It’s easy to lose sight of the particulars and depth of the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked News Corp.’s British tabloids, the company at large, and politicians and police in the U.K. “Murdoch’s Scandal,” an authoritative “Frontline” documentary that will also air in Britain, carefully weaves the tale, while capturing its ramifications for Rupert Murdoch, including how the media baron’s “long-expressed hope for a family dynasty is now in peril,” as correspondent Lowell Bergman puts it. For some a recap, for others a primer, the hourlong production is truly worthy of the “fair and balanced” label.
Bergman doesn’t have to stretch matters to make the story play almost like a thriller, including British politicians and one particularly bold lawyer, Mark Lewis, warned about the dangers of taking on News Corp., given how its media holdings have been known to reward allies and punish opponents.
Perhaps foremost, the documentary makes clear Murdoch not only loves newspapers — “the seed-corn that built what he has today,” as former editor Andrew Neil notes — but recognizes the value of influence, which is the main commodity they provide. That explains why the mogul has stubbornly adhered to this “old media” business despite second-guessing within the financial community, understanding even if they don’t make him a lot of money, the clout newspapers wield — especially with politicians and regulators — can be used to help him generate earnings elsewhere.
It’s telling, too, that even Murdoch’s ostensible friends don’t do him much good in this special. For example, Neil suggests his old boss’s assertion that he delegated responsibility for the papers is “not credible,” given how attached he is to that small slice of his empire. (A footnote states neither Murdoch nor anyone else from News Corp. would agree to be interviewed.)
Bergman also captures, in fascinating fashion, how close the phone-hacking scandal came to evaporating as a story, despite years of inquiry and the fact thousands of people had private messages intercepted. In fact, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger — whose paper, as a rival to Murdoch’s tabloids, was alone for a time pursuing the story — relates a remarkable anecdote about calling Bill Keller, then editor of the New York Times, and soliciting his opinion. The Times followed with an exhaustive piece that helped jump-start interest.
Finally, there’s something about hearing messages on TV — as opposed to reading about the hacked messages — that makes the invasion of privacy more pointed. In this case, no amount of print can quite match the intimacy of broadcasting.
Not that broadcast news rises to this level very often, but “Frontline” pretty regularly does. And in this case, the PBS program has helped shine a cleansing light on a scandal that, rightfully, has shaken the house of Murdoch, perhaps to its foundation.