Murdoch media crisis deepens with five new arrests

Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who made and broke British prime ministers, now appears powerless to thwart investigations into alleged misdeeds by his empire.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
Copies of The Sun newspaper are displayed at a kiosk in London on Monday. Rupert Murdoch is under pressure over his Sun tabloid after the arrests of several senior staff in a corruption probe, but whistleblowers inside his media empire may pose more of a threat than the public outrage that forced the closure of its sister paper, News of the World weekly, after allegations of phone hacking.

The famed Rupert Murdoch tabloid scandal-mills are grinding yet again.

After five senior journalists at Murdoch's tabloid The Sun in London got arrested Feb. 11, the billionaire media mogul is again the subject of gawking and speculation. The arrested face charges of bribing public officials for information.

The arrests suggest that the Murdoch crisis is not a sensational one-time British event that climaxed with last summer’s phone-hacking scandal, but is instead deepening. Allegations of misdeeds by his media empire, fed in part by disgruntled Murdoch employees, are being pursued at the highest levels of the British establishment – signaling a distinct shift from years in which his incredible sway served as a strong deterrent to such scrutiny, analysts say.

Yet the man who made and broke British prime ministers and politicians seems unable to do much about the slow grinding of multiple investigations into News Corp. behavior and alleged cover-ups.

Murdoch “had an easy ride for decades with total political cover,” argues James Curran, head of media studies at the University of London. “Now, in the space of a few months, this changed. The political class in Britain provided cover for Murdoch; they were cowed by [News International]."

As an example, he points to the change in fortunes for News International's former chief executive and Murdoch protégé Rebekah Brooks, who was arrested in July last year.

"In 2003 Rebekah Brooks could actually testify that they paid police, which is illegal, under the assumption she was protected," Professor Curran says of Ms. Brooks, who was editor of the Sun from 2003 to 2009. “So now we see the political cover by the political class has been exposed to the rigors of the law.”

Murdoch's iron grip profoundly weakened

The Murdoch crisis blew up in July 2011, just days before the Australian-born magnate – already owner of Fox and Sky News – was to acquire control of the British satellite cable company BSkyB.

That deal was supposed to be the crowning moment to seal the commercial clout of Murdoch's globe-spanning News Corp.

Instead, the revelation that Murdoch journalists had hacked into the phone messages of a 13-year-old murdered girl and others shocked Britain and profoundly weakened Murdoch’s influence in British politics.

What followed was a spiraling series of inquiries by British police, the judiciary, and the Parliament into News Corps media practices, and threatened at one point to draw in British Prime Minister David Cameron.

In July as the phone hacking scandal blew up, Murdoch closed the No. 1 selling News of the World weekly, whose origins dated to the mid-19th century. Shuttering the News was widely seen as penance by Murdoch and a way to clear the media empire of scandal ahead of approval for the BskyB purchase.

But the five staffers arrested this weekend – among them a deputy editor, a photo editor, and a foreign correspondent – make nine Sun employees now apprehended as the crisis deepens.

A new day for whistleblowers

The Sun journalists were arrested along with two Ministry of Defense officials. Sun staffers reacted with a fury at accusations that News Corps management fingered them in order to shield themselves from allegations of complicity or knowledge of illegal practices by News Corp.

The New York Times today published a detailed account of an e-mail allegedly sent to James Murdoch, the ostensible corporate heir, that showed evidence of phone hacking and other illegalities early in the scandal, which dates back at least 10 years. The younger Murdoch has testified that he was unaware of the extent of News Corp illegal behavior, though now departed News Corp. senior executives and legal counsel deny these statements.

The Times suggests new information arising in News Corp. investigations may be coming from executives within the company positioning themselves for greater leverage at the expense of the senior Murdoch.

The 2008 e-mail surfaced in a box of material sealed and taken from the office of Colin Myler, the last editor of News of the World.

Murdoch is allegedly leaving for London this week and News Corp. executives have said they will not sell the Sun, known as a “red-top” for its rouge tabloid banner.

Sun deputy editor Trevor Kavanagh defended his paper today, saying that paying for stories “has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed. There is nothing disreputable about it. And, as far as we know at this point, nothing illegal.”

Yet Martin Moore of Media Standard Trust, a British watchdog organization, said that “we have laws and if the police have evidence, they need to follow through.” For years British media leaders have complained that police did not investigate clear cases and the stories of whistle-blowers, Mr. Moore said. “So now we can’t complain if the police are investigating. You can’t have it both ways.”

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