The metamorphosis of 'Murdochgate'

What started out as a morality tale about the indiscretions of one of Rupert Murdoch's most tawdry tabloids is turning into a complex paper chase.

Louis Lanzano/AP
News Corporation head Rupert Murdoch enters the News Corp. building Friday in New York.

The phone hacking scandal outraged Britain as a simple tale of exploitation by a News Corporation-owned tabloid. Now it appears to be moving into a more complex phase that promises to test just how much reform the UK system will abide.

With two new inquiries planned, with a growing partisan political tone to the drama, with charges and denials over testimony recently given by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. lieutenants, and amid many lawyers and spin doctors on all sides, analysts say the original morality tale is becoming a complicated paper chase.

Plus, the country is now going on holiday for a month.

“From the public perspective the [scandal] story is starting to atomize ... this week brought a curious reaction, people got tired of it,” says Martin Moore, director of Media Standards Trust in London. “People recognize the institutional corruption involved … but the story has become very complex with many threads, and I think the public is losing the thread.”

The scandal exploded like a volcano when it was revealed in early July that an operative employed by News of the World (NotW), the now defunct tabloid operated by New Corp.'s British newspaper arm, broke into the voice mail of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old murder victim. The news set off a wave of moral revulsion against tabloid culture.

The outcry seemed to end years of fear of criticizing Mr. Murdoch’s empire, brought the end of his 168-year-old NotW, and stymied the News Corp. bid to own the most lucrative TV channel in Britain.

The scandal reached British Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to hire a former NotW editor, Andy Coulson, as his media chief and brought him home early from a trip to Africa amid calls for his resignation.

This week Mr. Murdoch, News Corp. Deputy Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch, and the former head of his British newspaper division, Rebekah Brooks, appeared before a parliamentary committee in a lengthy questioning about who knew what and when they knew it. It proved more sensational than cathartic or informative, analysts say.

The most memorable moment may have come at the end, when the elder Murdoch was hit with a shaving foam pie and his wife Wendi Deng leaped instantly to slap down the pie thrower.

But now the scandal, which Murdoch-owned media has characterized as unwonted hysteria engineered by enemies of News Corp., is entering a phase that Mr. Moore calls one of “many many lawyers.”

Today, for example, brought charges by two former News Corp. executives that aspects of James Murdoch’s testimony were fraudulent.

In dispute is whether the younger Murdoch knew of the scale of the phone hacking – that involved some 3,870 people – prior to making a hefty payout in a libel suit brought by one of the victims. The two executives, including former News Corp. legal chief Tom Crone, say he did.

“How could [Murdoch] not realize that hacking was more widespread, and why did he take no action to root out the culprits when forced to approve huge sums in compensation?” asked an editorial in today's London Evening Standard.

A Financial Times chart published today detailed the nexus of communication and relationships between principle figures in the scandal – including police, News Corp. figures, and members of the government – looks like two plates of spaghetti mashed together.

When Britain returns from holiday, the inquiries will diversify, looking at hacking in other media outlets and the charges by a senior civil servant in Downing Street that his phone was hacked while he was working there.

Following the scandal, it is questionable whether the public will support further efforts by Murdoch to expand his business here.

A number of experts and analysts say the public has done its job and had its effect, and that the scandal is now entering a nuanced phase that will rely in its inquires on a host of savvy and intelligent figures that will not wither away in coming months.

James Curran, director of the media center at the University of London, argues that for years the British public was growing tired and more critical of the influence and effect of the tabloids, “but that criticism had no champion anywhere across the nation … and suddenly that has changed.

“The British people may think that ‘Oh, nothing will change in the end.’ Their skepticism is strong. But I think they may be wrong this time.”

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