British parliamentarians are trying to turn the recent phone hacking scandal into something approximating Watergate.
In the fiercely competitive British newspaper market, some reporters hacked into private citizens' voicemail systems and stole messages. This helped them write exclusive salacious news stories, since ordinary people all too often leave juicy voicemail messages on their illicit lovers' cellphones.
The scandal broke when someone hacked into a cell phone that had belonged to a young girl who'd been murdered. The sleuth deleted messages to make room for more, figuring he'd gain useful leads into who her friends were so he could go out and buttonhole them for a weepy interview. This led her parents to the false hope that their daughter was still alive, and may have destroyed clues useful to the police hunting her killer.
When that bit of hacking came to light, a media firestorm resulted, not unlike the controversy surrounding Mr. Zimmerman's shooting Mr. Martin. In both cases, amidst the furor, the underlying facts of the goings-on were all but buried from view.
Robert Murdoch, who owned the News of the World which found itself at the heart of the scandal, eventually shut down the 180-year-old paper, throwing many employees out of work. He, his son, and a number of executives endured a series of grillings by Parliament, which is the British equivalent of being hauled before a congressional committee.
That didn't end the matter because politicians saw an opportunity to act indignant about an unpopular business. A very good time is being had by all save the people being questioned.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the conflict has gotten up close and personal:
A U.K. parliamentary committee report issued Tuesday said News Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch is "not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company" and found that three former News Corp. executives misled British lawmakers over the depth of the phone-hacking scandal.
It's true that Mr. Murdoch could have looked further into the scandal as it happened, and it's also true that the original claim that hacking was limited to one employee turned out to be false, but there are party-political partisan motivations here.
The MPs who are being most vocal in criticizing Mr. Murdoch are gunning for David Cameron, the British Prime Minister. The British press has considerably more electoral influence than does American media; Mr. Cameron had spent a great deal of time and effort schmoozing Mr. Murdoch and his executives in the hopes of getting favorable press coverage. This is hardly a new development nor unique to Western politics, but it does carry certain hazards.
PM Cameron's political opponents are gleefully seizing an opportunity to make Mr. Murdoch look bad so that they can claim that David Cameron consorts with undesirable characters. Far be it from the American press to similarly point out that Mr. Obama hangs out with known terrorists - indeed, people known to be terrorists long before Obama hung out with them, unlike the Murdochs whose corporate crimes were unknown to anyone, even themselves, until fairly recently.
The parliamentary report saying Mr. Murdoch was unfit was opposed by the Conservative members of the committee and supported by the others; indeed, Conservative members of the committee say that phrase was not even discussed or debated. So far, so political.
The reason the precise wording of the report takes on additional weight is because Mr. Murdoch's company owns 39.1% of British Sky Broadcasting Group and was negotiating to buy the rest as the scandal broke. Ofcom, the U.K. communications regulator that's roughly the equivalent of our FCC, must decide whether News Corp. is "fit and proper" to hold a British broadcasting license.
BSykB is one of Mr. Murdoch's most valuable properties and Ofcom has the power to revoke Mr. Murdoch's broadcasting license which would cost him a lot of money. This vaguely-worded standard gives him and other broadcast executives enormous incentive to keep the regulators in a good mood, whatever that may take - and gives those who hate or compete with Mr. Murdoch an even larger incentive to foul his nest as publicly and as loudly as possible.
The Liberal MPs said that Mr. Murdoch is "not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company." Let's look at the record.
Mr. Murdoch is clearly a fit person to help a major international company prosper and grow. Conservatives who favor job creation see him as a worthy taxpayer. What's wrong with him in Liberal eyes? He supported Mr. Cameron, an unforgivable offense, and on this side of the pond is viewed as leaning towards the Republican side of things. What could be more unfit than that?
As for his getting to the bottom of the scandal, he probably should have investigated more fully and taken earlier action, just as Pres. Nixon should have investigated Watergate more fully and not tried to cover it up. However, he is 81 years old and is running a major international business profitably. He probably didn't believe that the matter was important enough to distract him from other matters like the bottom line. When he suddenly realized that the matter was worthy of his serious attention, it's hard to imagine a more adequate response than flat-out closing down the division which committed the crimes and sacking everyone who worked there.
He also probably didn't recognize the extent to which his leftist opponents are willing to abandon British traditions of politeness and truth-seeking in the interest of gaining political power by any means. One might suppose his executives in America would have enlightened him as to the take-no-prisoners technique of modern statist socialists. We can understand why a man who grew up listening to Winston Churchill talk about the duty and honor of the British Empire might not quite realize that those concepts are as dead as the Empire itself.
We've seen this sort of "take no prisoners" politics before. When Richard Nixon was running for president against John Kennedy in 1960, Mr. Kennedy's operatives burglarized the office of a lawyer who had papers discussing Mr. Nixon's financial relationships. The Washington Post reports:
In one of the least-known chapters of 20th-century political history, Kennedy operatives secretly paid off an informant and set in motion a Watergate-like burglary that sabotaged Nixon's campaign on the eve of the election.
So the Kennedys turned to two crusading liberal columnists, Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, who had been attacking Nixon for the past decade. It was "a journalistic atrocity" to conspire with "the Kennedy hawkshaws to help us get the goods on their opponent," Anderson admitted, but scoring a scoop to destroy Nixon was simply too tempting to pass up. [emphasis added]
JFK's operatives paid $100,000 to have the documents stolen. Their friends in the media committed "journalistic atrocities" and published stolen goods just before the election when Mr. Nixon wouldn't have time to respond. This "October surprise" coupled with Mayor Daley's crooked vote counting in Chicago threw the election to Kennedy by the narrowest margin in US history.
The facts about JFK's burglary were known in media circles but were kept from the public. Mr. Nixon can be sympathized with, if not forgiven, for thinking that criminal activities had become a normal part of American politics and deciding to fight fire with fire.
He didn't realize, however, that anything illegal a Democrat does is OK whereas anything a Republican does is not OK even if it's legal or not his fault. The Watergate burglary ended Mr. Nixon's career as effectively as JFK's far worse premeditated, coordinated burglary enhanced his.
It's sad to see our British friends adopting the "politics of personal destruction" as pioneered by the American left. Vigilant media are the only forces that have any hope of keeping politicians reasonably honest. In Britain, the political left are trying to hammer home the point that favoring their political opponents can lead to regulatory troubles, just as Mr. Obama is saying that contributing to Romney's campaign will lead to regulatory problems.
Mr. Murdoch has done all Americans a favor by saving the Wall Street Journal and building Fox News into a credible alternative to the stuanchly liberal mainstream media. It's no surprise that British leftists would try to take him down. What's particularly sad, but typical, is that they're using government regulation of the media to try to do it.
That's the major problem with government regulation - the more regulations there are, the more easily politicians can attack people they don't like.
As long as Mr. Murdoch has not committed any crimes and cooperates fully with the police investigations of those who have, the only people with any right to decide whether he is a "fit and proper person" to run his company are his own shareholders and their elected board of directors, full stop. For the government to claim the power to decide who can run a private company is fascism, nothing more and nothing less.