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.”