection to murder.
In the summer Labour MP Alan Keen tried to toss Rupert Murdoch a softball, saying, “You’ve been kept in the dark.” But the billionaire press baron refused to play ball: “Nobody kept me in the dark. Anything that’s seen as a crisis comes to me.”
Will Rupert repeat James’s claim—which provoked peals of laughter inside the overflow press tent—that “support of an individual newspaper for politicians one way or another is not something that I would ever link to a commercial transaction”? Does he share his son’s evident disgust that politicians and journalists who availed themselves “of the hospitality of my family for years” have proved such fickle friends? Tune in tomorrow and find out!
Does Elizabeth Murdoch know how to make gnocchi? Because this was the week when it became blindingly obvious that whoever was scripting Rupert Murdoch’s moves—personally flying in to London to open a new Sun on Sunday to replace the toxic News of the World; tweeting a defense of his fallen favorite, Rebekah Brooks, when it emerged that in addition to presiding over a paper that paid hundreds of thousands of pounds in bribes to policemen she’d also been loaned a police horse to ride; stripping his son James of his power over News International, the subsidiary that runs the News Corp.’s British newspapers and packing him off to work with Moe Greene in Las Vegas (Surely that should be “with Chase Carey in New York”?—ed.)—the swelling soundtrack had to be by Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone.
We still have a long wait for the box set—and the next installment, Murdoch in America: Judgment Day, won’t be released until prosecutors at the Department of Justice decide whether the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which is designed to prevent the payment of bribes to foreign officials by US corporations in order to gain unfair advantage, applies to what Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers told the Leveson Inquiry was “the delivery of regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to small numbers of public officials by journalists” in order to gain exclusive access to “salacious gossip” which the Sun, Murdoch’s flagship British tabloid, could then splash all over the front page. Which presumably helped the paper sell more copies than its less-wired competitors.
Akers’s clear, detailed and devastating testimony on Monday meant that the Murdoch organization’s brief counter-attack against Brian Leveson’s investigation into British press corruption, which culminated in Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun’s former political editor and hatchet-man, whining about a “witch hunt,” was now sleeping with the fishes. Indeed if you were looking for the moment when the phone hacking probe turned from scandal to soap opera you could hardly better Kavanagh’s complaint that Murdoch’s “journalists are being treated like members of an organized crime gang.” Just how far that fall from grace is measured was shown on Thursday, when John Yates, the former assistant police commissioner who resigned over the summer, and who in 2009 decided there was no reason to reopen the phone hacking investigation—and who refused to tell deputy prime minister John Prescott his phone had been hacked—was quizzed about his habit of sharing a relaxing glass—or bottle—of champagne, or a meal at the Ivy, with his good friends at News International.
Earlier in the week the Welsh singer Charlotte Church settled her phone hacking claim against Murdoch for £ 650,000. “You are fighting a massive corporation with endless resources, a phenomenal amount of power, and it is just made really difficult,” said Church, who told the Guardian the News of the World “published a story about an affair her father had had and approached [Charlotte’s mother] Maria Church to tell her they had a “part two” of the story which they promised they would withdraw if she gave a first-hand account of her suicide attempt. They also asked to take photographs of her arms.” In November Church told the Leveson Inquiry that as a 13-year-old girl she’d been pressured into waiving her £100,000 fee to sing at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding to Wendi Deng in exchange for favorable treatment in his newspapers. (In case you were wondering, the statute of limitations for extortion under New York law is five years.)
Even in such a busy week it is worth taking a minute to reflect on what amounts to the firing of James Murdoch by his father. And here, tempting as it is to wallow in the family saga, the real action is taking place far from public view. Sidelining James may make for dramatic headlines, but what Murdoch is clearly trying to avoid is not the “Sicilian Vespers”—the baptismal bloodbath at the end of Godfather Part 1—but, to change metaphors, a Saturday Night Massacre. As older readers will recall, that was when a besieged and paranoid Richard Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which in turn triggered the resignation of Attorney General Elliot Richardson, ultimately hastening Nixon’s resignation. The casting is straightforward: Murdoch as Nixon and Joel Klein, the former Justice Department trust-buster now heading News Corp’s Management and Standards Committee, as Cox. And in a post-modern masterstroke, the part of Roger Ailes, Nixon’s media strategist and the author of “A Plan For Putting the GOP on TV News” will be played by… Roger Ailes, Murdoch’s American muscle and president of Fox News.
In the past few weeks Klein’s committee has been desperately throwing underlings overboard in an attempt to protect the Murdochs. So far the strategy has worked—at least in terms of arrests. Certainly sending James to New York makes it unlikely his sleep will be disturbed by Scotland Yard.
But there is still the risk that at some point Murdoch himself will tell Klein’s committee they have done enough to help the British police. Or that—and this is made far more complicated by US election year politics—Klein’s former colleagues at the Justice Department will start issuing subpoenas. When that happens perhaps Klein—and certainly James Murdoch—might want to brush up on the Code Corleone: “Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you, but don’t ever side with anyone against the family again.”
The US Department of Justice, on its website, helpfully offers links to the text of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in fifteen languages, from Arabic to Urdu. The English version is sixteen pages long, and probably ought to be in Rupert Murdoch’s iPad so he can skim through it during his flight this week from New York to London, where the British branch of his media empire made more headlines on Saturday. That was when British police arrested another five journalists from the Sun, Murdoch’s flagship British tabloid, including the paper’s current news editor, deputy editor, chief reporter and chief foreign correspondent, making a total of ten current and former Sun staff who have been arrested in the past four months. A few hours after the arrests Tom Mockridge, who replaced Rebekah Brooks (arrested in July) as head of News International, Murdoch’s British newspaper subsidiary, read out a memo to staff quoting his boss’s “total commitment to own and publish the Sun.”
That such an assurance should have been necessary is a sign of just how bad things have been going for the economic migrant media mogul lately. And like all such assurances—older Nation-istas may recall George McGovern’s assurance that he stood behind vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton “1,000 per cent,” while younger readers can doubtless fill in their own examples of iron-clad promises made to be broken—no sooner are the words spoken than hopes begin to fade. The press here this morning was already full of pundits urging Murdoch to shun the Sun.
Although the paper sells 2.75 million copies a day—and makes tens of millions in profit a year, cross-subsidizing its up-market stablemates the Times and the Sunday Times—the temptation to offload it must be considerable. The latest arrests were triggered by Murdoch’s own Management and Standards Committee, an in-house group chaired by a prominent British barrister and which is supposed to ensure that the company cooperates with British authorities investigating phone hacking, payments to police and other public officials, and other public enquiries. The committee, which reports internally to Joel Klein, the former Justice Department official hired by Murdoch to run his education division, turned over some 300 million e-mails, expense forms and other internal memos to the British police, and it was that document dump that triggered Saturday’s arrests.
But as the Guardian’s Nick Davies, the reporter who broke the hacking scandal this summer, explained last week, what makes this handover particularly dangerous for the Murdochs is that this data, “which was apparently deliberately deleted from News International’s servers,” might also “yield evidence of attempts to destroy evidence the high court and police were seeking.” Destroying such evidence, or perverting the course of justice, as it’s known here, is a felony in Britain. But it is also a crime under the FCPA—§ 78m (b) 5, which states: “No person shall knowingly circumvent or knowingly fail to implement a system of internal accounting controls or knowingly falsify any book, record, or account.”
Although Davies’s reporting exploded the “rogue reporter” defense, until now the Murdochs have just about managed to maintain plausible deniability for themselves. But the traditional prosecution strategy of picking off the guilty underlings and then flipping them up the corporate ladder has gotten uncomfortably close to James Murdoch—and that was before the company started throwing employees off the train, which is how even longtime Murdoch minions like Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun’s former political editor, see this weekend’s arrests.
As the evidence mounts that much of Murdoch’s journalism was built on illegal invasions of privacy and corrupt relationships with police, three questions remain in urgent need of answers: Why should British authorities permit an in-house News Corporation committee, regardless of how fragrant its members may be, to serve as gatekeepers of the company’s records—especially when there is abundant evidence of efforts to destroy or delete incriminating evidence? In light of the latest arrests relating to corrupt payment to government officials, and bearing in mind actor Jude Law’s claim that his phone was hacked on his arrival at JFK airport, when will the Justice Department get serious about its own investigations? (There is also the lesser question of whether we are really to believe that methods which consistently delivered tabloid gold for editors and reporters in Britain would be too sleazy to tempt the high-minded hacks at the New York Post?)
And finally, what did the Murdochs know and when did they know it? Unlikely as it might have seemed in July, we may be about to find out. As more News Corp. executives come to believe they are being sacrificed to protect Rupert’s succession plan, the probability increases that someone who knows the answer will decide to cooperate with authorities. This gives the Justice Department, in particular, enormous leverage. In 2009 Siemens paid $800 million in fines for violating the FCPA—which also provides for possible prison sentences of up to five years. Amid the steady drumbeat of revelations from London it is important to keep an eye—and ear—on Washington. That’s where you’ll hear the sound of the other shoe dropping.
If corporations really were people, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation would be breaking rocks. That’s the take-away from yesterday’s astonishing ruling by Geoffrey Vos, the judge presiding over the phone-hacking civil trial here. In agreeing to settle with thirty-seven victims yesterday the company clearly hoped to be able to draw a line under the scandal, which has already seen the closure of the world’s best-selling English language tabloid, The News of the World, and both Rupert Murdoch and his son James forced to give evidence before a Parliamentary select committee. With the trial scheduled to begin on February 13, the Murdochs must have hoped that if they could make the case go away by paying off the plaintiffs then the steady drip of information about News Corp.’s criminal activities—which include phone hacking, payments to police and breaking into e-mail accounts—might stop before it lead higher up the corporate chain of command.
The company’s first problem is that the thirty-seven victims who agreed to settle include many of the most famous boldface names—actor Jude Law, who had his phone messages hacked and was himself the target of physical surveillance by Murdoch’s men for a period of years received £130,000 (over $200,000); his ex-wife Sadie Frost got £50,000 (over $77,000); last May Law’s ex-girlfriend, Sienna Miller, was paid £100,000 (over $150,000) to settle her claim—it didn’t include all of them. Singer Charlotte Church, for example has yet to settle. So far just over half of those victims who have actually filed suit have agreed to settle. And there are literally hundreds of additional victims whose names have not yet been made public.
But a much bigger problem is that the documents already disclosed because of the civil suit suggest that in addition to routine invasions of privacy and bribery, Murdoch executives may also have been guilty of destroying evidence in order to cover up the company’s crimes. And as Richard Nixon and his henchman learned the hard way, it’s the cover-up that gets you in the end.
When News Corp.’s lawyer, Dinah Rose, told the judge, “There comes a point when we’re three weeks away from trial and…we can say enough is enough,” arguing the company had already turned over sufficient evidence to the plaintiffs, she sounded like any corporate lawyer used to getting her way. But Vos wasn’t buying. In ordering News Corporation to turn over three of their executives’ laptops and six desktop computers he said News Group, Murdoch’s British newspaper arm, “are to be treated as deliberate destroyers of evidence.”
“I have been shown a number of emails,” he said, “which show a rather startling approach to the email record.” Three days after Sienna Miller’s lawyers wrote to News Group asking the company to preserve any emails relating to phone hacking, “a previously conceived plan to conceal evidence was put in train by [News Group] managers,” the judge said.
Even as they apologized for the violations of privacy that led to yesterday’s settlements News Corporation’s lawyers were careful not to make any further admission of guilt. The corporation told the judge he could approve levels of compensation “as if senior employees and directors of [News Group] knew about the wrongdoing and sought to conceal it by deliberately deceiving investigators and destroying evidence.”
Take just a minute to think about what the company might have meant by using the word “director” there. Andy Coulson, the former editor of News of the World who later served as David Cameron’s spin doctor wasn’t a company director. Nor was Clive Goodman, the “rogue reporter” whose arrest started the whole scandal. But Rebekah Brooks, the Murdoch favorite who went from editing the Sun to running News of the World to running both papers’ parent company, was a director. And so was James Murdoch.
The idea behind News Corporation’s non-denial denial was to get the settlements approved quickly without actually admitting anything. But Vos’s ruling was crystal clear: “The day you can say ‘that’s enough’ is the day I give judgement—although you can’t even say it then because of the number of other cases waiting in the wings.”
A year ago I’d have said the Murdochs stood a good chance of shutting this whole thing down with a wave of the checkbook. Yesterday’s ruling made it pretty clear that isn’t going to happen. And while it would still be a reckless man who’d bet against Rupert Murdoch, the odds against James Murdoch taking a fall just got a little shorter.
On Monday night the London bureau’s youngest member and I were sitting very high up in the stands watching what looked to be a pretty desultory draw between our team, Arsenal, currently in fourth place in the Premier League of English Football (soccer to you), and Leeds, currently languishing in eighth place in the second tier Championship League. The teams were competing for a chance to win the FA Cup, the oldest domestic tournament in football, but the reason we were there on a school night was the chance of witnessing the return of Thierry Henry, the club’s captain a decade ago and a player of immense charm, dignity and talent. Though afflicted with uncomprehending parents, the YM had been to a couple of Henry’s matches before the player was sold to Barcelona in 2007, and even named his cello “Thierry” in homage to his hero.
Now playing for the New York Red Bulls, Henry was on-loan to his old club during Major League Soccer’s off-season. As he came on to the pitch 50,000 fans stood up and cheered. And when, after less than ten minutes, he scored the match’s winning goal, the stadium erupted.
Alex Salmond is no Thierry Henry. Built more for the golf course or the race track, Scotland’s First Minister was expelled from the Scottish National Party as a student for membership in a far-left splinter group. Eventually rising to party leader, he was elected to Parliament in 1987 and to the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. However, in 2000, seeming bored by Edinburgh politics, Salmond resigned as party leader and returned to Westminster as a back-bencher, where he strongly opposed the Iraq War. Returning to leadership in 2004, Salmond became First Minister in a minority government, supported by the Greens, in 2007, but in 2011 won re-election in a landslide victory that gave the SNP a majority on a platform promising Scottish voters a referendum on whether the country should become completely independent.
During his four years leading a minority government Salmond kept university tuition free for Scottish students, while older Scots enjoyed government-paid nursing care. But last week David Cameron tried to derail the SNP’s strategy of a slow, stealthy march towards independence, pointing out that under devolution any change in the British constitution, such as independence for any part of the United Kingdom, has to be approved by Westminster. And with opinion polls showing that a majority of Scots don’t currently favor full independence, Cameron said he’d only give permission for a referendum if it happened in the next eighteen months and was restricted to a simple in or out.
What’s interesting is what happened next. Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, denounced Cameron’s announcement as “a blatant attempt to interfere” on the BBC. “The more a Tory government tries to interfere in Scottish democracy, I suspect the greater the support for independence will become,” she said. By the end of the week the truth of that point was so obvious Cameron pulled back, allowing surrogates such as Education Minister Michael Gove, a Scottish-born Tory, and Danny Alexander, chief minister at the Treasury and a Scottish Liberal-Democrat, to take up the fight. Alex Salmond, though furiously insisting this was an issue for Scotland to decide, commited himself to a referendum in 2014—the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when Scottish troops defeated the English under Edward II.
A lot can—and probably will—happen between now and 2014. The clearcut economic case for Scottish independence based on North Sea Oil and entry into the Euro is a lot cloudier now that the oil is running low and the Euro looks more like a suicide pact. Salmond and his colleagues used to talk a lot about Iceland as proof that a small country, well-educated country without much of a manufacturing base could thrive on the periphery of Europe, but since Iceland went bust you don’t hear so much about the “arc of prosperity” that was going to connect Iceland, Ireland and a newly independent Scotland.
And the British parliamentary politics of the issue are fiendishly complicated. The Tories, whose full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party, are constitutionally committed to preserving the Union with Scotland. Yet with, as a current joke goes, fewer Scottish Tory MPs than there are giant pandas in the Edinburgh zoo, the temptation to hand Salmond his hat must be considerable—especially since without Scottish votes Labour would shrink from a minority party to a marginal one. Which lends Ed Miliband’s efforts to persuade Scottish voters to stay in Britain the stench of desperation.
Last week Miliband gave what was billed as a major speech on the economy. But anyone looking for genuinely effective opposition to Cameron and the coalition would have done better to look further north. Salmond may be trickier than he looks—he’s apparently Rupert Murdoch’s favorite British politican, though that could have more to do with the Australian tycoon’s long-standing preference for winners who will take his calls over losers who will take orders. But listening to Nicola Sturgeon on the radio, and watching Salmond effortlessly tie Cameron in knots on television, I couldn’t help thinking, “At last. Somebody who knows how to play this game.”
It was not a slow news day. US troops handed over the last military base in Iraq. Golden Globe nominations were announced in Hollywood. The International Monetary Fund warned the world was heading into a “1930s-style slump.” But the top item on the Google News feed—and the New York Times and Guardian web sites—was the death, hardly unexpected, of Christopher Hitchens. Which I suspect would have given him considerable pleasure.
And might still. By no means the least of the consolations now available to the unbeliever, and to those who live outside the lines of conventional virtue, is the thought that if we turn out to be mistaken in our Cartesian wagers, and find ourselves in the long, long chute to a smoke-and-brimstone-filled afterlife, Christopher will be there at the bottom to welcome us with a drink and, why not, a cigarette.
Trying to absorb the news this morning, I kept thinking of the Zanzibar Club, near the old New Statesman offices, where I first met Christopher in 1979, bearing an introduction from Amy Wilentz, late of these pages. “Tell him I said he’s a worldly wise man who will tell you everything you need to know,” she wrote to me. So I did, and he probably did, though after a futile effort to match him scotch for scotch—I gave up after 8, though Christopher kept on a good while longer, until he rose, steadily, and explained apologetically that he still had a column to write—I couldn’t remember much wisdom.
What remained indelible, though, was his wit, his bonhomie, his beauty—he looked like I’d always imagined Puck, or like a pre-Raphaelite fairy gone slightly to seed—and his kindness. At the time I was a graduate student with a single Nation book review to my name, yet Christopher insisted on introducing me to everyone in the club—which turned out to be pretty much everyone on Fleet Street—as a “distinguished American critic,” and on getting me an assignment from the Statesman.
Five years later he got me out of trouble in Cyprus after I’d crashed a rented car into a police Land Rover, telling the authorities I was “an influential American journalist”—a fib that not only gained my freedom but resulted in a free hotel room as well.
The last time I saw Christopher was in the summer of 2009, when he materialized at the edge of the audience after I’d done a reading at Politics and Prose in Washington. There had been a kind of froideur between us over various matters, some personal and some political, and I was deeply touched that he’d come. After we exchanged kisses, he asked if I was free for dinner and I explained that I was going out with my cousin and her daughter, who’d just finished her first year as a midshipman at Annapolis. After we parted, my young cousin said, “It’s so cool that he came.” And it was.
Agreeing—or disagreeing—with all of Christopher’s positions over the years was impossible. But he was always very easy to love. The last e-mail he sent me to was to correct my mistaken attribution of a quotation. And the last e-mail I sent to him was to ask him about a phrase he’d written in Vanity Fair: “Heroism breaks its heart, and idealism its back, on the intransigence of the credulous and the mediocre, manipulated by the cynical and the corrupt.” If we are all lucky, I wrote, “and you recover, I’d love to ask you to unpack that epigram someday. But frankly I’d settle for your being well enough to tell me to go fuck myself.”
Read D.D. Guttenplan’s review of Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22.”