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Rupert Murdoch: a seven-point plan for rehabilitation in British life
By Jane Martinson
How the News Corp mogul restored public links with David Cameron after the turbulence of the phone-hacking scandal and Leveson inquiry
Cameron, Osborne and Murdoch back together at mogul’s Christmas knees-up
Rupert Murdoch’s Christmas’s party – which drew David Cameron, George Osborne and other ministers on Monday – marks his return to the centre of power, the culmination of a seven-step process that has seen him regain his position at the top of British life:
1 A profession of humility
Psychologists say acknowledgement is always the first step on the road to recovery but it took Murdoch 12 days after the Guardian revealed that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked to take out a full-page advert on 16 July 2011 saying: “We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred”. Andy Coulson had already resigned as Cameron’s spin doctor in January 2011 but within days of the Dowler revelations, Murdoch closed the 168-year-old News of the World and scrapped his plan to take over the whole of satellite broadcaster Sky. Brooks resigned to face charges and, by 19 July, a surprisingly frail-looking Murdoch told a House of Commons committee that he was facing “the most humble day of my life”.
2 A fistful of dollars
In total, News Corp spent $512m (£345m) on the closure of its Sunday tabloid and legal settlements for at least 377 victims of voicemail interception. Nine of the 12 journalists charged with phone hacking were convicted, while public officials were found guilty for accepting payments for information. After an eight-month trial, Coulson was found guilty of conspiring to hack phones, while Brooks was cleared of all charges in June 2014. (Having eventually served five months of his sentence, Coulson is now writing the odd piece for the Telegraph. The newspaper group denies that he is on a contract to advise chief executive Murdoch MacLennan).
3 A job for a friend
From the very beginning of the scandal, Murdoch said his top priority was looking after Rebekah Brooks. Within months of the end of her trial, Murdoch was looking at a range of senior jobs for Brooks, firstly in the US. Initial reports that she would rejoin the company were met with disbelief from senior insiders but, after her husband Charlie was understood to have ruled out a move to the US, Murdoch and Brooks started to think that a return to her old job was the best option. She was reappointed chief executive of News UK in September 2015 and, having spent weeks working long hours in the office, she is only now ready for meetings with her old contacts.
4 Let the authorities complete their work
The biggest fear all along for the News Corp boss was the possibility of corporate charges being pressed for phone hacking. Murdoch had already split his publishing arm, which includes the British newspapers as well as the Wall Street Journal, from the Fox film and television business, partly to protect the latter from any possible charges. In February, the Department of Justice declared that News Corp would not face any charges in the US in relation to phone hacking and payments to public officials, and earlier this month the Crown Prosecution Service dropped all corporate charges against News Corp. However, given the appeals against the decision launched by victims, the final curtain has not quite come down. Although no one expects the government to go ahead with “Leveson part two” into the “extent of unlawful and improper conduct”, it cannot confirm this until all criminal proceedings, including appeals, are dealt with.
5 A clear political order
Labour party leaders may have attended Murdoch soirees but the opposition went into the May general election with concern over media domination written into its manifesto. In contrast, the Conservatives’ first manifesto promise on the media was to warn the BBC that it would face a licence fee freeze. Osborne’s comments about Auntie’s “imperial ambitions” reminded everyone that the Liberal Democrats were no longer in government to argue against imposing the cost of free licence fees for the over-75s on the corporation.
Even so, the appearance of Cameron at a party attended by Murdoch and Brooks is remarkable, given the fact that few politicians were as embarrassed by phone hacking as he was. The prime minister’s close links with Brooks and the Murdochs – with their Christmas gatherings, country suppers and “LOL” texting – were revealed in some detail during the Leveson inquiry, which he launched in November 2011. It later emerged that he had ignored those warning him against appointing a man who had stood down from his role as editor of the News of the World as his spin doctor. Having accepted Coulson’s denials, Cameron said he warranted a “second chance”.
Chris Bryant, the former shadow culture secretary and phone-hacking victim, who has recently attended a party at the home of Evgeny Lebedev, said: “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with meeting a proprietor socially. However, I would have thought that Cameron in particular, as well as Osborne, would have learnt from the whole sorry saga that these informal contacts just start to smell dodgy.
“I have always known that, if they won the general election, the Tories would just bide their time before ushering Rupert back through the front door. It was one of the reasons I was so desperate for them not to win.”
6 Rediscover the contacts book
Under disclosure rules brought in by Cameron, we now know when he meets interested parties. So we know that Murdoch and senior News Corp executives met government ministers 10 times in the year to the end of March 2015, more than any other newspaper group. Murdoch also met Osborne twice in the month before the chancellor imposed the aforementioned costly financial settlement on the BBC in July.
7 A model relationship
With his sons busy in the US, a new woman has made the family patriarch a more frequent visitor to the UK. Having split with his third wife, Wendi Deng, in 2013, Murdoch happily posed for pictures at the Rugby World Cup in October alongside his new flame, the London-based Jerry Hall, 59-year-old former wife of Mick Jagger.