'Reverse ferret!' Can Rupert Murdoch limit tabloid scandal fallout?

This morning, Rupert Murdoch canceled his $12 billion bid for the UK's most profitable satellite TV operation.

Steve Parsons/AP
Rupert Murdoch leaves his home in Mayfair, London, as British Prime Minister David Cameron joined demands for the media mogul to drop his BSkyB takeover bid in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal on July 13.

Today, Mr. Mudoch's quest for full control of British Sky Broadcasting Group (BSkyB), the highly profitable satellite broadcaster that controls major chunks of English soccer and other sports, appears at an end (though, given his history, this could just be a strategic pause.)

This article on British regulators review of the BSkyB bid has some useful background.

This morning, Murdoch withdrew his $12 billion bid for the remaining 60 percent of BSkyB that he doesn't already own (check out this screen cap of the plummet in BSkyB's share price when the news was announced) as the UK's political classes turned, en masse, on a man many of them feared to cross as recently as a few weeks ago.`

It seems both Murdoch and the politicians who recently backed his bid are all performing a group "reverse ferret," a delightful phrase coined by a former editor of The Sun, Murdoch's daily tabloid in the UK. (Thanks to Blake Hounshell for bringing the phrase to my attention).

Kelvin Mackenzie at The Sun was apparently in the habit of urging his reporters to "put a ferret up the trousers" of the high and mighty in the UK, but was also keenly attuned to the tide of public opinion. When it became clear that his ferrets had disgusted the public, or perhaps put the paper in legal danger, he would shout over the newsroom to "reverse ferret," a signal to his furry troops to exit the victim's pants-leg, post-haste.

"This is the survival moment, when a tabloid changes course in a blink without any reduction in speed, volume, or moral outrage," Australian author Neil Chenowieh writes in Rupert Murdoch: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Media Wizard. "In the midst of a disaster of its own making, it pulls a ferret out of a hat and sails on. It’s an equal combination of miraculous escape, misdirection, and a new start. It’s no accident that McKenzie perfected this at the Sun, because Rupert Murdoch’s entire business style may be characterized as a reverse ferret."

Now everyone is in reverse.

Murdoch has dropped his bid. Prime Minister David Cameron, who was strongly backed by the Murdoch papers in his bid for power, and the opposition are crowing.

The general feeling was that Murdoch's decision to shutter the News of the World (NotW), the weekly tabloid accused of bribing policemen for information and illegally tapping into the cellphone messages of everyone from a 13-year-old murder victim to family members of those killed in terrorist attacks to celebrities, was designed to save the BSkyB deal. Television and satellites, after all, are where the real money is for Murdoch these days.

What next for News Corporation, Murdoch's flagship? The stock is down about 4 percent in New York trading so far today. Stay tuned.

--- Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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