WASHINGTON: It is probably fitting that the scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Britain is the perfect tabloid story. It appears rich in peculiar twists and phenomenal turns and seemingly offers a freakish parade of powerful people bent on petty if perverse agendas of aggrandisement. But what of Murdoch’s prospects across the pond? Is there anything of substance beyond the screaming headlines here, in the US, where Murdoch’s giant News Corporation is headquartered?
Technically, News Corp could have run foul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a 34-year-old law that penalises American companies for playing dirty overseas. If proved, that could technically dethrone the Murdochs, make it hard for News Corp to retain US broadcasting licences and force it to pay fines running into hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. But that’s only if it’s proved News Corp employees bribed foreign officials (in this case, British police) in order to gain business advantage, i.e. sell more copies of the now-shuttered News of the World on the strength of sensationalist stories.
Is any of this likely? Perhaps, but it depends somewhat on whom you ask. The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal and Fox News unsurprisingly say ‘no’ and have been expressing disgust at the baying “political mob” and the way everyone is “piling on to News Corp”. But then so have the Washington Post’s leader writers, the New York Times’s Peter J Henning and Forbes magazine’s Harvey Silverglate. The Post has already warned against reaction to the scandal going “too far, driven by… antipathy among the media and political left for Mr Murdoch and his rightward-leaning organs”.
Even so, an odd assortment of characters is ranged on the other side and pressing hard for Murdoch to get his comeuppance. That includes America’s foremost publisher of pornography Larry Flynt; disgraced Canadian media tycoon Conrad Black writing from prison in the UK;Eliot Spitzer, who was forced to resign as New York governor for his involvement in a prostitution ring; various members of the US Congress; a few senators; a jumble of law professors; some small, independent, regionally important newspapers such as The Seattle Times; sundry PR executives and some former, presumably disgruntled, Murdoch employees.
Sometimes, the debate has been so droll as to be surreal. Flynt, for instance, recently insisted the blessed difference between himself and Murdoch in the pursuit of free expression was as follows: “I test limits by publishing controversial material and paying people who are willing to…expose political hypocrisy. Murdoch’s minions…pushed limits by allegedly engaging in unethical or criminal activity.”
And former newspaper publisher Conrad Black, who is spending 29 months in jail, declared Murdoch to be a “great bad man” in the very mould of Napoleon. The media tycoon, said Black, “is not only a tabloid sensationalist (but)…an assassin of the dignity of others and of respected institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism”. Spitzer, meanwhile, said it was imperative to prosecute News Corp.
Whatever happens, for now, America is transfixed. This is time-tested tabloid fare. Wednesday clocked a special British parliamentary session on the matter and a prime ministerial statement; Tuesday had a nine-hour parliamentary Q&A, a clumsy shaving foam attack on 80-year-old Murdoch and contrition-on-camera by the great man himself. And finally, came news of the relaunch of an acerbic 1994 pop song ‘Dear Mr Murdoch’ by Queen drummer Roger Taylor. Its profoundly tabloid-worthy lyrics run as follows: “Dear Mr Murdoch/ Your minions like vultures and carrion crow/ They’ve sunk just as low as humans can sink…How many times must they poke and they pry?”
Meanwhile, across the seas in Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government made the sensational promise to ask “hard questions” of the Aussie arm of Murdoch’s News Corporation. This had to be a tabloid-shocker, ranking with UFO sightings and two-headed babies because the Australian-born Murdoch is anecdotally said to rank with the US president, the British queen and the Pope on any Australian leader’s list of international VIPs.