The latest twist in an extraordinary saga of corporate rehabilitation suggests that the indignities of the phone-hacking trials and Leveson are clearly in the past
The Guardian, 30 January 2016
It’s the news they couldn’t wait to announce: James Murdoch has been reappointed chairman of Sky TV, proving beyond doubt that one of the world’s most powerful dynasties has got its mojo back. The news comes in a stunning month for the Murdoch clan, following swiftly on the announcement that James’s father Rupert is engaged to the former model Jerry Hall.
It’s a far cry from the dark days of 2012, when Murdoch’s younger son stepped down from his job running Sky in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. James had been chairman and chief executive of News Corp, the parent company of News international, during a period when intercepting mobile phone calls – including mine – was rife at the News of the World.
After the Murdochs gave evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating the hacking, MPs accused News Corp of “wilful blindness”and said its directors, including James and Rupert Murdoch, “should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility”.
Almost four years later, James Murdoch was the only candidate put forward to the Sky board. His appointment as chairman was announced by Sky’s chief executive, Jeremy Darroch, during a conference call with the media, despite the fact that it’s hard to think of a more insensitive moment to reveal Murdoch’s return. This week, the family of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal, had to deal with the distressing news that Levi Bellfield had finally confessedto the abduction, rape and murder of 13-year-old Milly in 2002.
Her parents, who gave evidence at the Leveson inquiry, said in a statement that the news of Bellfield’s confession was “devastating for a family that already had to endure so much”. It was the Guardian’s revelation that Milly’s phone had been hacked by someone acting on behalf of the News of the World that led to calls for a public inquiry in the summer of 2011.
For the Murdochs, it seems phone hacking and all the scandals that went with it are clearly in the past. Those awful days when James and Rupert had to appear penitent, shaking their heads over the failure of minions who inexplicably withheld crucial information from them, must feel like a bad dream. It’s not even as if James is the only one who’s got his job back: Rebekah Brooks was reinstated as chief executive of Murdoch’s British publishing business, News UK, in September last year.
All that embarrassment about the close links between Murdoch’s senior people and David Cameron – who now remembers her text offering a “country supper”? – is ancient history. Next time the Murdochs gather en masse, they could raise a glass not just to Rupert’s impending nuptials but one of the most successful PR strategies in living memory. The resignations, the displays of contrition, Rupert’s dramatic announcement about the “humblest day” of his life: they were what was expected and they were what we got. We should have known it wouldn’t last.
Those of us who had believed for years that the press was too powerful, concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of tycoons with the power to make or break governments, thought that the day of reckoning had finally come. How could any organisation survive the sordid revelations that emerged at the Leveson inquiry, costing the Murdoch empire millions in compensation and legal fees, along with the closure of a flagship title?
That’s why so many people who had suffered from intrusion were willing to appear before Leveson. Giving evidence about very personal matters is daunting, and most of us did it because we believed in the possibility of change. Now it feels as if we were hopelessly optimistic, failing to realise that the inquiry would be undermined by a process of attrition and a lack of political will. I still think it was worth it, but it’s hard to believe that so little has come out of a scandal that caused so much distress to so many people.
James Murdochhimself told us that the bad old days were over. Under questioning from the Leveson inquiry’s softly spoken interrogator, Robert Jay QC, he rejected the idea that power lay with the media during an election campaign. “I just don’t think that there’s that kind of old-fashioned power of big media proprietors being able to dominate the landscape,” he insisted.
Subsequent events tell a different story. Those politicians who tried to hold the Murdochs and other press barons to account have all but disappeared from view. The prime minister, who was bounced into setting up the inquiry by Labour’s Ed Miliband and the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg, now has a parliamentary majority and doesn’t need to worry about an enfeebled opposition.
Along with George Osborne, Cameron headed the guest list at Rupert’s Christmas party in London last month, where they were joined by half the cabinet. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder who – Cameron or Murdoch – actually won the 2015 election.
Normal service has been resumed, in other words. In that sense, James Murdoch’s return to Sky is the final act in an extraordinary saga of corporate rehabilitation. It’s a morality play of sorts and one title fits: how are the mighty risen.