Media

Scandal at Murdoch's Scandal Factory


“It was such good fun,” said Paul McMullan. “I mean, how many jobs can you actually have car chases in?” The scene was a public hearing in London on Nov. 29, and McMullan, a former newspaper reporter, was fondly reminiscing about his time, in the mid-’90s and early aughts, working for Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid, News of the World. Exposing the secret drug usage and sexual dalliances of London’s celebrities, citizens, and politicians was a grueling, if financially rewarding, challenge, McMullan explained. It was a job that required all sorts of derring-do. Nobody, after all, wanted to land with his pants down on the front page of a paper with 5 million weekly readers. So you had to be more cunning than your subjects and more cutthroat than your rivals.

Over the years, McMullan said, he’d chased celebrities in cars, posed as a prostitute, wooed a randy priest, ran in his underwear through a nunnery, bought cocaine, propositioned a lady panhandler, hacked phones, stolen photographs, cultivated a “mole” at a rival paper, paid off tipsters, repurposed topless pictures of women from obscure fashion magazines, been knocked in the head with a piece of concrete, and had his surveillance van set on fire. All told, he had written roughly 300 stories for News of the World. The subject of one of his stories committed suicide. Another overdosed on drugs. But he never lost a single libel suit. He had always been careful to get everything on tape. He credited Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive officer of News Corp. (NWS), for creating an office environment where expenses were never an issue. “That was the joy of working for Murdoch,” said McMullan. “We had a big, big pot of money.”

On July 7, 2011, London’s robust tabloid culture finally imploded under the collapsing bulk of Murdoch’s largesse. That day, executives at News Corp. announced they were closing down News of the World, the 168-year-old paper. They were doing so in an attempt to appease a growing public outcry about reporting tactics at Murdoch’s London papers, including allegations of widespread illegal phone hacking and bribing of police.

Closing News of the World did little to control the damage. In the days that followed, under political pressure, News Corp. withdrew its $12 billion bid for full control of British Sky Broadcasting. More than a dozen News Corp. reporters and editors in London were arrested. Several top executives resigned. Murdoch and his son James, the company’s deputy chief operating officer, faced heated questioning in Parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron scrambled to distance himself from the Murdochs. The company’s stock price tumbled.

Along the way, the Murdochs found themselves fending off attacks from former employees, angry shareholders, and a pie-wielding protester. The threat to the company has hardly subsided. As 2011 drew to a close, police in Scotland Yard were still gathering evidence of alleged newsroom wrongdoing. Myriad victims of the alleged phone hacking were seeking compensatory damages from News Corp. James Murdoch was bobbing and weaving, trying to defend his earlier false claims that the phone hacking misconduct had been largely limited to the deeds of a rogue reporter. And Lord Justice Brian Leveson, a former prosecutor, was leading an extensive public inquiry.

It was in front of Leveson, in November, that McMullan lamented a newfangled air of intolerance in Britain toward tabloid journalism and its most dedicated practitioners. Whether the Murdochs will ultimately survive atop News Corp., their street-level, car-chasing legacy seems to have come to a screeching end.

McMullan, for one, asserted that the reversal of fortune was a bad thing—not only for the suddenly endangered tabloid hack but for the society he had long patrolled. “In 21 years of invading people’s privacy, I’ve never actually come across anyone who’s been doing any good,” he said. “The only people I think need privacy are people who do bad things.”

Gillette_190
Gillette is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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