Shadow Elite: Shaving Cream — Murdoch’s Only Punishment?

The shav­ing cream hurled at Rupert Mur­doch on Tues­day as he sat before a British par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee may be the only pun­ish­ment he’ll get. True, the tycoon — whose News Corp hold­ings encom­pass Fox News, the Wall Street Jour­nal, and the New York Post, as well as giant swathes of the world’s English-language media — pro­nounced him­self hum­bled before mil­lions of view­ers and lis­ten­ers. But whether or not Mur­doch and his coterie of close col­lab­o­ra­tors will ever get their come­up­pance, Mur­dochgate is expos­ing how power and influ­ence, infused with insid­i­ous new forms of cor­rup­tion, oper­ate today. And we’d bet­ter pay atten­tion if we want to under­stand — let alone have a say in — the poli­cies that affect every­thing from our pock­et­books to our health care and habi­tats to “our” wars.

The actors caught up in the scan­dal exem­plify the modus operandi of the shadow elite — the top power and influ­ence bro­kers of our era. The media/police/political nexus over which Mur­doch pre­sides show­cases the inter­twin­ing of state and pri­vate insti­tu­tions, rela­tion­ships, and power that char­ac­ter­izes the era to a T. And this story, with its swirl of play­ers and net­works is red meat for a social anthro­pol­o­gist like me.

Here are key mark­ers of the shadow elite, as illus­trated by Murdochgate:

  • A government/business/political/media nexus. A web of tight rela­tion­ships that span media, police, and polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment elites under-gird the col­lu­sion between gov­ern­ment and pri­vate institutions.
  • A family-like net­work of trust across insti­tu­tions of influ­ence. Exhibit A is Rebekah Brooks, who, as we know, ran Murdoch’s News of the World, Britain’s best-selling tabloid, and is sus­pected of involve­ment in pay­ing police for infor­ma­tion and hack­ing the phones of pub­lic fig­ures. She is said to have a daughter-like rela­tion­ship with Mur­doch and is a close per­sonal friend of British Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron.
  • An “evolv­ing door” prac­ticed by those in the net­work. As reported, the met­ro­pol­i­tan police — Scot­land Yard — employed for­mer News of the World jour­nal­ists and exec­u­tives as con­sul­tants or staff. Prime Min­is­ter Cameron appointed Andy Coul­son, a for­mer News of the World edi­tor, as his direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Coul­son had resigned from the tabloid after two of its employ­ees were pros­e­cuted for phone hacking.
  • The cor­rup­tion and com­pro­mise of gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tions and top offi­cials by pri­vate orga­ni­za­tions and agen­das. The News of the World allegedly obtained pro­pri­etary infor­ma­tion through bribery and cozy rela­tions with police. And while the prime minister’s office employed the for­mer tabloid edi­tor Coul­son, Scot­land Yard hired Neil Wal­lis, a lead­ing edi­tor at the tabloid when the phones were being hacked, as a media strategist.
  • The blur­ring and blend­ing of insti­tu­tions. Where did the activ­i­ties and agen­das of the News of the World end and those of Scot­land Yard or the prime minister’s office begin? It’s not clear. As the New York Times found, for­mer News of the World edi­tor Wal­lis reported back to the tabloid while work­ing on the hack­ing case at Scot­land Yard.
  • The fusion of state and pri­vate power. Scot­land Yard, the gov­ern­ment agency respon­si­ble for pur­su­ing alle­ga­tions of wrong­do­ing at the Mur­doch news estab­lish­ment, instead became inter­twined with it.
  • Global reach. There’s no firm line between Murdoch’s influ­ence in the United King­dom, the United States, and else­where. As has been reported, Les Hin­ton, the head of the Murdoch-owned Dow Jones & Co. and the pub­lisher of the Wall Street Jour­nal who has now resigned, pre­vi­ously served as chair­man of Murdoch’s British news­pa­per arm dur­ing some of the time its employ­ees are alleged to have engaged in phone hacking.
  • Bail­ing out alleged col­lab­o­ra­tors. News of the World edi­tors and reporters who landed in trou­ble were paid even after being fired. And the tabloid’s par­ent com­pany assumed the legal fees of two employ­ees who pleaded guilty to charges of phone hacking.
  • Full-frontal coverup by mem­bers of the net­work. Mur­doch oper­a­tives masked inquiries and skirted adverse con­se­quences by mobi­liz­ing their net­works. Evi­dence that the News of the World bribed the police for infor­ma­tion was with­held for four years, and other evi­dence was destroyed. The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Police, whose two top offi­cials have resigned in the wake of the scan­dal, now alleges a “delib­er­ate cam­paign to under­mine the inves­ti­ga­tion into alleged pay­ments by cor­rupt jour­nal­ists to cor­rupt police offi­cers.” As the New York Times put it: “The tes­ti­mony and evi­dence that emerged last week, as well as inter­views with cur­rent and for­mer offi­cials, indi­cate that the police agency and News Inter­na­tional, the British sub­sidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Cor­po­ra­tion and the pub­lisher of the News of the World, became so inter­twined that they wound up shar­ing the goal of con­tain­ing the investigation.”
  • Con­trol of the media and mes­sage and cutting-edge use of infor­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies. Murdoch’s estab­lish­ment obvi­ously spe­cial­izes in this.
  • Fail­ure to take respon­si­bil­ity. Mur­doch told the par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee that he doesn’t accept respon­si­bil­ity for what hap­pened. To blame instead, he said, are the “peo­ple that I trusted to run it [the news orga­ni­za­tion], and then maybe the peo­ple they trusted.”
  • Abil­ity to defang, over­ride, and out­run inves­ti­ga­tory bod­ies. Shadow elites know no bor­ders, but the gov­ern­ment audi­tors and inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists who can mon­i­tor them often do. Murdoch’s News Corp faces a world­wide probe of its news out­lets under the U.S. For­eign Cor­rupt Prac­tices Act to deter­mine whether any other sub­sidiaries are impli­cated in bribery. But while such inves­ti­ga­tions are a step in the right direc­tion, they are, at best, lim­ited in reach and par­tial in scope.

In the days and weeks to come, Murdoch-related intrigues will likely fill the air­waves as the mighty are “hum­bled” and some of their prac­tices exposed. As details flood forth, the ques­tion is this: Will we take Mur­dochgate as a case study of today’s top power bro­kers in action and do the work required to under­stand and chal­lenge them? Or will the abil­ity to hold them to account end with noth­ing more than a close shave?

By Janine Wedel.

Pub­lished in The Huff­in­g­ton Post, July 21, 2011.

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