I Walked Into a John Grisham Novel
“He got monstered.” Frontline correspondent Lowell Bergman is describing what happened to British MP Chris Bryant when The Sun began running stories on him, stories that identified him as gay and especially, stories that were accompanied by photos of Bryant in his underwear. It was 2003, and Bryant—whose gayness was no secret—tells Bergman he was threatened and humiliated when he served on a Parliamentary committee that was looking into illicit practices by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers.
Bryant didn’t back down when he was “monstered.” Instead, as reported in this episode of Frontline, Murdoch’s Scandal, he questioned Rebekah Brooks, then editor at The Sun, during a Parliamentary hearing on 20 July. When Bryant—acting on what he now calls “just a hunch”—asked whether Murdoch’s papers ever paid the police for information, Brooks said yes. Bryant and fellow Labour MP Tom Watson were surprised at her answer, and surprised again when Andy Coulson, then editor of News of the World, tried to refine that answer, insisting that they only did so “within the law.”
And with that, Bryant remembers, “The chairman decided to close the meeting for some bizarre reason.” As you can guess and as Bryant came to understand, the chairman’s reason was less bizarre than self- interested. For while there is no “within the law” for what the editors were doing, the Murdoch organization engaged in such activity regularly; it was the well-known-but-still-secret means by which the Murdoch organization maintained control over Britain’s legal and political proceedings. Indeed, the “monstering” of Bryant after the 2003 hearing demonstrated the power wielded by Murdoch, back then still known as the “man who owned the news.”
Murdoch’s Scandal isn’t the first investigation to look into the connections between Murdoch’s News Corp (and its subsidiaries) and the metropolitan police. But it provides a clear and compelling narrative of how these connections allowed Murdoch to wield an appalling power for some 50 years. “This is not just a story about journalists behaving badly,” says The Guardian‘s Nick Davies. “It’s a story that takes you immediately into not just the most powerful news organization in the country, but also the most powerful police service in the country, and the most powerful political party. And in all of these, you find them behaving wrongly, illegally, immorally.”
To introduce “all of these,” Murdoch’s Scandal opens on a montage of images, that is, a series of London landmarks under the sound of phones ringing. The sequence alludes to the phone hacking scandal Davies began to investigate, he says, when someone “out of the blue” called him and “started telling me what had been going on at News of The World.” Davies’ subsequent investigation was only the beginning of a still unfolding story, reignited last year when Rupert Murdoch and his son James appeared before a Parliamentary committee whose members included MP Watson. Murdoch declared he had no idea of “what had been going on,” that is, the phone hacking (and more specifically, the infamous hacking of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone). Instead, he told the committee, he could only blame “The people that I trusted and maybe the people they trusted.”
Frontline features this dramatic—and frequently replayed—testimony, then goes on to present a couple of nominal “sides” regarding who might be culpable. On one, Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun, insists that the recent media demonization of Murdoch is unfair because Murdoch is a “decent guy, and because he’s successful, a bunch of people who are by and large unsuccessful dislike him intensely.” MacKenzie goes on to call more names, saying Murdoch looks especially decent compared to his detractors, who are “grinding their teeth and gnashing them.”
As Murdoch and other representatives of News Corp declined to be interviewed for the program, most all other commentary and reporting emerge from other sources, that is, mainly victims of the Murdoch organization’s overreach, as well as one of their staunchest representatives, the attorney Mark Lewis. As Davies extols Lewis’ virtues (“He doesn’t have a fear gene”), Bergman’s interview with Lewis goes through the case he mounted for his client, the phone-hackee Gordon Taylor. Lewis says that his investigations revealed that the illegalities extended quite beyond a single “rogue reporter,” the story that Brooks, Coulson, and other Murdoch employees had maintained for years. Based on his knowledge, Lewis demanded £250,000 for damages; when the company paid this remarkable sum (previous damages awards had been closer to £3,000 or even £15,000), Lewis was convinced he had only touched on a surface of the scandal. As he pursued the case and others, he found himself under surveillance by the company and colluding police.
To illustrate what this might look like, Frontline offers images of Lewis’ ex wife, viewed through her home windows, red curtains blocking your view, and handheld camerawork intimating the creepiness of such activity. “Our pictures taken with her permission,” offers Bergman, even as they create a deeply visceral effect for the rest of us.
Watching his story on TV, Lewis is visually positioned where you might be. “Two or three years ago,” he says, “I walked into a John Grisham novel.” And so Frontline returns to the concept of monstering. In this very brief moment, as Frontline‘s camera peeps at Lewis’ ex wife, you understand there’s no news to be had, no content, only format. Tabloid stories are sensational, designed to elicit visceral responses. News Corp relies on those responses. As much as Murdoch is a monster, so too are his consumers.