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Tina Brown's Must Reads: Reckoning With Rupert

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, at center on July 15, after News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks announced her resignation. Speaking before British lawmakers yesterday, Murdoch said "This is the most humble day of my life." (Getty Images)

Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, tells us what she's been reading in a feature that Morning Edition likes to call Word of Mouth.

This month, as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. reels from the News of the World hacking scandal, Brown, whose husband, Harold Evans, resigned from the Murdoch-owned London Sunday Times in 1982 after a much-publicized imbroglio with the magnate, selects a series of recent news and opinion articles that tackle Murdoch's falling empire from different directions.

Deep Inside The Cabinet

First up is "The Great Murdoch Conspiracy," written by Peter Oborne, a Daily Telegraph columnist who spent time as a lobby correspondent in the House of Commons. Oborne began his career 20 years ago under the assumption that the British Constitution worked the way he had been taught at school: that it ensured a representative democracy, with the country governed under the rule of law, Brown tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "But then he really began to understand that actually, this wasn't so, that he actually was working in a culture where there was this very uneasy collusion between the Murdoch tabloids and the system of government," Brown says.

Osborne, who was a reporter at the time but did not work for Murdoch, recalls in his article how News International executives would be seated behind the Cabinet during the Blair regime, as though they were their own branch of government.

"The first phone call that Tony Blair would make after the party conferences, which are like our Democratic and Republican conventions," Brown says, "would be to Rupert Murdoch."

Even though many senior members of the Cabinet at the time knew that Murdoch was on the verge of exposing them at all times, Brown notes that "they still found it absolutely just inadvisable and impossible not to fraternize socially with the Murdoch executives. It was like being part of the Stasi or something."

Uncommon Enemies

Other famously embattled media figureheads are coming out of the woodwork to respond to Murdoch: Brown points to a "wonderful, volcanic" article by former Telegraph Newspapers publisher Conrad Black, who himself was convicted of four counts of fraud obstruction of justice in 2007 and spent time in jail. In the Financial Times, Black calls Murdoch a "great, bad man":

"All his instincts are downmarket. He's not only a tabloid sensationalist, he's a malicious myth-maker and an assassin of the dignity of others and of respected institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism."

Brown, who says she has "a great deal of admiration for Rupert for his business vision, and his willingness to take on big bets," concurs with the assessment.

"He was the first of the press barons to really go after the royal family and actually institute a culture where the royal family was constantly being trashed, and yet in the end of his career, he himself became a nepotistic, elitist figure," Brown says.

Yet she notes that Black, a convicted felon, lambasting Murdoch "is indeed the pot calling the kettle black."

By the same token, Hustler publisher, free-press defender and flagrant rule-bender Larry Flynt has also authored an editorial disapproving of Murdoch, this one in The Washington Post. Brown notes that in the old days, Murdoch might have chuckled at such a piece. No more. He's now the subject of an industry he created.

"There's no more corrupt cartel than Murdoch. I mean, in that sense, you know, that's the ultimate hypocrisy," Brown says. "He's really experiencing, in a sense, what his papers did, the tabloid bloodsport that he's really led for the last 30 years. He's now in the middle of it."

Standing By Murdoch

For all the Murdoch criticisms flying around the press, he still has defenders. One of them, Roger Cohen, praised him in The New York Times last week for "his evident loathing for elites, for cozy establishments, for cartels, for what he's called 'strangulated English accents.' " (Cohen once worked for The Wall Street Journal, but left that paper 15 years before Murdoch's News Corp. purchased it.)

Another defense comes in the form of an unsigned editorial published in The Wall Street Journal, his most prestigious newspaper in the United States. The Journal argues that the News Corp. investigation, if taken too far, threatens freedom of the press as the conversation begins to shift toward greater press regulation in Britain. Brown says that though this is a fragile moment for the media, she disagrees.

"I think there are enough serious, committed journalists and politicians now who feel liberated by this whole explosion to have a serious debate that will nonetheless fight for the freedoms," Brown says. "Somehow I feel good about the way it's going to come out, because I think there really has become a distaste for doing business this way."

Breaking The Story

Two such serious, committed journalists are Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, and his reporter Nick Davies, Brown says. In this week's Newsweek, which Brown edits, Rusbridger tells an account of how Davies broke the story of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal through dogged work, even when nobody else was interested in the story anymore.

"At a certain point, he felt so lonely and exposed with this story and so fearful in a sense, that without additional ammunition somehow they would get suppressed by the much greater power of the News International [the division of News Corp. that publishes papers in the U.K.] media, that he actually came to The New York Times and said, 'Let's partner in this,' " Brown says.

The dual investigation opened cracks in the case that prompted Scotland Yard "to understand that they themselves were being so tarnished by this with the corruption," and to finally reopen the investigation, Brown says. "I mean, bribing police officers is a major thing, and Scotland Yard had to clean up its own act."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tina Brown is with us once again. She's the editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek and also a regular guest on this program. She tells us what she's been reading. It's a feature we call Word of Mouth, hear about things we might want to pick up. Hi, Tina.

Ms. TINA BROWN (Editor, The Daily Beast, Newsweek): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And welcome back again. We're going to be talking, here, about readings you've been doing on Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, which is embroiled in scandal. And I suppose we should disclose that you're not a totally disinterested observer here, both because you, like Rupert Murdoch, are a publisher, and because your husband Harold Evans was a newspaper editor in England who lost his job after working for Murdoch, so there's a little bit of little bit of...

Ms. BROWN: Indeed, yes, he had a famous fight with him and resigned from the London Times after being, you know, 15 years at the Sunday Times. It was a pretty epic battle in the papers.

INSKEEP: So with that disclosed, you've sent us some articles here, an interesting bunch of articles. Let's start with one called "The Great Murdoch Conspiracy" by Peter Oborne, I believe it is, of The Daily Telegraph - British paper.

Ms. BROWN: Yes, yes. A very interesting piece by Peter Oborne who describes how, you know, that he went to work in the House of Commons 20 years ago, and he says, you know, you assume that the British Constitution worked along the lines that he'd been taught at school, you know, that it was a representative democracy, police were honest, the country was governed under the rule of law.

But then he really began to understand that actually, this wasn't so, that he actually was working in a culture where there was this very uneasy collusion between the Murdoch tabloids and the system of government. And he describes how, you know, when he was reporting (unintelligible) on the Blair regime, that News International executives would be seated behind the cabinet, as if they were a branch of government. The first phone call that Tony Blair would make after the party conferences which are like, our, you know, Democratic and Republican conventions...

INSKEEP: Right.

Ms. BROWN: The first call that he would make would be the Rupert Murdoch, to basically massage him, solicit his good opinion. So you have a situation where Murdoch was just so in bed, or so antagonistic - one way or the other - to, you know, the reigning regime that he simply was another branch of government.

INSKEEP: Interesting that Oborne, who did not work for Murdoch, but was a reporter at that time, says that even he thinks even he was treated inappropriately, that they whole media had just grown too large in Britain.

Ms. BROWN: Absolutely, and he also describes how, despite the fact that senior members of the cabinet and so on knew that they were being dogged and tapped and on the brink of exposure all the time, nonetheless they still found it absolutely just inadvisable and impossible not to fraternize socially with the Murdoch executives. It was like being part of the Stasi or something.

INSKEEP: You have also sent us an article, and the first thing from the Financial Times here that catches my eye is the headline: Murdoch, Like Napoleon, is a Great Bad Man. And the second thing that catches my eye is the byline, the man...

Ms. BROWN: Well, indeed. This is a really wonderful, volcanic piece by Conrad Black, Lord Black, who used to own the Telegraph Newspapers until he was, in fact, convicted he was convicted on four counts of fraud and obstruction of justice in 2007 and has actually been in jail. He recently came out on after an appeal that the Supreme Court vacated the convictions, but he's got to return to prison for seven and half months. But Conrad Black is actually a terrific writer despite all these events.

And he writes a wonderful piece, really, describing how he's always seen Murdoch as a great, bad man. And that's actually true. I mean, knowing Murdoch as I do, and having a great deal of admiration of Rupert for his business vision, for his willingness to take on big bets, you know, in media, which, you know, frankly, very few people are willing to do anymore. For the sake of his journalism company he will back them to the hills.

But having said that, what Black says, which is very interesting, he you know, he says, and it's true, he says, all his instincts are down market. He's not only a tabloid sensationalist, he's a malicious myth-maker and an assassin of the dignity of others and of respected institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism. And that is what is absolutely true.

Here he became Rupert from Australia. He was against the monarchy, he was the first among the press barons to really go after the royal family and actually institute a culture where the royal family was constantly being trashed. And yet in the end of his career, he himself became a nepotistic, elitist figure, really, who was, you know, his children running the company, you know, his desire to suppress, you know, free information. All of these things that are coming to pass now, show that in fact at the end of his life he became the very thing that he said he was against.

INSKEEP: A little awkward for Rupert Murdoch at this point, or who knows, maybe you would be pleased with his enemies to know that a convicted fellow, Conrad Black, is criticizing him and is also being criticized by a...

Ms. BROWN: It is indeed the pot calling the kettle black, if I may.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Black, of course, nice, nice, nice. And also, a pornographer, Larry Flynt, writes in the Washington Post that he disapproves of Rupert Murdoch.

Ms. BROWN: Indeed. I mean that - in that sense, in old days, would have given Rupert a few laughs. I don't think it's giving him many laughs at the moment, because he's really experiencing, in sense, what his papers did - the tabloid blood sport that he's really lead for the last 30 years - he's now in the middle of it.

ISNKEEP: There are defenders of Murdoch, one of them Roger Cohen in the New York Times, writing in defense of Murdoch last week saying he admires the guy for his evident loathing for elites, for cozy establishments, for cartels, strangulated English accents. But it seems like you're saying that Murdoch has just kind of gone beyond gone beyond those roots.

Ms. BROWN: Oh my God, I mean there's no more corrupt cartel member than Murdoch. I mean, in that sense, you know, that's the ultimate hypocrisy. You know, we have a great piece in Newsweek this week, by Alan Rusbridger, who's the editor of The Guardian, to whom we have to thank. It was his brave reporter, Nick Davis, who just kept on and on and on with the phone hacking reporting when nobody else was interested anymore. He just kept at it.

At a certain point he felt so lonely and exposed with this story, and so fearful in a sense that, you know, without additional ammunition, somehow, they would get suppressed by the much greater power of the News International media, that he actually came to the New York Times and said let's partner in this. And the New York Times then did their investigation. They cracked open aspects of the case, of their own, and it was the combination that finally pressured a reopening of the investigations and finally pressured Scotland Yard, in a sense, as well, to understand that they, themselves, were being so tarnished by this - so the corruption - I mean bribing police officers is a major thing and Scotland Yard had to clean up its own act.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about one other article that's come to my attention this week. The Wall Street Journal published an unsigned editorial that this investigation if taken too far threatens freedom of the press. Of course the Journal is owned by Murdoch, their most prestigious paper in the United States. Is there a threat to the freedom of the press as people talk about greater press regulation in Britain, as people talk about the downfall of a newspaper mogul who did invest in newspapers, and that sort of thing?

Ms. BROWN: Well, I think it is a very fragile and serious moment for the press, because, of course, what's happen is that the malfeasance of the News International culture has hijacked the whole notion, in a sense, of freedom of the press to become a free-for-all and criminal activity.

But actually I think there are enough serious, committed journalists and politicians, now, who feel liberated by this whole explosion, to have a serious debate that will nonetheless fight for the freedoms. That will be the next round where pressman now how to say, OK, enough. You know, this culture has ended. We're going forward in a different way, but now let's talk about the real freedoms. And I think that is now the great debate that now has to be had in the U.K.

And I think, somehow, I feel good about the way it's going to come out, because I think they're really has become a distaste for doing business this way and a desire to get back to the kind of journalism that great dogged reporters like Nick Davis has been practicing in The Guardian.

INSKEEP: Word of Mouth from Tina Brown of The Daily Beast and Newsweek. Tina, always a pleasure.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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