It's a pity Orson Welles is no longer with us. He would be the perfect one to play Rupert Murdoch in the movie about the current newspaper scandal in Great Britain. Welles, of course, played the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane) who died friendless, muttering the enigmatic word "Rosebud." In Citizen Murdoch, Welles might mutter, "Hacking." But other than that, this movie would be like the last. It's about newspapers.
Murdoch is a rogue, a buccaneer — a "pirate," as Ken Auletta called him in a New Yorker profile — who sports the Jolly Roger of sheer opportunism. An Aussie, he adopted America for its values and its freedoms and because a foreigner could not own broadcast properties. Born rich and privileged — his father was a newspaper publisher — he went on to become immensely richer and more privileged, which was the story of the fictional Kane as well. Now 80, Murdoch enters a boardroom emptied by the police and legal necessity. It must be a somewhat lonely existence.
There is no sense going on about Murdoch's character. It would be very hard indeed to improve on the pounding Conrad Black, a former newspaper publisher and himself no paragon of virtue, gave him recently in the Financial Times: "He is not only a tabloid sensationalist; he is a malicious myth-maker, an assassin of the dignity of others and of respected institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism." Prison has not dulled Black's pen.
Black also likened Murdoch to Napoleon — "a great bad man." The greatness comes in building an international media empire and the badness comes from abusing it for personal profit and ideological reasons. But — and this is a very big but — Murdoch knew not only how to use his empire to advance his ambitions and ideology. He knew that newspapers could do the trick.
The amazing thing about the current scandal is that at its heart is not some website or cable network or even a conventional broadcast property, but ink on processed pulp. The News of the World (now deceased), The Sun, The Times of London, and The Sunday Times were Murdoch's weapons. It was these newspapers that politicians and others feared. No TV outlet could come close.
The Murdoch imbroglio is a celebration of print. In the United States, Murdoch is feared mostly for the New York Post, which loses an estimated $60 million a year. This is chump change to Murdoch (net worth: $7.6 billion) but a bargain at twice the price for the political influence it gives him. The paper mugs its enemies for the sheer fun of it — over and over again. This repetition gives it a sort of torque that no politician can ignore. Newspapers pack a wallop that no other medium has. In his 1995 profile, Auletta credited Murdoch's influence with helping to elect Rudy Giuliani as New York's mayor and George Pataki as governor. Even Hillary Clinton came a-courting, never mind the jolly good time the New York Post had had at the expense of her husband. In England, Murdoch helped create Margaret Thatcher.
As much as I don't like Murdoch and his brand of journalism, I thrill that what we are witnessing is a good, old-fashioned newspaper scandal. Everyone from princes of the realm to celebrities to the mightiest politicians in the land lived in dread of what the Murdoch press could do. The political establishment quaked and looked the other way. His paper is accused of having invaded the privacy of a prime minister's infant son. It hacked the phone of a missing teenage girl, later found to have been murdered. The police — Scotland Yard, Watson! — played footsie with him. He was, like Kane (or the real William Randolph Hearst), a man to be feared. He could kill you with ink.
The similarities between Kane, Hearst, and Murdoch are numerous. It's hard to summon any pity for any of them. As for Murdoch, he set the tone for his newspapers just as surely as Henry II was responsible for Thomas Becket's murder — "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" The political class has turned against him, celebrities, too (Hugh Grant, etc.), and he had to kill the News of the World, a revolting scandal sheet he much adored. There is no sadness here, merely just desserts. "Rosebud." "Hacking." It amounts to the same thing:
It's a wrap.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.