When Rupert Murdoch acquired The Times of London and The Sunday Times in 1981, he also acquired a board of “independent national directors”-among them, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. Two years later, by way of a shady German tabloid, The Sunday Times bought the rights to a series of newly discovered journals supposedly written by Adolf Hitler.
Some of us thought this didn’t so much just smell fishy as reek, coming as it did after a long line of similar forgeries. But Trevor-Roper, lately ennobled under the sonorous title Lord Dacre of Glanton, was dispatched to give the diaries his imprimatur. He glanced over the absurd imposture and said that he would stake his reputation on its authenticity (all this is merrily related by Robert Harris in his book Selling Hitler). Back home, Dacre was troubled by second thoughts. With the presses about to roll, the historian’s anxiety was relayed to Murdoch, who gave the deathless reply: “Fuck Dacre. Publish.”
That story is all of Murdoch. “Screw you” might be the motto of his career. Screw Dacre, screw ethics, screw accuracy, screw the law, and screw politicians left, right, and center if they stand up to him. Not that many do. Now payback has come with the horrifying revelations that people working for Murdoch’s News of the World hacked the cell phone messages not only of showbiz celebs, but of a girl who had been abducted—and brutally murdered—in a way that gave her parents false hope that she might still be alive. Even Murdoch couldn’t shrug that off. On July 10, with the front-page headline “THANK YOU & GOODBYE,” News of the World appeared for the last time. It was closed down the day before the arrest of its former editor, Andy Coulson.
This is a disaster for Murdoch, but almost more so for the politicians who have befriended him, fawned on him, and enabled him—in a way that makes them as culpable as the grubbiest hackers. That includes David Cameron, who had appointed Coulson as his media maestro. Murdoch is 80 and his career is in its last phase. Cameron’s premiership is not yet 15 months old, but he is permanently sullied, maybe even terminally weakened.
MORE THAN 40 years have passed since Murdoch broke into British newspapers by buying News of the World. Founded in 1843, it turned into a lip-smacking scandal sheet—and a national institution. By 1949, it sold more than eight million copies each Sunday, which meant that up to half of British adults read it.
After News of the World, Murdoch acquired The Sun, and the Times and Sunday Times. As his media empire grew, Murdoch often showed courage and imagination. The so-called Wapping putsch in 1986, in which he moved his papers stealthily to a new high-tech plant while the printing unions were on strike, broke the stranglehold of those workers for good.
He also learned how to bend politicians to his will. Margaret Thatcher needed no bending: She was a natural soul-sister. But Tony Blair’s calculated embrace of Murdoch—regularly consulting him on policy, in return for The Sun’s endorsement through three elections—changed the face of British politics. This persuaded Cameron that he needed the support of the Murdoch press at all costs: hence his astonishingly ill-advised hiring of Coulson.
It’s not as though Cameron wasn’t warned. Before the last election, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, sent word to Cameron that an impending murder trial would be acutely embarrassing for Coulson, because of the role played by a private investigator he had used at News of the World. But “nothing came back from Cameron,” Rusbridger has said. And Paddy Ashdown, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has said, “I warned No. 10 within days of the election that they would suffer terrible damage if they did not get rid of Coulson.” But Cameron only embraced the Murdochites even more warmly.
His house in Oxfordshire is close to the home of Rebekah Brooks, Coulson’s predecessor. Some of the worst hacking outrages took place on her watch, before she was made chief executive of News International, the parent company of Murdoch’s British newspaper group. David and Rebekah dined together last Christmas, and, in June, Cameron attended the News International summer party. All in all, his relations with Murdoch, and the empire of Murdochia, suggest that Cameron lacks not only judgment, but an elementary instinct for self-preservation.
For the first time since Ed Miliband became Labour leader in September, he has really landed a punch on Cameron—in fact a combination of hooks and jabs. The scandal erupted as Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns 39 percent of the TV company BSkyB, has been trying to acquire the other 61 percent. Since BSkyB is already the largest broadcaster in the U.K., this is no minor deal. On the morning News of the World appeared for the last time, Miliband said that Cameron “needs to make clear that BSkyB cannot go ahead until the investigation is complete.” That’s part of Miliband’s steady repudiation of Blair’s legacy—and also a recognition that no one need be frightened of Murdoch any more. The sorcerer’s spell has been broken at last.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair! This article originally ran in the August 4, 2011, issue of the magazine.