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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Excesses of Murdoch's media empire uncovered, unravelled and under fire

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This book, co-authored by British Labour MP Tom Watson and acclaimed London reporter Martin Hickman, was, until its release, possibly the best kept secret in the history of U.K. publishing.

Even the printers signed confidentiality agreements, and no wonder: its 350 pages overflow with fresh disclosures of despicable behaviour in the highest circles of British society. Fleet Street and Scotland Yard will never be the same.

The book's title, Dial M for Murdoch, is a direct steal from filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. It could have been titled M for Mayhem, for Malice, for Mud, for Misanthropy.

It "names and shames" the astonishingly reckless acts of powerful people who were, for many years, untouchable.

Its back cover declares that "readers will hardly believe what's inside." That is no exaggeration. Although factual and carefully documented, much of it reads like top-rated thriller fiction.

Watson and Hickman trace the corruption of one man, Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and his business, News Corporation, which encompasses 800 companies in 50 countries, including the New York Post, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, Fox TV News and HarperCollins Publishing, to name a few.

The authors explain how Murdoch's ruthless influence spread to Britain's politicians and police, how it threatened the basic human rights of unsuspecting ordinary people, and undermined the very democracy it claimed to serve.

Even the dead weren't safe from Murdoch's reach, as in the case of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Murdoch's underlings intercepted the dead girl's cellphone messages, callously encouraging her parents to hope she was alive. Their exposure marked the end of Murdoch's life in an "elite space above democracy."

The book appears amid at least a dozen formal inquiries into Murdoch's empire, the most prominent being the ongoing Leveson Inquiry.

Few details have surfaced in Canada's corporate media. Among Murdoch and company's alleged crimes are phone and computer hacking, perjury, extortion, destruction of evidence, bribery of police and public officials, intimidation, illegal surveillance and invasion of privacy.

Those are lesser crimes, compared to the claim that, using these illicit news gathering techniques and the threat of blackmail, Murdoch and his corporation covertly held the balance of power in British politics from Margaret Thatcher to the present.

At the heart of the story is the octogenarian billionaire, Murdoch himself, whose frail and elderly appearance and current posture of humility utterly belie his history.

Having inherited a single Australian newspaper from his father in 1952, he perfected the combination of sex, scandal, sports, crime and celebrity ("slebs") at the core of tabloids everywhere. His special talents were for takeovers, for crushing the competition, and for breaking laws and promises ("Not worth the paper they're printed on!" he said publicly.)

He excelled at ripping off other newspaper's exclusives, and turning on his own sources. Like Richard Nixon, Murdoch believed that a crime was not a crime, if he were the one who committed it.

Shortly into the book, a reader reasonably wonders how Murdoch got less sociopathic individuals to co-operate with him in his rise to the top of the media business with a billion readers and sales of $33 billion annually. The answer: money, flattery, and especially, fear.

His muckrakers pleased him or lost not just their jobs, but their futures. "The Dirty Digger" used cash, influence and illegally obtained secrets about individuals to clear his path, sometimes offering cushy jobs to authorities in return for "looking the other way."

When Sir John Stevens was London's top cop, Murdoch's editors, especially the glamorous Rebekah Brooks, frequently wined and dined him. When he retired, he was hired to write a column for News of the World at about $7,500 a pop. It was ghost written.

Stevens had overseen several investigations into Murdoch's bad behaviour.

Dial M also suggests Murdoch's papers sometime calculated the costs in money and reputation of printing apologies before deliberately misreporting some stories.

If the costs were reasonable, false information made the news. More than one former reporter has admitted to fiddled expenses and dodgy stories.

Sometimes quotes were written "back in the office" before writers even knew who they would be interviewing. The story of Murdoch's agenda, and the work of his enforcers gets darker and darker toward its end.

But for the defiance of a handful of honest (and lonely) journalists, it would never have been told.

Watson and Hickman point out things are going to get even nastier in future. Investigations into Murdoch's media practices are unfolding in Australia and in the U.S. criminal trials and arrests are expected: "An extraordinary corporate death is taking place."

Murdoch has said he has no plans to read the book. Pity, that.

 

Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 J10

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