Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is used to ruling his vast publishing and broadcasting empire with transcontinental authority.
But today, he finds himself in an unusual and no doubt uncomfortable position: Having to issue a series of apologies for his organization’s “serious wrongdoing” as he watches some of his top lieutenants leave under fire.
Meanwhile, critics muse that Mr. Murdoch’s free-wheeling and politically conservative hand in British reporting may have influenced American journalism as well – particularly in the well-regarded Wall Street Journal, whose parent company Dow Jones was acquired by Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2007.
In seven national newspapers Saturday, Murdoch apologized to the British public for the unethical and possibly illegal activities his now-defunct Sunday tabloid News of the World carried out in the name of journalism – including charges of phone hacking and bribery of police officials.
"We are sorry," Murdoch says in full-page ads, which are scheduled to run Sunday and Monday as well. "The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account. It failed when it came to itself. We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred. We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected."
A day earlier, Murdoch met personally with the family of Milly Dowler, the murdered British teenager whose cell phone voice mail allegedly was hacked by News of the World employees.
"He apologized many times,” Mark Lewis, the Dowler family's lawyer, told the Guardian. “I don't think anybody could have held their head in their hands so many times.”
It was a big change from just days earlier, when Murdoch told the Wall Street Journal that News Corp. had handled the crisis "extremely well in every way possible," making just "minor mistakes."
The scandal already had crossed the Atlantic with news this week that the FBI is investigating whether victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and their families were subject to phone hacking from Murdoch's News Corp.
It’s been reported (although without proof) that a private investigator and former New York City police officer was offered payment for information about 9/11 victims.
"If these allegations are proven true," Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, wrote to FBI Director Robert Mueller, "the conduct would merit felony charges for attempting to violate various federal statutes related to corruption of public officials and prohibitions against wiretapping.”
"Given the large scope of Scotland Yard's investigation which reportedly includes a list of 3,870 names, 5,000 land-line phone numbers and 4,000 cell phone numbers that may have been hacked, I believe it is imperative to investigate whether victims in the United States have been affected as well,” Senator Menendez wrote to US Attorney General Eric Holder.
On Friday, Murdoch lost two of his top executives tied to the continuing scandal.
Rebekah Brooks resigned as chief executive of Murdoch's British newspapers. Hours later, Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton – who had overseen those newspapers when the voice mail hacking is alleged to have occurred – resigned as well.
ProPublica and the Guardian report that “a number of key members of the family which controlled The Wall Street Journal say they would not have agreed to sell the prestigious daily to Rupert Murdoch if they had been aware of News International's conduct in the phone-hacking scandal at the time of the deal.”
"If I had known what I know now, I would have pushed harder against" the Murdoch bid, said Christopher Bancroft, a member of the family which controlled Dow Jones & Company, publishers of The Wall Street Journal.
It’s been a difficult time for Wall Street Journal staffers.
“In the last week and a half, reporters and editors at the august Journal have had to come to terms with the fact that they share corporate DNA with publications that have paid police for news, paid large settlements to keep phone-hacking victims quiet, and provided Parliament with incomplete information, among other sins against journalism,” writes Newsweek senior writer Nick Summers in the Daily Beast.
Questions have been raised about the Journal’s coverage of the scandal, including its interview with Murdoch in which the questioning seemed anything but aggressive.
Under Mr. Hinton’s direction as publisher, Nocera writes, “Soon came the changes, swift and sure: shorter articles, less depth, an increased emphasis on politics and, weirdly, sometimes surprisingly unsophisticated coverage of business.”
“Along with the transformation of a great paper into a mediocre one came a change that was both more subtle and more insidious. The political articles grew more and more slanted toward the Republican party line,” Nocera writes. “The Journal was turned into a propaganda vehicle for its owner’s conservative views.”
That may seem unduly harsh, a reflection (as Nocera writes) of his own mea culpa.
But there’s no doubt that Murdoch’s influence in the United States has been considerable.
“Over the past decade, Murdoch and his company News Corp. have spent close to $50 million sowing the seeds of goodwill here in America through well-heeled lobbyists, seven-figure political donations, and large charitable contributions to key nonprofit groups,” writes Daily Beast reporter Laura Colarusso. “Murdoch’s money trail can be traced deep into the halls of Congress and the powerful federal agencies overseeing the industry that has made him wealthy.”