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Thursday, April 26, 2012 

One rogue newspaper.

For years we had the one rogue reporter defence. Now, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch's second session at Leveson, we've been given the one rogue newspaper defence.

You see,
Keith never really liked the News of the World. It was only the first newspaper he bought in Britain, the one which essentially kick-started his global ambitions. He didn't have much contact with the editor, not even phoning them up every week. His real love, the Sun, he lavished with attention. If you want to know what he thinks, read its editorials. Secretly, he'd wanted to shut the Screws down and bring the Sun out seven days a week, something he has now done. Funny that.

As any number of ex-Screws staff have now said, this account is utter bollocks. Yes, it's true that Murdoch didn't pay as much attention to the Screws as he did the Sun, but the idea that he didn't phone the editor every week (something Piers Morgan for one disputes) or that he was somehow embarrassed by the Screws is nonsense. Why would he otherwise have picked Screws stories in his witness statement (PDF) as evidence of journalism by his papers in the public interest?

It's hardly surprising then that he knew absolutely nothing about what was going on at the paper. Or indeed, that he didn't pay attention to little matters like the Max Mosley privacy case. He didn't know about the Gordon Taylor settlement. Or basically, any of the allegations against the paper until it was too late. When the Milly Dowler hacking story finally blew everything apart, he panicked. Nevertheless, shutting the Screws down was the right decision.

Some of this, it should be stressed, is believable. During 2008 he was focused on taking over the Wall Street Journal. He probably doesn't read the full rulings against his papers, or at least until he has to prior to the grilling he's received over the last two days. The idea though that absolutely everything passed him by is laughable. It seems that neither James or dear Rebekah ever mentioned the troubles the Screws was having thanks to the continued digging of Nick Davies. If we were to believe every word of Rupert's evidence, both this time and last, then he had apparently never heard of Neville Thurlbeck, one of the chief reporters on the Screws for the best part of 20 years. At least James admitted that he didn't really read the tabloids he was in charge of, although you can't imagine that was because they were too vulgar for him.

There was then a cover-up. Naturally though, this didn't involve any of Rupert's nearest and dearest. Both James 'n' Rebekah were kept completely out of the loop. Why, despite Colin Myler being brought in as the new broom after the resignation of Andy Coulson, it seems that he and the rest of the staff just wanted to forget about all the unpleasantness involving Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. Those who under Coulson had been co-operating with the industrial scale phone hacking had of course wanted the air to be cleared, for all of this to come out, for executives at the paper to know what had been going, but they were stopped in their tracks by the dastardly Tom Crone, the lawyer and drinker extraordinare! Except of course Rupert couldn't come out and say his name and accuse him outright; he just ensured that his description of the man couldn't be mistaken for anyone else. As Crone later said, it just happens to be a coincidence that the two main people Murdoch principally blamed also happen to be the ones disputing the evidence given by his son.

In any case, the idea that James and Rebekah were out of the loop and misled is absurd. Back in 2009 when the Guardian exposed the settlement with Gordon Taylor, either could have said if they had indeed been unaware of the scale of what went on that they wanted no stone left unturned. Instead Brooks issued that infamous letter claiming that the Guardian "has substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public". It took until the end of 2010 before News Corporation finally realised the story wasn't going to go away and set up the Management and Standards Committee to look fully into what had gone on at both the Screws and the Sun. Rupert himself briefly forgot everything that had been drummed into him and went for the jugular when Robert Jay implied that the overall desire of executives had to been to "cover up, not to expose", to which he responded, quick as a flash with "[W]ell, people with minds like yours perhaps [might think that]".

For the last two days have been a performance, and an incredibly good one at that. Murdoch didn't set out to destroy this government, as some of us both thought and hoped that he would, but he did ensure that everyone he loathes and wants to settle a score with got what he thinks they deserve. The Guardian was pretty much left alone while the Telegraph, the Times's main rival, was repeatedly pasted. Everyone he thinks has either failed or turned on him received at best a slight and at worst a smear. Anything that might make him look as though he was really in the wrong he'd forgotten about, while all the stories ex-staff and others had written were just nonsense. He admitted he'd made mistakes, but only slight ones. He regretted he hadn't acted sooner, but what he'd always wanted to happen now has done. It would be a blot on his reputation for the rest of his life, but he can clearly live with that. What endures is the myth, unaltered by this appearance and if anything enhanced by it, that he's untouchable, even infallible. Thankfully, there's still plenty of time for that particular spell to be broken.

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