Almost a year before Rupert Murdoch made an outlandishly high bid for the Wall Street Journal’s parent Dow Jones in the spring of 2007, initial reports surfaced regarding phone hacking at his British tabloid News of the World. It would eventually require further details to truly outrage the U.K. public, which had rock-bottom low expectations of News of the World’s ethics to begin with. But it’s safe to say that just the early pieces of the scandal would have been quite grave relative to the standards of a publisher the caliber of Dow Jones. (For that matter, so were the routine antics of several other Murdoch properties that Dow Jones might later suffer from being associated with. But let’s set that aside for now.)
This is why, as a former Journal reporter who witnessed the merger drama firsthand, I was dumbstruck to read a ProPublica story on Wednesday about second thoughts by the Bancroft family, the longtime Dow Jones owners who entertained and ultimately accepted Murdoch’s offer. Ex-Dow Jones exec Dick Tofel writes for ProPublica:
A number of key members of the family which controlled The Wall Street Journal say they would not have agreed to sell the prestigious daily to Rupert Murdoch if they had been aware of News International’s conduct in the phone-hacking scandal at the time of the deal.
“If I had known what I know now, I would have pushed harder against” the Murdoch bid, said Christopher Bancroft, a member of the family which controlled Dow Jones & Company, publishers of The Wall Street Journal. Bancroft said the breadth of allegations now on the public record “would have been more problematic for me. I probably would have held out.”
Really? Now you tell us?
I wonder how many of the following facts regarding hacking — all of them knowable before Murdoch’s bid or while it was pending — came up during merger negotiations. In that timeframe, it was already established that:
Their victims were known to include Prince Charles and Prince William, both future kings of England. Perhaps the current head of state was spared only because she’s a more infrequent user of cel phones?
The guy set to take over as CEO of Dow Jones upon completion of the merger would be the former head of News International, the unit that includes News of the World and Murdoch’s other U.K. papers.
Yes, the exec claimed at the time that hacking was the act of a single rogue at the newspaper. But come on. Any Dow Jones reporter can tell you that’s a standard party line at a lot of companies when scandal breaks, often disproven later.
The phone-hacking operation was at first estimated to entail more than 600 calls by the two initial criminal defendants. The private investigator had a contract with News of the World for 104,000 pounds per year. Think it was easy for a lone wolf to sneak that through the News International expense system without his bosses noticing?
News of the World had a general history of sleazy tactics, including routinely paying for scoops and misrepresenting themselves to sources. One undercover reporter dubbed the “fake sheikh” used to dredge up scandals on various prominent Middle Eastern nationals. This sort of thing had basically been going on since Rupert Murdoch bought that paper in 1969.
I really prefer not to revisit old news about my ex-employers in public. But you know what, sometimes there’s a certain word we use for old news: “history.” I just can’t stand by while someone revises such an important chapter of it to flatter himself or herself.
Items listed above were gathered through a quick search of the Google News archives, by the way. If you want to look for yourself, here’s a timeline the search engine generated of the early stages of the phone hacking scandal through the closing of the Dow Jones merger. Here’s a list of news stories from that period sorted by relevance.
Loved the reaction of a journalist friend of mine who shall remain nameless when I brought up the News of the World phone-hacking scandal to him yesterday.
“Who knew they were so thorough as to go through all that trouble to get quotes?” he said. “I thought they just made stuff up.”