Saturday, July 16, 2011

Murdoch, Redefining Damage Control

In the one week since the last issue of News of the World went to bed, the News Corp. scandal has continued to grow day by day. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch flew to London to try to save his U.K. CEO and his bid for the Sky News channel, but has been forced to retreat on almost a daily basis, to the point where it became a trending topic on Twitter today to offer Shakespeare quotes illustrating Murdoch’s declining fortunes. This can be seen under the hashtag #shakespeare4murdoch, and among the many applicable quotes was this one that I offered:

“The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack.” —Shakespeare

To recap, not only did Murdoch’s lieutenant in the U.K. ultimately resign, but so did a top editor at the Wall Street Journal (also owned by News Corp.), who had biting criticism for his former employer hours later. Murdoch was forced to withdraw his Sky News bid after parliament was prepared to vote almost unanimously to request such a move. Now parliament is considering new media ownership rules that will almost surely require News Corp. to sell off or shut down at least one more London paper and divest most of the 39% share it currently holds of Sky News. News Corp.’s protestations of cooperating with authorities and conducting its own internal investigation are no longer being taken seriously. In Washington, the U.S. Justice Dept. has begun an investigation of News Corp. at the request of dozens of members of Congress to see if similar lawbreaking had occurred in News Corp.’s U.S. operations, which include Fox News. It is a similar story in Australia, where News Corp. felt it necessary to angrily denounce suggestions that it may have routinely worked outside the law. Back in London, Murdoch narrowly managed to avoid testifying before parliament this week. He is spending the weekend getting advice from lawyers about which questions he must not answer when he testifies next week.

It occurred to me that people may never look at breaking news the same way again, having learned that many of these stories were uncovered (or in some cases, fabricated) only on the basis of illegal spying. Is it “breaking news” or “break-in news”? But more than that, the News Corp. saga has redefined damage control. Unused to making public statements, the upper management of News Corp. has repeatedly offered more damage than control. Each successive statement reinforces the impression that the company’s executives are so insular and out of touch that no one in the office is familiar with the responsibilities of a law-abiding citizen. Even a full-page newspaper ad today, written in the form of a letter from Murdoch under the auspices of an outside public relations expert, failed to convey a recognition of either the seriousness or the scope of the situation. Today’s letter starts out with the assertion, “The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account.” This, of course, is a pointedly self-serving characterization of a paper better known to its readers as a sleazy tabloid. It is hardly a fitting way to start out an apology for a decade-long pattern of antisocial behavior. One observer pointed out that we have seen this kind of damage control already this year. Between December and January, the president of Tunisia tried to undo the public relations disaster created by his own corrupt government, but he was always several steps behind, offering too little, too late to make a difference. After less than a month, the president of Tunisia was fleeing for his life. A year ago, a public relations expert could have advised Murdoch that the regular secret meetings between company executives and top government officials would not look good when the public learned of them. But I am afraid it is too late for that now.