The US press appears to have the attention span of a gnat. The S&P downgrade, Euromarket driven stock gyrations, and the Republican presidential race jockeying have displaced older stories. Yet the News International phone hacking scandal is blowing up to Watergate-level proportions in the UK, with fresh evidence showing that Rupert and James Murdoch (at best) misled Parliament in their testimony last month. And since phone hacking appears to be widespread, not just at the now defunct News of the World, but potentially other News International entities in the UK, it isn’t hard to imagine that US news outlets also engaged in questionable and possibly impermissible conduct.
Yet the contrast between the US and UK coverage is marked, and it goes beyond the obvious explanation that l’affaire Murdoch is chock full of major domestic power players. The difference in presentation is marked. The stories in the Guardian, which did the real spadework, and the Independent (to pick two examples) are incisive, direct, and suitably scandalized. The latest stories in the New York Times and Bloomberg (to pick two counter-examples) have headlines almost designed to have the reader ignore the articles. And even if they do contain most of the facts, they bury the lead, so someone reading the first paragraph or two might decide they had the drift of the gist, when the real meat was much further in the piece.
The very high concept is the Parliament released a passel of documents that show that Rupert and James Murdoch lied in their recent testimony. They tried, as they have in the past, to claim that the phone hacking scandal was limited to one bad apple, Clive Goodman. The most deadly item published is a letter from Goodman claiming that hacking was widely discussed at News of the World editorial sessions until editor Andrew Coulson told staff to refrain (note from the mention, not necessarily the actual behavior). Yet James Murdoch claimed that a £243,000 payment to Goodman had nothing to do with the desire to protect the paper! If you believe that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.
For those who may need a playbill, Coulson became the communications chief for the current prime minister, David Cameron, on Rupert Murdoch’s personal assurance that he was clean. Ouch.
There are all sorts of other goodies in the documents. In response to a query from the Parliament committee, Harbottle & Lewis, disputed the Murdochs’ claims about its investigation. It stated that it had been engaged to perform a limited review, analyzing 2500 e-mails supplied by News International to see if they contained evidence that specific employees were aware of or engaged in phone hacking. The firm said their access had been restricted and their requests for more information had been denied. This is particularly significant because James Murdoch testified that he relied on the work of Harbottle & Lewis in his claim that he thought any problem at News International was limited to Goodman. And the law firm provided the version of the Goodman letter to the Parliament committee which included the accusation of widespread hacking; the one provided by News International had that section redacted.
Here is the headline from the main story on this development at the Independent:
Huge pay-off for reporter who kept quiet about scale of hacking. The opening paragraphs make clear what is at stake:
News International executives were told four years ago that phone hacking was rife at the News of the World and subsequently paid a jailed employee a quarter of a million pounds after he claimed that Andy Coulson authorised and then tried to hide the extent of it at the newspaper when he was editor.
Previously secret papers show that Rupert Murdoch’s most senior lieutenants paid the NOTW’s disgraced royal editor, Clive Goodman, £243,000 in compensation soon after he had made damaging accusations against the company and its senior staff.
Now admittedly this account does rely on readers knowing that News International executives, particularly the Murdochs, have tried the “see no evil, hear no evil” routine.
The Independent also has a long section at the bottom of the article showing extracts from the new documents and explaining what their significance is and what the next steps related to each might be. It’d clear, easy to digest, and engaging.
The Guardian finds the scandal so exciting that it had a live blog yesterday: “Phone-hacking scandal: live“. But it also has major subheads give you the main points quickly if you don’t want quite that much detail:
• ‘Devastating’ new evidence submitted to select committee
• Four-year-old letter alleges phone hacking ‘widely discussed’ at News of the World editorial meetings
• Select committee to re-sit on September 6
• Two new witnesses to be quizzed by committee
Another indicator: you know it’s bad when the headline at a government body is clearer than what you get in the US press. At the UK Parliament site which made the documents public:
Committee publishes further written evidence on phone-hacking. Understated but direct.
Now look at the anodyne headlines in the US.
Letter Counters Hacking Avowals From News Corp. New York Times
Both these headlines are fails. Bloomberg’s fails to mention “hacking scandal”; the “contradiction” could be about anything, say succession plans. The New York Times does include a key signifier, but “Counters Hacking Avowals” is MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) inducing.
And the articles are light years apart from their UK counterparts. All you learn from Bloomberg is that James Murdoch may have to go back to Parliament again. Since execs just about never get roughed up by Congress and even when they do, it seems to be empty theatrics, this hardly seems very serious. Here is how the article begins:
A trove of documents and statements released by the U.K. Parliament in the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal implicates top former executives while contradicting testimony of Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch on what and when he knew about the illegal practices.
The contradictions mean Murdoch may be called to Parliament to answer more questions about a confidential settlement he approved with Gordon Taylor, according to a statement issued by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is investigating the scandal. Taylor, the chief executive officer of the Professional Footballers’ Association, was a victim of hacking by News Corp.’s defunct News of the World tabloid.
The documents and statements prompted lawmakers to request explanations for inconsistencies from several executives, including Andy Coulson, the tabloid’s former editor, and Les Hinton, who recently resigned as publisher and CEO of Dow Jones & Co. and had led News Corp.’s U.K. publishing unit.
You have to get to the fourth paragraph to learn about the Goodman letter (no mention of the probable bribe) and the fifth to learn that is looks to be a smoking gun. And as too often happens in Bloomberg stories on complicated topics, the piece is disjointed. I suspect a lot of readers would lose patience part way through.
The New York Times piece starts off in a workmanlike manner, but stunningly omits key elements that would let US readers know why the revelations are important:
An influential parliamentary committee investigating phone hacking at Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct tabloid, The News of the World, released a potentially damning four-year-old letter Tuesday claiming that hacking was routine and “widely discussed” at the paper, a direct contradiction of repeated assertions by the paper’s owners and editors that until recently they were unaware of the breadth of the problem.
The letter, from Clive Goodman, a former News of the World royal correspondent who briefly went to jail in 2007 for intercepting voice mail messages of members of the royal household, is important because it challenges the claim by Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation that until last December it believed that the hacking was limited to one “rogue” reporter — Mr. Goodman — and that it had conclusively investigated the matter. Mr. Goodman sent the letter, including the now-redacted names of others he said knew about the hacking, to the company after he was fired.
There is NO mention that James and Rupert got up and made serious misrepresentations to Parliament weeks ago! Instead, we are led to believe, in the next paragraph, that the big implication is that this letter is awkward for the prime minister:
The disclosure is a further embarrassment to Prime Minister David Cameron, who has already been ridiculed by his political rivals for his decision to hire a former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, as his director of communications.
It isn’t until paragraph eight that you get a not terribly direct reference to the idea that these documents included material that was seriously at odds with some of the Murdochs’ testimony:
The parliamentary panel, the Commons committee on culture, media and sport, said that in light of Mr. Goodman’s letter and other documents, it would re-call for further questioning at least four former employees of The News of the World. It also said it might re-call Mr. Coulson as well as Rupert Murdoch’s son James, who runs the News Corporation’s European and Asian operations
It isn’t until the end of paragraph ten that the Times finally says that some of the material “cast[s] doubt on previous assertions by the Murdochs and other company officials.” The balance of the story does provide a good summary of the main revelations, but by then many readers would have abandoned the piece, not expecting such juicy material.
Most important, neither of the US pieces point out the real stakes: this isn’t about whether the Murdochs have to sweat under hot lights. James Murdoch may not survive as a News Corp executive, and the scandal calls succession plans and ultimately the Murdoch control of critical parts of the News Corp enterprise into question, at least in terms of acting as hands-on managers. US readers are missing both a riveting scandal and potentially a sea change in the world’s most powerful media enterprise.