I get that there’s an inclination to view Rupert Murdoch as a dark prince of journalism and the right. But as the News of the World scandal continues to unfold, it’s at least as important to understand the journalistic cultures created by Murdoch’s lieutenants as it is to understand the man himself if you want a firm grasp on what happened to make the phone hacking scandal possible. To do that, it’s well worth reading two very different books that follow Murdoch’s papers on either side of the pond: Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles and Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx Is Burning.
The Diana Chronicles is as much media criticism as it is royal gossip, and it charts how Fleet Street became increasingly evasive and disdainful on traditional rules about the royals’ privacy throughout Princess Diana’s ascension and fall (among other things, her gym owner rigged up a secret camera in some of her exercise equipment and sold the resulting crotch shots to the Daily Mirror). But the money section, in relation to phone hacking and today’s scandal, is the section on Squidygate. For those unfamiliar with the subject, somehow (it remains unclear how), one of Princess Diana’s mushy phone calls with one of her lovers, James Gilbey, ended up getting broadcast over non-commercial radio frequencies, taped by amateur radio enthusiasts, and sold to the Sun, a News Corporation paper, which turned around and made them available through a pay phone line. For 36p a minute, you could listen to the whole thing. There are significant suspicions that the call was tapped and rebroadcast so it would find its way to the press by untraceable means, so the wrongdoing isn’t only the Sun’s. But while the News of the World hacking may have been shockingly widespread, it’s not as if Murdoch papers have ever regarded other people’s private phone calls with exceptional deference.
Mahler’s The Bronx is Burning is a more wideranging book, but it recounts Murdoch’s splashy arrival in America, via his purchase of the the New York Post and his hostile takeover of New York Magazine (which he sold in 1991). But the stuff on how the Post covered the Son of Sam case is quite revealing. Steve Dunleavy, the Post reporter on the case, actually dressed up as a bereavement counselor to get to the parents of Stacy Moskowitz, one of the victims, and published a story based on his conversations with them. The paper suggested, among other things, that the Mafia had a bounty out for the killer, serialized a novel he was supposed to have read, and when David Berkowitz asked for the Post in prison, they made a headline out of that too. As Mahler puts it, “Not since the days of Hearst, Pulitzer, and the Daily Mirror had New York’s newspapers pandered so shamelessly to the city’s id.”
In any case, both books are very good. Rupert Murdoch may quit running his company today. But felling the tree doesn’t mean you’ve yanked up the roots. As both Brown and Mahler demonstrate, News Corporation’s culture runs deep.