Rupert and James Murdoch acquitted themselves well last week under the klieg lights, and Rupert Murdoch said all the right things in his closing statement after a tough session testifying before a Parliament committee.
Even the pie-throwing anarchist that tried to embarrass the octogenarian billionaire only wound up making him appear stronger. One of the committee members said she had a hard time asking as tough questions after the incident as before, and praised him for having the guts to continue.
But News Corp. will need more than guts and a well-delivered, and admittedly well-coached, defense of its business and journalism ethics—at least the ones it says it aspires to after the beating it has earned over the News of the World hacking scandal.
And it is nothing if not a full-bore scandal. Fleet Street is famous for pushing the edge of the envelope to get a story, but the paper shot into the stratosphere of tastelessness and crashed and burned.
There is no defense for what the paper did, and the Murdochs offered exactly that, skipping past selfrecrimination while more broadly defending their ability to right the ship. Only time will tell if their readers, viewers and shareholders will agree that they are the right team for News Corp. for the future. But, for the present, they must be as pure as Caesar’s wife when it comes to cooperating with the current U.K. investigations and any that may be launched in the U.S.
“Invading people’s privacy by listening to their voicemail is wrong,” said Rupert Murdoch. “Paying police officers for information is wrong. They are inconsistent with our codes of conduct and neither has any place, in any part of the company I run.” We would have hoped that would go without saying, but apparently not.
Our primary concern is that U.S. viewers and regulators and legislators be as convinced that nothing like that happened in the U.S. portion of the company.
The Murdochs stressed last week that there is no evidence that the company’s U.S. properties— that would include The Wall Street Journal and its cable and TV holdings—have engaged in any similar practices. Again, we hope that would go without saying in any but this most extraordinary of circumstances.
One particularly troubling allegation was that there might have been hacking of the phones of victims of 9/11. With the 10th anniversary of the tragedy fast approaching, that could be a companybreaker and would likely raise the issue of its fitness as a licensee. Currently, Murdoch foes are keeping their powder dry on that score, but they won’t be gun-shy if given any reason to suspect otherwise.
The Murdochs insisted there was no evidence that there had been any hacking of 9/11 victims’ phones and suggested the FBI had found no evidence either. And yet, as Rupert Murdoch seemed to realize, no evidence of execrable conduct cannot be the company’s ethical compass going forward, any more than it should have been before the scandal broke.
“But saying you’re sorry is not enough,” Murdoch said. “Things must be put right. No excuses.” Whether it is the Edelman PR folks brought in to help a company that is better known for closing ranks and blaming its accusers, or whether it was Murdoch recognizing that it was time to roll up his sleeves and get to work, that is exactly what the company has to do, and should be held to it by its friends. Its foes need no urging.
“I hope that, through the process that is beginning with your questions today, we will come to understand the wrongs of the past, prevent them from happening again and, in the years ahead, restore the nation’s trust in our company,” Murdoch said last week. We trust he will make good on that pledge, especially now that he’s had a glimpse of the alternative.
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