Carl Bernstein: Is Phone-Hacking Scandal Murdoch's Watergate?


The hacking scandal currently shaking Rupert Murdoch’s empire will surprise only those who have willfully blinded themselves to that empire’s pernicious influence on journalism in the English-speaking world. Too many of us have winked in amusement at the salaciousness without considering the larger corruption of journalism and politics promulgated by Murdoch Culture on both sides of the Atlantic.

The facts of the case are astonishing in their scope. Thousands of private phone messages hacked, presumably by people affiliated with the Murdoch-owned News of the World newspaper, with the violated parties ranging from Prince William and actor Hugh Grant to murder victims and families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arrest of Andy Coulson, former press chief to Prime Minister David Cameron, for his role in the scandal during his tenure as the paper’s editor. The arrest (for the second time) of Clive Goodman, the paper’s former royals editor. The shocking July 7 announcement that the paper would cease publication three days later, putting hundreds of employees out of work. Murdoch’s bid to acquire full control of cable-news company BSkyB placed in jeopardy. Allegations of bribery, wiretapping, and other forms of lawbreaking—not to mention the charge that emails were deleted by the millions in order to thwart Scotland Yard’s investigation.

All of this surrounding a man and a media empire with no serious rivals for political influence in Britain—especially, but not exclusively, among the conservative Tories who currently run the country. Almost every prime minister since the Harold Wilson era of the 1960s and ’70s has paid obeisance to Murdoch and his unmatched power. When Murdoch threw his annual London summer party for the United Kingdom’s political, journalistic, and social elite at the Orangery in Kensington Gardens on June 16, Prime Minister Cameron and his wife, Sam, were there, as were Labour leader Ed Miliband and assorted other cabinet ministers.

Murdoch associates, present and former—and his biographers—have said that one of his greatest long-term ambitions has been to replicate that political and cultural power in the United States. For a long time his vehicle was the New York Post—not profitable, but useful for increasing his eminence and working a wholesale change not only in American journalism but in the broader culture as well. Page Six, emblematic in its carelessness about accuracy or truth or context—but oh-so-readable—became the model for the gossipization of an American press previously resistant to even considering publishing its like. (Murdoch accomplished a similar debasement of the airwaves in the 1990s with the—tame by today’s far-lower standards—tabloid television show A Current Affair.)

Then came the unfair and imbalanced politicized “news” of the Fox News Channel—showing (again) Murdoch’s genius at building an empire on the basis of an ever-descending lowest journalistic denominator. It, too, rests on a foundation that has little or nothing to do with the best traditions and values of real reporting and responsible journalism: the best obtainable version of the truth. In place of this journalistic ideal, the enduring Murdoch ethic substitutes gossip, sensationalism, and manufactured controversy.

And finally, in 2007 The Wall Street Journal’s squabbling family owners succumbed to his acumen, willpower, and money, fulfilling Murdoch’s dream of owning an American newspaper to match the influence and prestige of his U.K. holding, The Times of London—one that really mattered, at the topmost tier of journalism.

Between the Post, Fox News, and the Journal, it’s hard to think of any other individual who has had a greater impact on American political and media culture in the past half century.

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 newspapers 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. suggest 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.

None of this is to deny Murdoch’s competitive genius, his superior understanding of the modern media marketplace, or his dead-on reading of popular culture. He has made occasionally dull newspapers fun to read and TV news broadcasts fun to watch, and few of us would deny there are days when we love it. He’s been at his best when he’s come in from the outside: starting Sky News, which shook up a complacent British broadcasting establishment; contradicting conventional American media wisdom that a fourth TV network (Fox) could never get off the ground; reducing the power of Britain’s printing trade unions that were exercising a stranglehold on the U.K. press.

But Murdoch and his global media empire have a lot to answer for. He has not merely encouraged the metastasis of cutthroat tabloid journalism on both sides of the Atlantic. But perhaps just as troubling, authorities in Britain may respond to popular outrage at the scandal by imposing the kind of regulations that cannot help but undermine a truly free press.

The events of recent days are a watershed for Britain, for the United States, and for Rupert Murdoch. Tabloid journalism—and our tabloid culture—may never be the same.

Bernstein’s most recent book is A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Correction: An earlier version of this article described the weekly News of the World as a daily paper and stated that Murdoch had a role in the TV show Hard Copy. In fact, Murdoch's show was A Current Affair.

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