"Dial M for Murdoch": sins of the mogul

Author Tom Watson, a Labor member of Parliament, has been attacked by Murdoch media outlets.
Author Tom Watson, a Labor member of Parliament, has been attacked by Murdoch media outlets.
Posted: June 17, 2012

Dial M for Murdoch News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain By Tom Watson and Martin Hickman Blue Rider Press/Penguin Group. 360 pp. $26.95

Reviewed by Steve Weinberg

For the last six years, day after day, news consumers have been bombarded with coverage of media magnate Rupert Murdoch and his media properties (especially News of the World), besieged by charges of unethical and illegal behavior.

Because the scandal has played out largely in London and the rest of England, many of the players are relatively unfamiliar to news consumers in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and the remainder of the United States. Dial M for Murdoch, a play on the stage play and movie Dial M for Murder, sets out the genesis of the convoluted scandals and follows those scandals into the current year.

The News of the World, a profitable, large-circulation tabloid newspaper, has been shuttered as a result of the mess. Business acquisitions that would have expanded Murdoch's already expansive empire have been tabled. Men and women on the Murdoch payroll have lost their jobs, been charged with crimes, served prison sentences. Politicians and law enforcement agents have lost face, as the citizenry learns that they held back on inquiries because they feared the power of the Murdoch media conglomerate. Subjects of stories have seen their reputations harmed by the publication of information meant to remain private. Journalists have seen their own reputations tarred and their credibility — the most important coin of their realm — diminished.

A native of Australia, Murdoch, now 81, accumulated media properties there, moved the base of his operations to England where he also built a powerful media empire, then became a citizen of the United States. His most influential media properties in the United States are Fox Broadcasting and the Wall Street Journal.

Murdoch and his minions have murdered the truth over and over, according to Tom Watson, a member of Parliament in London, and Martin Hickman, a journalist for the Independent, a British newspaper. Watson has been attacked by Murdoch media outlets because of his political career; Hickman labors for a newspaper that competes with Murdoch-owned properties. When the personal stories of Watson and Hickman become part of their Murdoch exposé, the coauthors refer to themselves in the third person. Although their distaste for Murdoch and his minions is obvious throughout the book, Watson and Hickman base their work on thoroughly documented information.

The epicenter of the long-running (and still current) scandal involves invasion of privacy: Murdoch media journalists and private detectives retained by Murdoch media hacked into the mobile telephones of celebrities and crime victims, sometimes using the illegally obtained information in stories meant to build readership and viewership. When challenged to halt such practices, Murdoch media personnel lied about their activities to law enforcement agencies, committees of Parliament, judges, and competing journalists.

Of all the privacy invasions, the one bringing Murdoch media to the point of no return involved a missing girl, later found murdered. Milly Dowler, 13, disappeared from her home in Surrey in 2002. Soon after her disappearance, Murdoch media personnel managed to hack into her mobile telephone voice mail. When journalists at the Guardian, a Murdoch competitor, revealed the Dowler phone hacking last year, any hope by Mudoch of turning public opinion in his favor vanished. Hugh Grant, beloved as a movie actor in both Britain and the United States, had suffered when Murdoch media delved into his private life. About the Dowler revelations, Grant said, "This is the watershed moment when, finally, the public starts to see and feel, above all, just how low and how disgusting this particular newspaper's methods were."

The recounting of the Dowler case is relatively easy to follow in the dense book by Watson and Hickman. Many other scandals within the larger Web are less easy to follow. Near the front of the book, the authors list three dozen "dramatis personae." Keeping track of three dozen narrative threads would be difficult for any reader. Add hundreds more women and men who come and go from the book's pages, and the narrative power pretty much disappears. Furthermore, as certain characters reappear after many pages of absence, they need to be reintroduced, which leads to irritating repetition. Dial M for Murdoch is an important guide to a true-life drama ripped from the headlines. But it is an arduous book to read straight through.

At the opening of the book, the authors quote British Lord Acton, using words he published in 1887: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Watson and Hickman portray Murdoch as a powerful, corrupted bad man, and offer compelling evidence that the patriarch's lack of morality infected many he hired.

Steve Weinberg, during a 45-year journalism career, has written for and edited magazines and newspapers. He is also the author of eight nonfiction books.

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