Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire is shaking, as new evidence of lying and snooping and kickbacks at his top British tabloid has cost his company billions of dollars and may take down his son James, the heir to the political-media machine that owns a huge chunk of the British news landscape. No one knows yet how this saga of cozy political relationships and journalistic malpractice will affect Fox News, Murdoch’s most powerful American media asset: it might empower the money-making machine to continue doing what it’s doing (after all, Bill O’Reilly didn’t listen to your voice mail), yet it also might re-open the questions about the behavior of all News Corp. executives — and there’s a grand jury investigation that Fox News chief Roger Ailes has no desire to revisit.
But first, what happened in Britain: It started to get bad on Monday, when an investigation by the Guardian newspaper revealed that the News of the World, the aggressive Sunday tabloid with millions of readers that has been at the center of a “phone-hacking” scandal for years, had not just eavesdropped on the phone messages of the rich and famous: In 2002, it hired a private investigator who illegally hacked into the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a teenage girl who went missing and was later discovered murdered. The investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, allegedly deleted messages, which gave the Dowler family and police false hope she was still alive. (The editor at the time — Rebekah Brooks — now is Murdoch’s top news executive in Britain, and her successor had been the top media adviser to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.)
The blows have not stopped since, dizzying in their speed and scope. Advertisers like Coca-Cola and Ford started pulling out, Vanity Fair reported that an editor had authorized payoffs to the cops (which had been blamed for under-investigating in the first place), the British parliament held hearings and one lawmaker demanded that James Murdoch be investigated for allegedly destroying crucial evidence at a storage facility in India, Prime Minister Cameron denounced the behavior from Afghanistan just as news began to leak out that the phones of dead soldiers’ mothers had been hacked, the Guardian reported that Brooks knew that one of her star reporters was spying on a senior police detective investigating a murder case because the suspects told him to do so, and — worst of all for the billionaire baron — British politicians are now pushing to stop News Corp’s $15 billion+ purchase of the BSkyB satellite TV company.
This whole nightmare — and the scrutiny now being showered on Murdoch’s top lieutenants — may not bode well for Roger Ailes, the former Republican Party media strategist who now sits astride Fox News and has been the subject of a series of critical magazine profiles. More important than enduring run-of-the-mill bad press, he also is at risk of getting charged with lying to federal agents: In February, The New York Times uncovered an affidavit describing a tape recording where Ailes ordered publishing executive Judith Regan to lie to federal agents about her relationship with a friend of Rudy Giuliani.