Sunday, 13 November 2011

Murdochs are not a mafia – but the family firm is in meltdown


There are times to push fine detail and finely timed memory losses aside and ask: what makes sense? And thus the fall and fall of the House of Murdoch continues. Young James is so smart, so smooth, such a master of dead bats and – yes! – detail. He's a clever lad. Why, then, did he act so stupidly? And why did those who were supposed to protect him, in loco parentis, do such a lousy job? We're not talking corporate governance here: we're talking family. Tom Watson may have pushed his mafia metaphor a tad too far at the committee grilling last week, but the family and its faithful, well-remunerated retainers are what matter most. See everything that Rupert has done over the last 20 years as family first and it all begins to fall into place. Take Les Hinton, the head butler at Wapping Abbey at the time. Did he brief Rupert Murdoch as Clive Goodman went to prison? How could he not have? Murdoch senior is always on the phone. He'd be chatting to editor Andy Coulson just as he'd chatted to News of the World editors down the years. Would Rupert have left his de facto heir to sink or swim in this rancid pool without full briefings and full protection? Of course not. Take Rebekah Brooks, the tabloid queen waiting to climb the management ladder when young James arrived. She'd been editor of the News of the World; she was editor of the Sun, just a few corridor yards away; Andy Coulson was her former deputy, her pick for the top, her boy. Didn't she see the perils post-hacking? Surely she wouldn't let James fall into the mire. Or take Colin Myler, the last editor of the News of the World, the Mr Clean chosen to clear up the whole damned mess. Hugely experienced, a previous editor of the Sunday and daily Mirror; an honourable guy who took the fall when a high-profile trial was stopped because people on his staff made mistakes. How did Myler come to Wapping, then? Because, after almost seven years' exile on Murdoch's New York Post, he was the safe pair of hands Rupert chose personally to put things back on track. And today? Les Hinton is history, dumped from Dow Jones as the family scrabbles after a safe haven. Rebekah is history, too, left with an office, a chauffeur and £1.7m to keep her warm. While Myler is suddenly the enemy, the loyalist inexplicably contradicting James about what James was told and siding with Tom Crone, the paper's equally suddenly reviled lawyer. Does any of this make the remotest human sense? If some revered TV scriptwriter (say Peter Morgan) wrote a series about newspaper life in which nobody gossiped, nobody got drunk, nobody told anyone anything, he'd be laughed out of the studio. The entire farrago doesn't hold for a second. With Scotland Yard knee-deep in unread emails, there's nil chance of that unsteady state ending any decade soon. Proof – in any bewigged form – will probably only emerge much later: but proof, in a thumbs-up or -down way, is commodiously available already. An over-protected fool or a desperate man cornered? It's a sad, sad choice, but amounts to much the same thing either way. Protectors didn't protect. Instead, they were jettisoned one by one. And perhaps the saddest – nay, tragic – explanation of what went on is also the most benign. James wasn't interested in tabloid blunders, or even playing executive chairman to them. He loved digital, TV, the future. He was bored, bored, bored by lawyers and their letters. His father, the dad who must be obeyed, had made him serve his time; but his mind kept wandering away to the fields he loved. There's the tragedy for the son and the family, but worst of all for Rupert. Those who didn't quite believe it in the summer must surely acknowledge it now: James Murdoch can never sit at his father's desk. The whole succession scenario is bust. The Murdoch hegemony stops here. No sentient shareholder is going to let the family run things hands-on any longer. Just sit back and cash the dividends. There may be more rumours about a Sun on Sunday come the dawn of 2012, but forget them. We can't even be sure there'll be a Sun if James's readiness to shut it (should more hacking be discovered) is tested. There won't be any clear, calm, imminent moment when, all passion spent, the Bun seems wholesome again. Trinity Mirror, its profits bulwarked by the greatest ever stroke of luck, can carry on smiling. The murk of 2011 will just linger on (oozing into view every time Tom Watson mentions a new private eye). Those who like strong medicine and stronger penalties against malfeasance may care to count the payback thus far. For Murdoch: no heir, no News of the World, some $90m (£56m) gone, a reputation and an influence lost, a family at war. For James: no glowing future. For many of the rest of the gang: no jobs and possibly no freedom either. Retribution doesn't come crueller than this. Hacking can damage your health, wealth, your nearest and dearest. Hacking has sundered the biggest media empire in the globe: and many things, including Wapping and, less joyously, the papers that remain, can never be quite the same again. ■ The News of the World may be dead and buried, but a dogged Max Mosley is still trying to drive a stake through its heart. About 3,000 copies of the Nazi orgy story that incensed him circulated in France so, three years after the event, he went to Paris, launched another privacy case and (last week) won. Triumph? Only up to a point. The court awarded €32,000 in all (€10,000 as a state fine, €7,000 (£27,000) as Max's damages and the rest as costs). That doesn't sound much, sniffed Britain's finest media eagles, barely worth putting on a wig and gown for in the Strand. His French lawyer thought Max had done pretty well – but the tariff, by Strand standards, is low, low, low. Whether it's under French law or the European Convention on Human Rights, you can make a point over the Channel, if you must: but you won't make a mint.