Why Murdoch Can't Escape The Stench of Scandal

Secret Tape Reaffirms Culture of Corruption

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Like a boomerang from his Australian youth, the phone hacking and bribery scandal that Rupert Murdoch's been trying to outrun for two years keeps coming back to him.

The recent revelation that Murdoch was caught on tape privately acknowledging he was unsurprised to find his reporters were illegally paying off public officials for news tips and that he had no qualms with the practice, simply stands as the latest proof that Murdoch's career, and certainly his career in Britain, will be forever defined by the wayward lawbreaking that occurred under the Murdoch name at his London tabloids.

The criminal transgressions have never really been in doubt. What the embarrassing tape recording provides however is more evidence that Murdoch is not a man whose word can be trusted, and that he operates in an almost impenetrable sphere of hypocrisy.

It's that duplicity and lack of honor that creates such a strong stench of scandal; an odor that continues to follow Murdoch nearly two years to the week after the hacking story finally exploded worldwide in 2011.

Standing in stark contrast to his contrite admission of wrongdoing while testifying before Parliament in 2011 ("This is the most humble day of my life"), the secret recording captured Murdoch in a far more blustery mood, rallying his beleaguered Sun employees -- several key editors and reporters are currently facing charges -- by haranguing "incompetent" law enforcement for wasting its time with the News Corp. investigation.

"It's the biggest inquiry ever, over next to nothing," Murdoch told the assembled journalists in March, one of whom hit the record button when the boss started talked. (Murdoch's News Corp. has not questioned the authenticitiy of the tape.) The CEO also bragged that his company had stopped cooperating with law enforcement's investigation of News Corp.; an inquiry he labeled a "disgrace."

The bluster was alternately wrapped in the wallowing sense of victimization and persecution that has come to define Murdoch, as well as doubled as the hallmark for so many of his media proprieties. "I don't know of anybody, or anything, that did anything that wasn't being done across Fleet Street and wasn't the culture," said Murdoch, referring to London's ethically-challenged tabloid industry.

Recall that News Corp. has also publicly admitted its employees have hacked into phones, computers and emails.

The long simmering hacking practice, which Murdoch and his executives had been able to keep at bay for years by falsely claiming they had been ignorant about a handful of rogue employees out making mischief, finally exploded two years ago this week with the Guardian's blockbuster scoop about how one of Murdoch's tabloid employees had hacked into the mobile phone voice mails of a British schoolgirl, Milly Dowler who had gone missing, and who was later found dead. The tampering may have destroyed crucial evidence.

The hacking scandal quickly morphed into a bribery one, with Scotland Yard arresting scores of Murdoch employees for passing along hundreds of thousands of dollars to sources, including government sources, in exchange for tabloid scoops. Between the hacking and the bribing, more than 60 journalists and public officials have been arrested in connection with the inquiry. The United States' Department of Justice is currently investigating whether Murdoch's U.S.-based News Corp. violated corporate bribery laws.

In the days and weeks prior to the recent tape revelation, Murdoch had been enjoying a crop of good press. The clippings revolved around the split of News Corp. into two separate companies. Done in part to "quarantine" the "toxic" publishing properties infected by scandal, the restructuring was nonetheless portrayed as a Murdoch triumphant and proof he had slipped the professional noose.

But the odds of Murdoch ever being forced out of his News Corp. perch always remained slim simply because his family controls most of the voting stock. And while the scandal enveloped key titles within the publishing empire, most of company's ballooning profits come from the entertainment business -- television and movies. Those engines have fueled big profits in recent years; profits that helped quell shareholder anger about the hacking and tandem bribing investigations.

Now the Murdoch 'comeback' has been tainted by the revelation that the CEO apparently believed nothing he was saying publicly in the wake of the shocking behavior of his tabloid employees. Instead, Murdoch expected the rampant lawbreaking taking place at his properties, and he didn't think there was anything wrong with it.

And that's the reason it's hard for Murdoch to lose that stench of scandal even two years later. It's because a well-established culture of corruption permeates his media empire, to the point where some portions were run like a criminal enterprise.

Two years is an eternity in the news cycle business. But it's 24 months later and Rupert Murdoch still can't outrun his signature scandal.

News Corp.
Rupert Murdoch
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