The Cutline

Guardian editor on phone-hacking: People were scared of Rupert Murdoch, and News Corp. knew it

Dylan Stableford
The Cutline

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James and Rupert Murdoch in London on July 10, 2011. (AP)

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper, gave a long speech--the annual George Orwell lecture--to students at University College in London. The subject: the British media's phone-hacking scandal, and how fear of the almighty News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch has affected the investigation. For anyone who has followed the hacking saga, it's well worth reading the entire transcript.

But for those without the time, here are just a few highlights:

There was an almost willful blindness in British police, press, regulatory and political circles to acknowledge what was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

The simplest explanation is a combination of fear, dominance and immunity. People were frightened of this very big, very powerful company and the man who ran it. And News International knew it. They had become the untouchables of British public life.

There became an unspoken reciprocity about the business and regulatory needs of Mr. Murdoch and the political needs of anyone aspiring to gain, or stay in, office.

And on top of all this, there was--as we now know--a private intelligence operation. It was an intelligence operation which outsourced the dirtiest work to criminals and which, according to people in a position to know, had a formidable private investigation capability.

Not only did the firm have the intelligence operation, it also had the means to publish any dirt it gathered to a mass audience. It had a formidable legal department which would defend any action and which constructed a public argument about why it was justifiable to invade privacy--up to and including the argument that it was commercially necessary.

No wonder people were frightened of this company and may have decided not to challenge it.

Rusbridger's speech echoed a point Tom Watson made in his grilling of News International chairman James Murdoch in front of Parliament earlier in the day--that News Corp. acted and was feared like the mafia.

Here's that exchange:

Watson: "Are you familiar with the word 'mafia'?"

Murdoch: "Yes, Mr. Watson," Murdoch replied.

Watson: "Have you ever heard the term 'omerta,' a mafia term they use for the code of silence?"

Murdoch: "I'm not an aficionado on such things."

Watson: "Would you agree it means a group of people bound together by secrecy, who together pursue that group's business objectives with no regard for the law, using intimidation and corruption and general criminality?

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