Unless you’re a student of their personal histories, the smooth public images of fully formed world leaders can be lethally deceptive. George W. Bush gazed into Vladimir Putin’s pale, expedient eyes and declared he could get a sense of his soul. Pity he hadn’t talked to Masha Gessen. As a reporter in St. Petersburg when Putin was deputy mayor, Gessen got a preview of the paranoid, ruthless, KGB-controlled system that Russia would become under him. She herself became the target of classic KGB tactics, “intended to make me feel I was never safe or alone.” She was blacklisted as soon as he became president, but continued, undaunted, to dig into the ruthless origins of his power.
Putin is a conniving thug, raised in secrets that offered material rewards. In post-siege Leningrad—a “mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children”—the mysterious privileges the Putin family enjoyed derived, Gessen learned, from Putin Sr.’s snitching on his neighbors to the KGB. At a time when kids dreamed of being cosmonauts, his son’s idea of soaring high was to join the KGB. He did so, and flourished. When the Berlin Wall fell, and he saw everything he’d worked for swept away, Putin was driven to recreate the world he loved and understood, that of the Soviet Union and the KGB.
Despots don’t always have to give executive orders to accomplish what they desire. Over time, a culture of yes men develops a system of predicting and fulfilling the boss’s practical and psychic needs. Ian Kershaw, the historian of the Third Reich, has brilliantly described this syndrome as “working towards the Führer.” In Nazi Germany, he argues, officials usually took the initiative in launching policies to meet Hitler’s perceived wishes, or turned into policy Hitler’s often garbled desires.
That’s how it works inside Rupert Murdoch’s News International. Reporters and editors don’t have to be given blacklists or told how to spin a story—nor do they have to be told to wiretap a phone or bribe a cop or hack an email to get it. Rupert looms so large in his employees’ psyches that they know, or think they know, whom he wants to pump and whack. They know the newsstand wars he watches so closely dictate they have to get dirt and an edge on the competition. They know there won’t be questions asked, or if there are, it’s with a buccaneer’s bark over the transatlantic airwaves. “Great story today. [Indulgent laugh.] Don’t tell me how you got it.”
But corporations underpinned with no ethic except the need to win will unravel. Murdoch thought that by closing the delinquent News of the World after revelations of phone hacking, he’d ring-fenced the rest of his papers and saved his corporate face. But with the arrests of journalists on his Sun, all previous avowals that the illegal practices were confined to one rogue reporter, and one rogue newspaper, can be regarded as inoperative. And the irony is that Sun staffers were fingered by the cops only because of incriminating evidence unearthed by News Corp.’s internal probe. Murdoch, one might say, has been hit by a boomerang. But he has, with typical panache, hurled it right back by flying into London to attest a personal dedication to his biggest British daily and confirm plans for a new Sun on Sunday. It’s a typically canny diversionary tactic that announces there’s fight in this führer yet.