A Unified Theory of Murdoch

The hacking scandal is just one aspect of a broad pattern of sleazy behavior.

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Protests outside Murdoch's Fifth Ave. apartment in New York (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Corporations, like all human organizations, develop distinct cultures. A set of shared values evolves that controls what a company is willing to do in the pursuit of profit -- and most important, what it is not. Most often, those values are driven by senior management. To succeed in that environment, employees must conform to the internal -- explicit and implicit -- rules of behavior.

Watching Murdoch père et fils dissemble and deflect in the bright lights of international media scrutiny this week was like seeing a disappointing full monty. Once the robe was opened, there was a lot less there than we had expected. Rupert was monosyllabic and imperious; James tried to charm and mouthed empty words. Wendi Deng's athletic defense of her 80-year-old husband from a shaving-cream assault drew so much attention because it was the only visceral moment in an otherwise anti-climactic parliamentary hearing.

By the time former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks made her appearance before the committee, the Murdochs' defense strategy was clearly visible: plausible deniability. Both Murdochs and Brooks tried to position themselves as innocent bystanders, unaware of the phone-hacking practices and bribery of police officials by their reporters in pursuit of scandal. One doesn't have to go very far to imagine that Murdoch underlings worked with few restraints on their behavior.

Like a putrid flower, each new petal of fact releases a foul odor that further defines the span and depth of what might be the largest criminal enterprise ever involving a journalistic institution. The ripples threaten to become a tidal wave: 10 arrests so far, the resignation of England's top cop, more resignations and one death (maybe coincidental) among senior and former News Corp. officials, the abrupt shutdown of a 160-year-old tabloid, an FBI probe into Murdoch practices in the U.S. and a Conservative government in Britain so damaged that its survival is a serious topic of discussion.

A Shiner on a Bruised Industry

As Pulitzer-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. has pointed out, the hacking and bribery scandal is not just about the Murdochs and their sleazy business practices; it is a black eye on an already fragile industry. For this American journalist -- who has worked in a dozen newsrooms over a long career -- the concept of breaking into the voice mail of anyone -- not just celebrities, royals and victims of crimes -- is simply unfathomable.

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There's a vast difference between investigative reporting, which is based on slow, painstaking -- and legal -- efforts to acquire information versus tapping into voice mails and bribing police officers to provide information about the whereabouts of celebrities and others. Even ambush interviews on street corners, while disturbing, fully disclose the reporter's actions and intent to the subject of an investigation.

What proper journalists don't do is misrepresent themselves, break laws and recklessly invade the privacy of victims. For a long time, the British public seems to have accepted that royals and celebrities were fair game, but efforts to tap the voice mail of the family of a little girl who was kidnapped and later found murdered seem to have pushed Brits into outrage. When her voice mail box was full, reporters for the News of the World were alleged to have erased some messages to make room for more, giving her family false hope and even affecting the course of the police investigation.

An Early Taste of Murdoch Culture

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