One half of the Watergate investigators who hasn’t spent the last decades fawning before power, Carl Bernstein, writes in Newsweek that the current Murdoch controversy has historical reverberations:
But now the empire is shaking, and there’s no telling when it will stop. My conversations with British journalists and politicians—all of them insistent on speaking anonymously to protect themselves from retribution by the still-enormously powerful mogul—make evident that the shuttering of News of the World, and the official inquiries announced by the British government, are the beginning, not the end, of the seismic event.
News International, the British arm of Murdoch’s media empire, “has always worked on the principle of omertà: ‘Do not say anything to anybody outside the family, and we will look after you,’ ” notes a former Murdoch editor who knows the system well. “Now they are hanging people out to dry. The moment you do that, the omertà is gone, and people are going to talk. It looks like a circular firing squad.”
News of the World was always Murdoch’s “baby,” one of the largest dailies in the English-speaking world, with 2.6 million readers. As anyone in the business will tell you, the standards and culture of a journalistic institution are set from the top down, by its owner, publisher, and top editors. Reporters and editors do not routinely break the law, bribe policemen, wiretap, and generally conduct themselves like thugs unless it is a matter of recognized and understood policy. Private detectives and phone hackers do not become the primary sources of a newspaper’s information without the tacit knowledge and approval of the people at the top, all the more so in the case of newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, according to those who know him best.
As one of his former top executives—once a close aide—told me, “This scandal and all its implications could not have happened anywhere else. Only in Murdoch’s orbit. The hacking at News of the World was done on an industrial scale. More than anyone, Murdoch invented and established this culture in the newsroom, where you do whatever it takes to get the story, take no prisoners, destroy the competition, and the end will justify the means.”
“In the end, what you sow is what you reap,” said this same executive. “Now Murdoch is a victim of the culture that he created. It is a logical conclusion, and it is his people at the top who encouraged lawbreaking and hacking phones and condoned it.”
Could Murdoch eventually be criminally charged? He has always surrounded himself with trusted subordinates and family members, so perhaps it is unlikely. Though Murdoch has strenuously denied any knowledge at all of the hacking and bribery, it’s hard to believe that his top deputies at the paper didn’t think they had a green light from him to use such untraditional reportorial methods. Investigators are already assembling voluminous records that demonstrate the systemic lawbreaking at News of the World, and Scotland Yard seems to believe what was happening in the newsroom was endemic at the highest levels at the paper and evident within the corporate structure. Checks have been found showing tens of thousands of dollars of payments at a time.
For this reporter, it is impossible not to consider these facts through the prism of Watergate. When Bob Woodward and I came up against difficult ethical questions, such as whether to approach grand jurors for information (which we did, and perhaps shouldn’t have), we sought executive editor Ben Bradlee’s counsel, and he in turn called in the company lawyers, who gave the go-ahead and outlined the legal issues in full. Publisher Katharine Graham was informed. Likewise, Bradlee was aware when I obtained private telephone and credit-card records of one of the Watergate figures.
All institutions have lapses, even great ones, especially by individual rogue employees—famously in recent years at The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the three original TV networks. But can anyone who knows and understands the journalistic process imagine the kind of tactics regularly employed by the Murdoch press, especially at News of the World, being condoned at the Post or the Times?
And then there’s the other inevitable Watergate comparison. The circumstances of the alleged lawbreaking within News Corp. suggests more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon presiding over a criminal conspiracy in which he insulated himself from specific knowledge of numerous individual criminal acts while being himself responsible for and authorizing general policies that routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct. Not to mention his role in the cover-up. It will remain for British authorities and, presumably, disgusted and/or legally squeezed News Corp. executives and editors to reveal exactly where the rot came from at News of the World, and whether Rupert Murdoch enabled, approved, or opposed the obvious corruption that infected his underlings.