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Rupert Murdoch’s last gamble: that the Sun won’t set

The head of News Corp is staking everything on the Sun on Sunday – a project whose success he can no longer control

Stand back from the cavorting as Rupert hits crisis-torn Wapping (episode 97) and ask the question that’s been dogging News Corporation ever since the phone hacking swamp began. Simply: who’s in charge here? Who is responsible for this all-consuming mess? And the problem for Mr Murdoch, in his latest incarnation, is that now there’s nobody left to blame but himself. This is Rupert Murdoch against the world, and the world may sense a big win coming.

Let’s stick with the basics. An over-zealous Scotland Yard, its own dignity threatened by too many grey favours from News International, is going for broke in defence of its probity. More than 60 officers, who might be investigating a burglary in your street, are zealously pursuing other cops and public officials who may, or may not, have taken bungs from Sun journalists in return for information. The management and standards committee (MSC) at News Corporation has been shovelling over millions of emails and expenses claims for police inspection. So far, 10 of the Bun’s hottest operators have been arrested (though not charged). And this exercise, as the officer in overall command observes, “is nearer the beginning than the end”.

In short, the arrests, and the theatricals that accompany them, could go on for years. And no one – least of all Mr Murdoch – knows where it will all end, or who will be left clinging on to their freedom. The MSC committee, under Lord Grabiner QC, is autonomous and working hand in glove with the Yard. That’s the precise opposite of the cover-up, obfuscate-and-deny culture that served News International so balefully through the years of hacking denial.

Sun journalists were – and maybe still are – pretty angry because the Grabiner team were landing them in the mire without any chance to plead innocence via a public interest defence. The Murdoch position, adjusted under extreme pressure, lets those who have been arrested come back to work (until they’re charged, if events get that far). But it doesn’t stop the police machine grinding on. It doesn’t sabotage the MSC. It merely lets those who are first in the frame get back to work, and pavilions that concession in warm words for the Sun and its long-expected sabbath sister, the Sun on Sunday.

And here’s the absolute rub. If the MSC is as independent and pristine as News Corp vows, then the company can’t stop more arrests – or intervene if charges are made. Nobody, least of all Rupert Murdoch, can know how many more arrests are pending. Nobody can tell if the putative editor of the Sun on Sunday, or any of its embryo staff, is covered in hacking or bribing mud.

In short – the great gamble – the king of New York is betting that those running Operation Elveden are wrong: that more corporate millions can safely be spent on launching a Sunday replacement for the News of the World.

What if he’s wrong? What if the misty lack of specific dates and commitments in Friday’s email to staff are vague and evasive for a reason? What if the Sunday rebirth goes belly-up as more of Wapping’s finest find 10 police waiting on their doorstep before breakfast? If that happens, only the most craven board back in New York would stand up and salute the wizard of Oz.

The Sun, of course, is his special baby, his proudest achievement. So he doesn’t want to rubbish it. So the – entirely understandable – anger of its staff as they watched colleagues arrested and sources revealed in a pretty brain-dead trawl through piles of documentation touched an essential Murdoch nerve. He knows News Corp, after years of crass denial, has swung too far under pressure and soiled itself with the reputation of a coppers’ nark.

But is he in charge of events as they unfold? He, quite explicitly, can’t prevent the MSC investigators ploughing on. He can’t call in Commissioner Hogan-Howe and tell him to stand his 60 snoopers down. He can’t stop more arrests – at who knows what elevated level? – before the Sun on Sunday can be launched. He knows that a depleted, depressed Sun staff will need reinforcement for a seventh day. He is not remotely in control of what happens next, just as he’s lacked any real semblance of control since hacking allegations began to drag down the newspapers he says he loves.

The moment one of the people whose suspension he’s lifted is charged, the facade of his hegemony will start to crack. The moment the Sun on Sunday fails to appear, or hits the streets limping, a terrible blow will be struck to his supposed power, the power that has brought News Corp to such an ugly pass.

Salute him, perhaps, because he still believes that who dares wins. Salute him because the banging of policemen on the doors of his staff in early morning raids was and is an affront. Salute him because, in the direst of corners, he’s trying to bulldoze his way free.

But don’t forget the years of mendacity and phoney delay that have dogged this saga. Maybe you can say that, at last, the old, fumbling wizard of Oz has seen the defiant way to go. Maybe, as Leveson mark two prepares to get under way, the police will look almost as tattered as the journalists they say they’re investigating. But don’t forget the humbling years that have gone before: because they’re the weight that may now finally bring him down. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds