Business, Media, Politics

Murdoch’s US troubles begin as FBI probe 9/11 hacking allegations

By Kevin Bloom 15 July 2011

If Rupert Murdoch’s enemies had to come up with a nightmare scenario for News Corporation in the US, they couldn’t do much worse than an FBI investigation into allegations of phone hacking surrounding the victims of the 9/11 attacks. The sacrosanct nature of the attacks transcends partisan politics, and could quite possibly spell the end of Fox News. And, on the other side of the Atlantic, News International chief Rebekah Brooks has yielded to pressure and resigned. By KEVIN BLOOM.

UPDATE: News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks finally resigned on Friday morning, after growing public and political pressure to do so. Brooks told her staff: “I have believed that the right and responsible action has been to lead us through the heat of the crisis. However, my desire to remain on the bridge has made me a focal point of the debate. This is now detracting attention from all our honest endeavours to fix the problems of the past.” Brooks also indicated that her resignation would give her the “freedom and time” to fully co-operate with the various investigations into News of The World’s phone-hacking practices.

Amidst the headlines that were pummelling News Corp’s reputation and share price at the beginning of the week, this one kind of got lost. It was in the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid with a penchant for sensationalism on par with the now-defunct News of the World, and the meat of the story was buried beneath paragraphs that spoke of Rupert Murdoch arriving in London “in a cowboy-style hat” to give his backing to a “smiling” Rebekah Brooks. Only at paragraph eight did the article deliver on the promise that made it different from all the other headlines in the global press that day (11 July): 9/11 victims “may have had mobiles tapped by News of the World reporters.”

The source of the allegations was an unnamed former New York policeman, now working as a private investigator, who claimed he was contacted by News of the World journalists and asked to retrieve the phone records of the dead. Another source, also unnamed, was quoted by the Daily Mirror: “This investigator is used by a lot of journalists in America and he recently told me that he was asked to hack into the 9/11 victims’ private phone data. He said that the journalists asked him to access records showing the calls that had been made to and from the mobile phones belonging to the victims and their relatives.

“His presumption was that they wanted the information so they could hack into the relevant voicemails, just like it has been shown they have done in the UK. The PI said he had to turn the job down. He knew how insensitive such research would be, and how bad it would look.”

An anonymous two-source story, illustrated by pictures of Murdoch and Brooks on their way to dinner, was never going to compete with the intrigues surrounding the BSkyB deal (now shelved) and the allegations of further UK-based illegal activities (hacking into the phones of relatives of dead British soldiers and  victims of the 2005 London bombings). Until, that is, the FBI announced – as it did yesterday (14 July) – that it would be conducting an investigation into the allegations. According to the Guardian, there had been a mounting chorus in the US calling for the investigation; while Murdoch and British Prime Minister David Cameron were scrambling frantically to limit the damage to their respective organisations, the families of those slain in the 9/11 attacks were reacting to a crisis of their own.

That these people had noted and acted on a thin story published in what is, to them, an obscure newspaper in a foreign country is telling. It’s reflective of the enormous part 9/11 plays in the US psyche, and the fact that to treat this part of US history with anything less than the utmost respect is sacrilege. Also, as Tim Stanley, a research fellow in American History, observed in The Telegraph: “[It] is significant that the man leading the calls for an investigation is congressman Pete King: a conservative Republican who has enjoyed positive coverage by Fox in the past. Although some liberals and Europeans will try to paint this as a GOP scandal – hence the reference to Watergate, which brought down Republican Richard Nixon – the outrage at what News Corp did is bipartisan. American news outlets have a far greater sense of separation from the political elite of their country than there is in Britain.”

Meaning, if News Corporation is found to be guilty by the FBI, it could very well spell the end of Fox News. Since the scandal erupted, Democratic Senators Frank Lautenberg and Barbara Boxer have been seeking an investigation into Murdoch under the Foreign Corrupt Practises Act for bribing the British police; the 9/11 allegation is of a different order entirely. It transcends the Left-bashing for which Fox is famous, and the Fox-bashing for which the Left is famous, and touches on an American event that’s arguably as holy as the Gettysburg Address. Consequently, it might not be too much of a stretch to say that this could turn out to be the first time a major TV news network shuts down because of a mass boycott by viewers.

Unsurprisingly, America’s paper of record is playing the story very carefully. “The investigation is in its earliest stages,” the New York Times noted on 14 July, “and its scope is not yet clear. It also is unclear whether the FBI has identified possible targets of the investigation or possible specific criminal violations.” The report went on to note the vagueness of the initial Daily Mirror article.

But whatever the outcome of the investigation, nobody could’ve picked a worse headline to hit News Corp at this juncture. With more arrests being made (the latest is News of the World former executive editor Neil Wallis), Rupert and James Murdoch being forced to testify before British MPs, and the all-important BSkyB bid abandoned, no amount of grade-A crisis PR is going to get the media conglomerate back to where it was two short weeks ago. DM

Read more:

  • “Phone hacking: 9/11 victims ‘may have had mobiles tapped by News of the World reporters’,” in the Daily Mirror;
  • “The 9/11 phone hacking investigation: it’s Murdoch and Fox News who could be destroyed, not the Republicans,” in The Telegraph;
  • “ F.B.I. Opens Inquiry Into Hacking of 9/11 Victims’ Phones,” in NYTimes.

Photo: News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch leaves his flat with Rebekah Brooks, Chief Executive of News International, in central London July 10, 2011. REUTERS/Olivia Harris.


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