Carl Bernstein wonders if this will be Rupert Murdoch’s Watergate. The UK Guardian says Fox News could be finished. As Murdoch’s opponents in the U.S. try to capitalize on the British phone-hacking scandal, to hear some of the more excitable voices in the liberal media you could be forgiven for thinking that by this time next week News Corp will have been sold off to George Soros, as Murdoch himself is perp-walked into a Manhattan courthouse.
Those liberals giddily anticipating a world without Fox are getting a little ahead of themselves. Reports suggest that FBI investigators don’t think there’s much substance to allegations that journalists working for the News of the World (NoW), the now-defunct UK tabloid at the center of the scandal, plotted to hack the phones of 9/11 victims and their families. Anything, of course, is possible, with fresh revelations coming almost daily, but if the 9/11 investigation fizzles out, it’ll be hard for the Murdoch-hating left to keep Americans interested in the hacking scandal.
In Britain, however, there’s no end in sight to l’affaire Murdoch. Key figures at News International and London’s Metropolitan Police force have been arrested or have resigned, and the behaviour of many others, including Prime Minister David Cameron, has been called into serious question. However, those who have driven the near-hysterical coverage of and reaction to the scandal aren’t looking much better. In fact, it’s hard to recall an episode that’s involved such real and serious wrongdoing, but in which the self-appointed prosecutors have engaged in such blatant hypocrisy as they pursue their own agendas and settle old scores.
Those who have pushed the story most vigorously — the Guardian newspaper, the BBC, and Labour politicians — are motivated only tangentially by concern over the behaviour of the tabloid press, or for the privacy of hacking victims. Their main aim from the start has been to damage News Corporation, in revenge for Murdoch switching the support of his UK papers from Labour to the Conservatives towards the end of Gordon Brown’s time in office (many on the left also haven’t forgotten how Murdoch inflicted a crushing defeat on the newspaper printers’ unions in the 1980s), and to damage Cameron’s Tory government. Their duplicity is bad enough, but they’re also guilty of hypocrisy on a breathtaking scale.
Let’s start with the Guardian, which has broken most of the key phone-hacking stories over the past couple of years, and rails against the law-breaking of NoW journalists. This, of course, is the same Guardian that published the Wikileaks emails, knowing they had been stolen (allegedly by Private Bradley Manning) and despite warnings that their publication could result in the deaths of individuals who cooperated with the U.S. and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So both the Guardian and the NoW published material that had been obtained by criminal means, but the Guardian defended its decision to publish with lofty talk of “openness” and the “public interest.” The paper was not, though, acting in the interests of the public. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs in particular, the Guardian was acting in the interests of the left — more precisely, the anti-war movement — and of America’s foes around the world, attempting to discredit the U.S. and undermine support for its efforts in those countries.
Working closely with the Guardian has been the taxpayer-funded, ostensibly politically-neutral BBC, and its hypocrisy has been on show around the clock (literally, on its 24-hour news channel) in its extensive and negative reporting on the size and influence of Murdoch’s media empire. The BBC isn’t allowed to broadcast its own opinion pieces, but it’s given hours of airtime and much space on its website to Murdoch-bashers complaining about the size and influence of News Corp. BBC boss Mark Thompson let the mask slip last year — and fell foul of the corporation’s trustees — when, in a flagrant breach of impartially guidelines, he joined the heads of privately-owned media companies in signing a letter opposing Murdoch’s bid to take full control of British satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
However, as the Conservative Home website shows, the BBC itself enjoys a near-monopoly dominance of television, radio, and internet news provision in the UK; by comparison, in terms of influence on public opinion, Murdoch looks less like William Randolph Hearst and more like Katie Couric. As Janet Daley writes in the Telegraph, the BBC’s problem isn’t with monopolies per se: it’s with monopolies that dissent from its bien-pensant, liberal-left worldview.
As for the Labour Party, there’s been no shortage of weasel words from MPs, and in particular the party’s past and present leaders. Current leader Ed Miliband has been appearing in the House of Commons and in television studios daily to demand that Murdoch’s UK operation be broken up, and to attack the judgment of Cameron in appointing former NoW editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief.
It’s bad enough that Miliband was part of a Labour government that, until Brown replaced Tony Blair, enjoyed a cozy relationship with Murdoch’s papers and raised no concerns about the size and influence of his empire. But his attacks on Cameron are even more blatantly hypocritical. Miliband’s own chief spin doctor is one Tom Baldwin, a former London Times journalist who, back when the Murdoch-owned paper was on the side of Labour, was involved in a campaign to smear a senior Conservative figure — a campaign which ended, bizarrely, with an analyst working for the DEA being jailed for selling confidential documents. And just this year, Baldwin sent an email to senior Labour politicians urging them to “go easy” on the phone-hacking scandal as Miliband sought to repair relations with Murdoch and News International, which operates his UK papers.
But the Gold Star for Phone-Hacking Hypocrisy — for hypocrisy with bells on, for shock and awe hypocrisy — goes to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In one of the most spectacular displays of self-righteous indignation ever seen in the House of Commons, Brown last week vented his fury at Murdoch and his papers. The final straw for Brown (although he apparently didn’t realize it at the time, as this was back in 2006) came when the NoW’s sister tabloid, The Sun, revealed that his young son was suffering from cystic fibrosis.
It was all good stuff, but the impact of Brown’s histrionics was somewhat blunted by fact that everyone listening knew that Brown and his wife had cooperated with The Sun over the story; had later attended the wedding of former NoW editor Rebekah Brooks; and had invited Brooks, along with Murdoch’s wife Wendi and daughter Elisabeth, to a “slumber party” at the PM’s country residence. Those, though, were happier times — before Murdoch switched his allegiance, prompting Brown to threaten to “destroy’’ Murdoch, according to former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil. (The Guardian, incidentally, was forced to apologize to The Sun for claiming it had illegally accessed the boy’s medical records — just a reminder that not every “revelation” in this affair is true.)
And honorable mention for media hypocrisy must go to the Independent, a UK paper that rivals the Guardian for liberal-left sanctimony and likes to bash “greedy” bankers and fret about transparency in politics and business, and which hasn’t been shy in sticking it to Murdoch. The paper is owned by Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and, er, former KGB agent. Are you keeping up?
And, back across the Pond, how can we forget our friends at the New York Times — leakers par excellence of state secrets, erstwhile employers of Jayson Blair, and persecutors of the Duke University lacrosse players? The Times has been driving coverage of the hacking scandal in the U.S. Few people will likely recall that, way back in 1996, the Times thought that illegally intercepting a private phone conversation was pretty cool — that was when Democrat Rep. “Baghdad Jim” McDermott leaked a recording of a call in which senior Republicans, including John Boehner, discussed an ethics case against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Don’t expect the truth-seekers at the Guardian and the BBC, or in the Labour Party, to dwell on the above facts, or indeed to mention some of them at all. The thing about being a hypocrite is that it’s only a problem if you’re picked up on it, and those organizations and individuals know that for the most part they’ll get a pass from each other, because there’s a great deal at stake here.
The axis of liberal-leftism comprising the Guardian, the BBC, and the Labour Party sees the phone-hacking scandal as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shift the balance of political and media power in Britain, with the ultimate aim of bringing about something that for more than three decades has been unimaginable: a left-wing Labour government, preferably allied with a Liberal Democrat Party chastened by its troubled coalition with the Tories. In the U.S., meanwhile, the left sees the scandal as a chance to go after Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and other Murdoch interests; success, they figure, could even mean the difference between victory and defeat for Obama and the Demcrats in 2012.
But the left has a long track record of making grand predictions based on wishful thinking. A few months ago they were predicting that Wikileaks was going to change the world. A couple of years ago they were convinced Barack Obama would usher in a new liberal era and consign the Republican Party to the scrap heap. And a couple of years before that they were boldly predicting the end of capitalism.
Murdoch may be damaged, but to triumph in the long run the left will have to destroy the free market — both in business and in ideas — on which his empire is built. They’re likely to be disappointed all over again.