Chuck Ross

Rupert Murdoch: Too Much Jack Bauer and Not Enough Betty Ford. At 80, Can He Find His Moral Compass? An Intervention Begins NOW

Jul 13, 2011

We all should be able to expect–at a minimum–when we read stories in our newspapers that no illegal means were used in the gathering of the news stories.

That’s a key issue in the growing phone-hacking scandal involving The News of the World, the now-shuttered U.K. tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

As The New York Times reported on Tuesday, July 12, 2011, “The scandal that has enveloped Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Britain widened substantially on Monday with reports that two of his newspapers may have bribed police officers or used other potentially illegal methods to obtain information about Queen Elizabeth II and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Others on the police payroll have been bribed to use restricted cellphone-tracking technology to pinpoint the location of people sought by the papers in their restless pursuit of scoops, according to two former journalists for the tabloid shut on Sunday, The News of the World.”

Indeed, some of the allegations seen to come right from a script of Fox’s now-retired hit show “24,” featuring Jack Bauer as our ends-justify-any-means hero.

For example, the article says: “Separately, an inquiry by The New York Times, which included interviews with two former journalists at The News of the World, has revealed the workings of the illicit cellphone-tracking, which the former tabloid staffers said was known in the newsroom as ‘pinging.’ Under British law, the technology involved is restricted to law enforcement and security officials, requires case-by-case authorization, and is used mainly for high-profile criminal cases and terrorism investigations, according to a former senior Scotland Yard official who requested anonymity so as to be able to speak candidly.”

The Times article continues: “According to Oliver Crofton, a cybersecurity specialist who works to protect high-profile clients from such invasive tactics, cellphones are constantly pinging off relay towers as they search for a network, enabling an individual’s location to be located within yards by checking the strength of the signal at three different towers. But the former Scotland Yard official who discussed the matter said that any officer who agreed to use the technique to assist a newspaper would be crossing a red line.”

The paper adds that The News of the World paid $500 for each instance of pinging, and that one source said that the pinging requests went to the police to carry out.

No one has made a claim that Murdoch directly knew about any of the illegal and alleged illegal and unethical methods used by The News of the World and perhaps at two other papers he owns in the U.K., the tabloid The Sun and The Sunday Times.

But Murdoch, who turned 80 in March, has had a lifelong love affair with newspapers and certainly has encouraged his tabloids especially in their coverage of stories that emphasize the salacious and the scandalous sides of life.

In the past, he’s found it good business to cater to our basest instincts.

But this scandal is proving that there’s a limit to what the public–let alone politicians, lawmakers and law enforcement–will accept.

Murdoch needs to demand the resignation of anyone connected with these methods, no matter how high up in News Corp. or its British subsidiary, News International, the various investigations lead.

More important, Murdoch needs to renounce illegal and unethical methods of newsgathering in no uncertain terms.

And he needs to mean it.

With the passing of Betty Ford this week, I’m reminded of the courage she showed when her family staged an intervention because of her drinking and prescription drug use. After being treated for alcohol and chemical abuse, she founded her Betty Ford Center.

Murdoch needs to show the same conviction in stopping abusive journalistic practices.

Wouldn’t it be terrific if he decided to use some of his fortune to fund a journalism program at some university that would become widely known for the same kind of excellence in its field that the Betty Ford Center is known for in its area of expertise.

That other papers may also engage in illegal or unsavory newsgathering practices is no excuse for Murdoch to engage in them. As a colleague here at Crain said to me in recent days, many of us are taught at a fairly young age about what’s right and wrong and how far you can go in the pursuit of various activities. They’re lessons we learn in Sunday School.

Writing this, I’m in New York just catching up with the print version of Murdoch’s New York Post from Monday, July 11. I’ve stopped at page 3, having caught myself staring at a picture of Gwyneth Paltrow in a red bikini, looking terrific.

The caption says that it’s a shot of her taking an outdoor shower on Steven Spielberg’s yacht sailing near Sardinia in the Mediterranean.

Hmm. What the caption doesn’t say is that the picture was probably taken by some paparazzi with a very long camera lens without Paltrow having any knowledge that it was being snapped until it appeared in print.

Son of a gun. I did go to Sunday School, and I did pay attention to the parables, and ah, this Sunday School kid is trying to explain the legitimate value of the picture by saying that the caption also mentioned the educational fact that Spielberg is Paltrow’s godfather and, ah…#


  1. Rather hypocritical article. First you excoriate Murdoch for obtaining information illegally, then you salivate over a photo of Gwyneth Paltrow that was also probably obtained under suspect circumstances. Your salivating over Paltrow is exactly why these reporters did what they did. There will always be a market for “candid” information, photo’s, etc of celebrities. Reporters will always want to get the next scoop. Unfortunately, this drives some of them to resort to any means available to get that scoop. But once they do get it, they know there will be a market for their story or photo(s).

  2. This News Corp scandal is focused on illegal tactics. But on the ethical scale, this pales alongside the strategic goals of the company — namely, distorting facts in order to advance a right wing agenda. This goes far beyond partisan politics or normal editorializing. News Corp’s idea of business-as-usual is damaging to both journalism and the democratic process.

  3. Your outrage is duly noted. You failed to note a long tradition of slippery journalism on this side of the pond: NBC Dateline exploding truck, NYT’s Jason Blair fabrications, CBS’ Dan Rather and Memogate, etc. The list is long. News Corp did not invent duplicity.

  4. Doug, If you’re seriously suggesting this is a partisan issue, then you’re ignoring the facts. The examples you cite were certainly outrageous, but each was dealt with quickly and publicly. Moreover nobody has suggested those practices were repeated even once, let alone became business-as-usual.
    As a matter of fact, from Australian tabloids to A Current Affair, the the mushrooming revelations right now in England, you actually CAN make a case that News Corp “invented” crooked journalism.
    But frankly we should BOTH keep quiet for 2 weeks and see where the British investigation leads. Odds are this story is just beginning.

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