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The Murdoch touch

Former Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton talks about technology
photo: Sonya Abrams
People like me, who grew up not only in newspaper-reading households but also in families of newspaper editors, almost instinctively mourn the death of any paper. Even weak papers or politically obnoxious papers still earn our respect when they expire.

But I don’t think many people outside Britain mourned the News of the World when owner Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, announced in July that the U.K. paper would abruptly cease publication. The paper was sacrificed in the wake of a massive and ongoing scandal that has engulfed Murdoch’s media empire, the rest of the British news media, and Britain’s leaders – who have for decades looked for the support of Murdoch’s conservative papers.

Behind the seamy scandal
The scandal exploded when it was reported that people working for the News of the World had not only hacked into the private phone messages of a murdered girl, but also had deleted some messages, leading the girl’s parents to believe their daughter might still be alive. News International, a subsidiary of the sprawling News Corp. media company that also owns Fox News and related properties in the United States, owns The News of the World.

But the scandal got worse. The Guardian – a respectable competitor of the News of the World that has basically led the investigative attack on the now-defunct paper – reported, “Police are investigating evidence that a News International executive may have deleted millions of emails from an internal archive, in an apparent attempt to obstruct Scotland Yard’s inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal.” Other allegations include the alleged payment of bribes to police officers by the News of the World agents and the hacking into phones of other victims, including the families of British soldiers killed in Iraq. So when News International announced that it was canceling the 168-year-old News of the World, even that move didn’t stop party leaders in the British Parliament from calling for the resignation of News International executives or suggesting that regulators take a second look at parent News Corp.’s planned purchase of controlling shares of satellite company BSkyB.
A popular tabloid

The News of the World might not have been known to most Americans until this scandal exploded, but it was the best-selling newspaper in the U.K. and, reportedly, wildly profitable. It was also a tabloid, and a British tabloid makes even the New York Post – not to mention the San Francisco Examiner – look like staid church bulletins by comparison.

The News of the World earned its 2.6 million circulation by being among the brashest of a very brash breed, featuring sleaze and sex scandals of the rich and famous. Sample front-page banner headline: “F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy with 5 Hookers.” There are plenty of newspaper editors who will work an entire lifetime without ever getting to write a headline so deliciously over the top, but it was just business as usual at the News of the World. Compare that headline with a recent, typical Examiner headline: “Witness for the defense” for a story on stoplight cameras.

Hinton took the heat
Now this seamy scandal is reaching its tentacles across the Atlantic, with the FBI launching an investigation into possible attempts by News Corp’s British journalists to hack into phones of 9/11 victims here in the United States. It also claimed the silver-haired head of Les Hinton, who resigned last month as CEO of Dow Jones, publisher of TheWall Street Journal, the crown jewel in Murdoch’s portfolio.

In May, Hinton came to San Francisco and The Commonwealth Club to talk about “Technology, Mobility and Accelerating the Collective Intelligence.” It’s a perfect topic for a representative of the Murdoch media empire, because if there’s any company that has figured out how to make newspapers lay golden eggs these days, it’s Murdoch. Luckily, he didn’t talk about cell phone hacking technology.

But The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter reported that Hinton was being dragged into the mess because he twice testified before Parliament about a News of the World reporter implicated in a different round of phone hacking. Hinton also used to be responsible for the paper in question: “At News International he oversaw The Times, The Sunday Times and the tabloid paper The Sun, as well as the News of the World,” noted The Hollywood Reporter. “Parliament member John Whittingdale, who chairs a subcommittee before which Hinton appeared, said that given the events of this week, Hinton’s statements ‘now look increasingly unconvincing.’ But he added, ‘Les gave very clear assurances that he himself was not involved, and I have no reason to doubt that,’” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

So Hinton fell on his sword for Murdoch on the same day that Rebekah Brooks quit as head of News International. But her former boss, James Murdoch (son of Rupert), remains heir apparent to his father, making it clear that remaining staffers should consider changing their last names to “Murdoch” to offer themselves some protection.

Other setbacks
When Rupert Murdoch owned the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1980s, he took a paper that was tabloid in size and tried to turn it into a paper that was tabloid in tone and right-wing in politics. Chicagoans fled the paper in droves, as did a number of high-profile staff, many of which went across the street to the Chicago Tribune, helping that paper establish a long-lasting supremacy over the Sun-Times. Two years later, Murdoch sold the paper, and the Sun-Times returned to respectable reporting.

It was a rare setback for Murdoch and his Midas egg-laying touch. But the timely death of News of the World gives us another reminder that even Murdoch’s ownership doesn’t guarantee a flow of black ink.
Oh, wait, MySpace also showed us that.

John Zipperer is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. E-mail:

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