I have to admit that The News of the World, which just yesterday was the largest circulation newspaper in Britain and, beginning tomorrow, will have ceased to exist, has never been part of my literary diet. I am not entirely sure I have ever actually seen the paper, though I know a juicy story involving alcohol, a prominent journalist, his concerned wife, and the paper, the details of which I will save for my memoirs. . . .
In the meantime, the word is that the scandal which put the paper out of business — hacking into the voicemail of certain British royals and other such tony folk — has yet to run its course and yield up all the salacious revelations that The News of the World, were it still with us (and if the scandal concerned some other paper), would surely be splashing with lip-smacking enthusiasm. Carl Bernstein even reprised his one genuine claim to fame, wondering whether the scandal would turn out to be “Murdoch’s Watergate.” More thoroughgoing cynics, noting that one of the culprits was chief press aide to Prime Minister David Cameron, might wonder whether the “Gate” in question was on Downing Street, not Fleet Street. (Do we still say “Fleet Street” though the papers long ago left that storied address? I think so . . . .)
Anyway, so far the fate of The News of the World seems pretty distant from my usual concerns. I have, however, noted that reporting in the BBC,the Guardian, and other reflexively left-wing organs has been gleeful primarily about the involvement of one of the men they most like to hate, to wit, Rupert Murdoch. The schadenfreude veritably oozes out of their reports on the subject, not least the prospect that the scandal might scuttle Mr. Murdoch’s efforts to acquire a controlling interest in the BSkyB satellite television company. So I suppose that it was only a matter of time before our Former Paper of Record chimed in with one of its signature snotty efforts at character assassination. This one, written by op-ed columnist Joe Nocera, ran in the paper on Friday, July 8, and was called “Murdoch’s Fatal Flaw.” The basic idea is that Rupert Murdoch, who began as a “brash young Australian publisher,” “never grew up.”
Most people [quoth Joe Nocera] outgrow their twentysomething selves. As they age, they realize that the impulses and excitements of youth need to be tempered with the judgment, empathy and caution that come with maturity. They get a better feel for the lines that ought not to be crossed. Journalists, in particular, learn that there are stories that ought not to be pursued. Not every scoop is worth it.
Poor Rupert Murdoch. “I want to win,” he said when he was 22. “A little too much,” lectures Joe Nocera. Reporters who work at “pressure-packed scandal sheets,” he says, “quickly become inured to crossing lines and destroying lives; it’s what they do.” Result? Their moral compass, unlike the pristine instruments commanded by all reporters and columnists for the once-mighty New York Times, is out of kilter. They do things they should not. “The Murdoch culture had stripped them of their conscience.”
Gee whiz. It’s not just the chaps in London who hacked into private voicemails. It’s Murdoch himself, you see. The man might have a Midas touch: his media empire is worth some $33 billion. But he wants to succeed too badly and he is willing to sacrifice quality for alacrity: the scoop’s the thing! Consider, says Joe Nocera, the way the New York Post (also owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation) rushed into print with a story that the Guinean chambermaid, allegedly assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was a prostitute turning tricks even while living in a safe-house hotel courtesy prosecutors in the case. That, Joe assures us, was “based on the thinnest of sourcing.”
The Post, which cited “a prosecution source,” is sticking by its story even though the chambermaid in question is suing the paper. If I were a bookie, I would give about the same odds to Ms. X, the lying Guinean chambermaid, as I would have to Tawana Brawley. Let’s see what happens.