When one of the instigators of Watergate uses the “w” word to describe a scandal, it’s something you notice.
Carl Bernstein, writing in Newsweek, writes that the scandal at the News of the World is akin to Watergate, an integral part of the culture built by Rupert Murdoch at News Corp, not some aberration. And he cites one former executive who said people at the top of the company encouraged and sanctioned illegal behavior.
The hacking of voice mails, the pay-offs to police, an ‘omerta’ culture in which no one says anything for fear of retribution is, Bernstein says, a signature of the company Murdoch has built over four decades.
“Reporters and editors do not routinely break the law, bribe policemen, wiretap, and generally conduct themselves like thugs unless it is a matter of recognized and understood policy,” writes Bernstein. “Private detectives and phone hackers do not become the primary sources of a newspaper’s information without the tacit knowledge and approval of the people at the top, all the more so in the case of newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, according to those who know him best.”
This question has occupied newsrooms everywhere since James Murdoch announced the radical decision last week to shut down the high-circulation, highly profitable News of the World (in fact today was its last edition):
Was this accepted behavior at other News Corp. publications? And did Rupert Murdoch know about this behavior?
According to Bernstein, it is, and he did. He quotes a former Murdoch executive saying that kind of scandal could only have happened at that company:
“This scandal and all its implications could not have happened anywhere else. Only in Murdoch’s orbit,” says the former executive. “The hacking at News of the World was done on an industrial scale. More than anyone, Murdoch invented and established this culture in the newsroom, where you do whatever it takes to get the story, take no prisoners, destroy the competition, and the end will justify the means.”
That’s not the same thing as sanctioning illegal behavior. But this executive says that happened too.
“It is his people at the top who encouraged lawbreaking and hacking phones and condoned it,” said this executive.
Beyond this very tantalizing insight, Bernstein decries what Murdoch has created in terms of news culture. We’re familiar with that -- what Bernstein says is the replacement of journalistic ideals -- “the enduring Murdoch ethic substitutes gossip, sensationalism, and manufactured controversy.”
In truth, this is a 180-degree turn from where most have regarded Murdoch of late. In recent years Murdoch has become the hero of the underdog, under-pressure news business.
Instead he’s been regarded as a forward-thinker, as a brave champion of content – willing to charge money for news in the face of its eroding value on the Internet.
it has been years since Murdoch has been closely tied to shady news tricks. We’ve all had survival on our minds – not Pulitzers.
Bernstein says we haven’t been paying attention.
“Too many of us have winked in amusement at the salaciousness without considering the larger corruption of journalism and politics promulgated by Murdoch Culture on both sides of the Atlantic."
I’m not sure there is evidence that the tactics used at News of the World bled into other Murdoch publications. One News Corp source tells me that the expert used to hack voice mails was a guy used by all the Fleet Street publications.
And let’s be clear: It’s one thing to nurture a take-no-prisoners ethos in a newsroom. News is competitive. You don’t win by being polite. You win by being first, getting the scoop, and being willing to go over or around a barrier when you can’t get through it.
But the question is: in the service of what? Bernstein certainly bent lots of rules, and used strong-arm negotiating to find information -- in the service of getting at the truth of Watergate. And we celebrate that, rightly.
This is something else.
Bernstein says that top level politicians and journalists in the U.K. suggest that the scandal is just beginning.
“The shuttering of News of the World, and the official inquiries announced by the British government, are the beginning, not the end, of the seismic event,” he writes.
On that there is little disagreement.