A foam pie and a flat hand smack down. That’s where we’re at with the biggest media scandal of our time. Shaving foam. In a pie. And the awesome sight of a billionaire's wife leaping to her husband's defense. What a farce.
Don't be lulled by Wendi Deng's seeming somnolence. The wife of News Corp. overlord Rupert Murdoch is here to fight. (Photo: Reuters TV/Reuters)
By now you will have read TakePart's excellent summary of the crisis engulfing News Corporation, the American company run by the world's most powerful media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. You may even have seen the alarming precis of the original scandal put together by those cheeky scamps at The Daily Show. But events won't stand still.
How did we get here? First, some perspective—you know how big News Corp. is, right? It owns 10 film companies, including 20th Century Fox. It owns more than 60 television channels, including Fox News. It owns more than 150 newspapers, including the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. It's one of the biggest media conglomerates on the planet.
And its been engaging in criminal activity. Over a period of years, journalists working for News Corp.'s British subsidiary, News International, made it their business to hack into the cellphones of celebrities, politicians, murder victims and their families. They paid corrupt police officers for information on celebrities, politicians and victims of crime. Stolen documents and medical records ended up in their hands. They used that information to target their political enemies, grubbing through private lives to destroy careers and reputations.
When these travesties were finally made public, the revelations struck right at the heart of the media and political establishment in Britain, and the fallout threatens to bring down News Corp. itself.
The toll so far:
Les Hinton, the chief executive of Dow Jones (publisher of The Wall Street Journal) and former chief executive of News International—when the criminality was at its height—has resigned. The biggest-selling newspaper in Britain, the News of the World, has been closed down. The chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, resigned and was arrested. A former deputy editor of the News of the World was arrested. Britain's most senior policeman, who had employed the former deputy editor as his PR man, resigned. A police officer who decided the scandal wasn't worth investigating resigned. The Prime Minister's former director of communications (another former News of the World editor) was arrested. The former News International journalist who first went on record to describe the scale of phone-hacking at the News of the World was found dead in his flat.
It's a head-spinning list, evidence of one of the most hilariously inept episodes of corporate crisis management in history, summed up by a (funnily enough) non-Murdoch journalist, Nick Davies.
“They deny everything unless they are compelled by evidence in the public domain to change their story and admit something. They admit that little thing and then carry on lying about everything else.”
Now some folks don't care much for the News Corp. attitude. In fact, they think it sucks. So last week, with News Corp.’s share price sliding, the company changed strategy.
Days after Murdoch dismissively admitted “minor mistakes” in News Corp.’s handling of the scandal, everything changed. Humble, fulsome apologies from the man at the very top were issued to all and sundry. Murdoch personally met the parents of a murdered girl whose phone had been hacked by his journalists. Adverts were taken out in British newspapers apologizing to everyone who had ever looked at a Murdoch paper, or thought about buying one, once.
And so to piegate. This week, with many people querying his judgment, Murdoch answered a summons to the Houses of Parliament in London. He would take questions, live on television.
And what did we learn?
Murdoch knew nothing. He had no awareness of the activities of the journalists at his paper. When his executives devised a strategy of refusing to cooperate with parliament and the police in order to cover up their illegality, no one told him about that either. For a man ultimately responsible for the corporate governance of News Corp., this was starting to look very bad.
Enter the pie man, and Wendi Deng. In full view of the world’s cameras, a freelance idiot (or, conspiracy theorists, was he?) strolled up to Murdoch and pushed a pie made of shaving foam into his face. Deng (who had previously been seen checking the provenance of the water for her husband, and interrupting his evidence to stop him from banging on the table) leaped into action, battering her husband's assailant by way of an expertly delivered volleyball-style “spike.”
Who would have thought Deng's team sport of choice would be so useful in regard to personal security? Karate and Tae Kwon-Do, you're yesterday's choice of self-defense technique.
A full five seconds later, the nearest policeman, running with a gait which suggested some kind of severe post-prandial indigestion, arrived to take control. By then it was too late, in so many ways. Two hours of forensic questioning, and what grabbed all the headlines? The farce.
Murdoch must have allowed himself a private smile, made wider by the news that News Corp. shares immediately jumped 6 percent.
So well done, Britain. We are left to reflect on our incompetence when it comes to holding powerful billionaires to account. Rupert Murdoch basks in the satisfaction of an unlikely PR victory.
Despite the sympathy (for taking the hit) and the credibility (any man with Deng by his side is clearly a man to be reckoned with) Murdoch garnered from his appearance in front of his inquisitors, he’s not out of the woods yet.
News Corp. is an American company. Any American company which uses its subsidiaries to illegally pay money to foreign officials can be prosecuted in the American courts. News International journalists giving money to British policemen for information looks very bad. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice made contact with Britain's Serious Fraud Office to discuss the possibility of opening an investigation into News Corp.'s activities.
This ain’t over. The next pie Murdoch is forced to eat could well be a little more humble.
'The Grit' is a TakePart blog that presents global news, pulverized. The author is a British journalist who has been writing about world events for more than a decade, and still thinks there is a future for the human race.