Rupert Murdoch on closing News of the World: ‘I panicked’

The second day of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony before Britain’s Leveson inquiry into press ethics has been far more grabby than on Wednesday, when, as Michael Wolff put it, Murdoch “gave nothing….He was the ordinary and down-to-earth guy, whereas his Leveson inquiry antagonists were just this side of wild conspiracists. He was Hyman Roth in the Godfather: just ‘a retired investor living on a pension.’”

Murdoch’s demeanor Wednesday, when he seemed to be flabbergasted by the suggestion that there might be a transactional relationship between British politicians and the press — a lunch with Margaret Thatcher when he was trying to buy the Times of London, for example, was, as John F. Burns wrote, “a social occasion, a chance to get to know somebody who was making a mark. ‘I have never asked a prime minister for anything,’ he said. ‘I did not expect any help from her. Nor did I ask for any’” — has been replaced this morning by that of a weary and worldly wise observer of human behavior. “It’s a common thing in life,” Murdoch told Lord Justice Leveson, “for people to say I’ll scratch your back if you scratch my back.” Queens Counsel Robert Jay, who’s presented himself as an affable inquisitor the past days of the Leveson inquiry, pounced, asking, in essence, whether he’d ever asked a politician for special consideration. “I don’t ask any politician to scratch my back,” Murdoch snapped, adding, almost admiringly: “That’s a nice twist.”

Throughout the testimony, Murdoch discussed whether News International had tried to cover up its response to allegations of phone hacking. At particular issue was the culpability of Colin Myler, the former editor of the News of the World who now competes with Murdoch’s New York Post as editor of the New York Daily News. In 2007, Myler led an internal News International investigation into disgraced reporter Clive Goodman’s claims that phone-hacking was endemic at the Murdoch-owned paper. Myler, Murdoch said, had “specific instructions to find out what was going on. He did I believe put in two or three new steps of regulation but never reported back that there was more hacking than we had been told.”

Murdoch said the investigation was a “cover-up” and blamed Myler — “There is no question in my mind maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that someone, took charge of a cover-up which we were victim to and I regret” — and someone who appears to be former News International legal affairs manager Tom Crone — “the person I’m thinking of was a friend of the journalists and a drinking pal and a clever lawyer, and forbade them … this person forbade people to go and report to” Rebekah Brooks or his son James Murdoch.

Myler’s investigation led to a large cash settlement for Gordon Taylor, the head of a soccer players union who’d uncovered evidence of phone hacking at the company. In Steve Fishman’s profile of Myler — which is also a grand primer for anyone trying to catch up on this whole affair — he describes the outcome.

But on June 10, 2008, Myler and James [Murdoch] huddled together in James’s office to decide the fate of the Taylor case. Tom Crone, the paper’s lawyer, joined them. What was clear to everyone was that it would be best if Taylor’s lawsuit disappeared. For James, too, phone hacking was a problem created by others—he’d been in charge of the newspapers for only six months at the time. “Nobody was very keen on [a trial],” Myler testified.

Murdoch also talked about editorial standards. After saying he was on strict instructions from his lawyers “not to say this but I’m going to” — “You’ve just caused three coronaries,” Jay said to laughter — Murdoch expressed disapproval of Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre: “I was shocked when he said the editorial policy of the Mail is driven by commercial interests.”

After Murdoch boasted of the thick skin he’d developed over the years, Jay asked Murdoch about why he’d closed the News of the World rather than “tough it out.”

“When the Milly Dowler situation was first given huge publicity, I think all the newspapers took the opportunity to make this a huge scandal,” Murdoch replied. “You could feel the blast coming in the window and …. I panicked. But I’m glad I did.”

Murdoch said he was sorry he “didn’t close it years before” and then noted that “it still hasn’t stopped the excellent sales every day of the Sun and our other newspapers.” He said, “I think that historically this whole business of the News of the World is a serious blot on my reputation.”

“Would you agree, Mr. Murdoch,” Jay asked, “that reputation is a vital commercial asset which needs to be managed in any business?”

“Yes, I think it’s what keeps the public relations business going,” Murdoch said.

Related: Rupert Murdoch’s Groundhog Day (Paid Content)

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