What does not kill us makes us stronger. That was the Nietzschean subtext of an e-mail Rupert Murdoch fired off to staff at News Corp., hours after the May 1 publication of a report by British parliamentarians on the phone-hacking scandal roiling the company. "The opportunity to emerge from this difficult period a stronger, better company has never been greater and I will look to each of you to help me ensure that News Corporation's next 60 years are more vital and successful than ever," wrote the Australian-born CEO of News Corp.
An inability to acknowledge impediments and setbacks helped Murdoch build a media empire that spans five continents and is valued at some $50 billion. The same robust instincts now threaten the empire. Although MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee failed to reach agreement on all points in a report that summed up 10 months of evidence gathering and deliberations, the criticisms of News Corp. were stark. A majority declared News Corp. guilty of "willful blindness" in "ignoring evidence of widespread wrongdoing" at its British base and upheld the report's assertion that "Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company."
Hacking by News Corp.'s Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, first came to light in 2006, leading to the imprisonment the following year of royal editor Clive Goodman and a private eye contracted by the newspaper, Glenn Mulcaire. The tabloid's editor, Andy Coulson, resigned, but despite a steady stream of articles published by the Guardian newspaper alleging wider malpractice, neither News Corp. nor the British police showed any appetite for further investigation until the revelation in 2011 that the News of the World had hacked into the voice mails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. That triggered public revulsion and a series of parallel investigations by the authorities in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. British parliamentarians and media regulators conducted their own probes, and the government set up an independent judicial inquiry led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson. News Corp. initiated its own internal investigation.
The MPs are merely the first to report their findings. More is to come. Ofcom, the body responsible for regulating the U.K.'s communications industries, is mulling a decision on whether News Corp., which owns 39.1% of satellite-TV company BSkyB, is a "fit and proper" owner of a broadcasting license. The U.S.-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has written to the Federal Communications Commission demanding scrutiny of News Corp.'s suitability to hold its Fox News licenses. Murdoch, once unassailable, appears increasingly diminished, a confused King Lear blinded by attitudes and expectations that no longer correspond to the realities of his position.
A tale that started with illicit listening in on private messages has become a parable about blindness. And Murdoch is far from the only player apparently afflicted by failing eyesight. British Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Coulson as his communications chief despite warnings of illegality at the newspaper during Coulson's News of the World editorship. (Coulson later became one of 46 suspects arrested by police investigating hacking and bribery of public officials. No suspects have yet been charged.) Cameron now refuses to order an inquiry into concerns about whether his Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, remained sufficiently impartial in his handling of a bid by News Corp. to increase its holding in BSkyB. Hunt's adviser, Adam Smith, resigned last month after admitting "the content and extent" of his contacts with the company had "created the perception that News Corporation had too close a relationship with the [government]." Hunt claims to have been in the dark over his adviser's activities.
Failures of oversight are a recurrent theme of the hacking scandal. Such failures have undermined faith in the media, the political classes and the police, whose job it is to hold everyone, including themselves, to account and that faith was already strained. Across swaths of the world as far-flung as Murdoch's media assets, citizens are increasingly questioning whether the institutions and authorities that shape their lives are fit to exercise such stewardship. Like the MPs of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, they have yet to reach a full consensus, but you'd have to be blind to overlook the emerging conclusions.