The BIG week for Murdoch in Britain: What's going to happen?

We offer 3 scenarios on what will happen when Murdoch goes before parliament in full glare of global media publicity. What do you think?

The Commentator
On 17 July 2011 10:29

People involved in political analysis, at whatever level, are usually wildly reluctant to make firm predictions about the future. Unless, of course, you’re talking about 10, 20 or 30 years hence in which case you can get short term glory out of some outlandish prediction absent the risk of getting egg on your face if you’re wrong until you and most of your potential critics have retired, died or simply forgotten.

Bring the timescale down to a few days or weeks and it’s an entirely different matter: “If you want predictions, go see a fortune teller,” is the usual, defensive response from writers and analysts wary of having their credibility blown clean out of the water in nothing flat. And fair enough too.

So, with the Murdoch/News International affair in mind, today we’re not making predictions, just a few scenarios as to how things might pan out in the coming week as Rupert Murdoch, son James and Rebekah Brooks face a grilling in parliament. Please add your own ideas in the comments below:

Scenario 1: Murdoch and company go on the offensive. They would never have agreed to go before a parliamentary committee in full glare of the world’s media unless they had some pretty impressive cards up their sleeves. For example, revelations about other media outlets involved in hacking (and other underhand/illegal tactics) which would dilute the anger against News International.

This could be supplemented by embarrassing revelations about Conservative and Labour leaders cosying up to Murdoch et al in order to turn the tables and (at least partially) divert public anger towards the politicians. A few mea culpas would be thrown in (tears from Rebekah Brooks to enhance credibility?) in line with recent policy of contrition.

But the general line would be that the heads of massive companies can no more be held directly responsible for the practices of rogue employees, let alone freelancers, than could the Home Secretary, for example, for criminal acts committed by a Home Office bureaucrat based in Doncaster. News International has closed down a profitable newspaper, apologised in the national press and done likewise in person to some of the victims: “True, we should have acted faster, but what more could we have really done?” they might well ask.

Thoughts?  We think elements of this approach are highly likely, but Murdoch’s advisers will surely tell him that he will still come across as far too defensive unless he tries to broaden his appeal. Hence the following:

Scenario 2: Murdoch and company throw a few punches along the lines suggested above, softened by some serious words of contrition. But the bigger picture they attempt to present is very different. They appeal over the heads of the Guardian/BBC axis and the liberal establishment generally and play to their strengths, which are formidable.

They speak to the millions upon millions of ordinary Britons who have loved reading their newspapers. They appeal to the tens of millions of Britons who are passionate about Sky Sports, the injection of money from which has been instrumental in making the English premier league the most exciting in the world.

They also point out (as Murdoch’s biographer William Shawcross has repeatedly told interviewers in recent days) that Rupert Murdoch has made an enormous contribution to media diversity in Britain, contrary to what his critics allege. His high-risk strategy of breaking the print unions in the 1980s gave newspapers a chance of making a profit and staying in business. Every newspaper in Britain has benefited. They could also point out that the oldest, continuously published newspaper in the English speaking world, The Times, would in all probability no longer exist without Murdoch’s commitment to subsidise its losses to the tune of tens of millions of pounds a year. Which other media company would have made a commitment like that?

Thoughts? We think that something along these lines is Murdoch’s best bet, and if his advisers have an ounce of sense they will be strongly recommending it. We think that should he move along such lines he has a reasonable (25 percent) chance of turning things around. But see our final scenario in this brief round-up:

Scenario 3: It’s all a lost cause. Even if the performance is Oscar winning material, the forces aligned against Murdoch (in the BBC and elsewhere) cannot be effectively countered. The very best that they can get out of this is a certain amount of damage limitation – they have to sell the UK newspapers, and say they plan to do so, in the hope that after a decent amount of time, and with someone other than a Murdoch in control of UK operations, a bid can be re-launched for BSKyb.

News International has already said that there are worse revelations to come. Something spectacular in the press on Monday or Tuesday would just makes matters so bad that there’s no way out. It’s not so much that the public relations has been badly handled, it’s rather that no public relations strategy, however brilliant, can get Murdoch off the hook.

So, Tuesday’s appearance in parliament makes for great theatre but ultimately makes no difference.

Thoughts? This is probably the most likely of the scenarios, though, to repeat, we do give Scenario 2 a 25 percent chance.

The real problem in scenario building of this kind is that none of us is yet in possession of the answer to the most important question: are the Murdochs or any of their most senior colleagues directly complicit in criminality? If that answer to that is “yes” (or strongly appears to be “yes”) anything that transpires this week is likely to be quickly forgotten as we move into an entirely new phase, with all concerned playing for far higher stakes.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.

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