It was the political scoop of the year, a damning, serialized exposé in The Daily Telegraph about how British politicians were abusing their parliamentary expense accounts to pay for things like moat-cleaning and wisteria-trimming.
The articles, in May 2009, shook up Parliament and shamed lawmakers. They also irritated Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of the News Corporation, for the simple reason that two of his own newspapers, The Times of London and The Sun, had been offered the chance to buy the information that led to the exposé, but had turned it down.
“There was anger wafting across the Atlantic,” said a former reporter for one of Mr. Murdoch's papers here.
At News International, Mr. Murdoch's British newspaper arm, executives scrambled to deflect responsibility. The blame fell largely on an in-house lawyer who had cautioned against paying some $450,000 for a stolen disc containing the parliamentary expense records. (A few months later, the lawyer was asked to leave News International, where he had worked for 33 years, apparently after another disagreement over advice.)
While it is not clear whether Mr. Murdoch played a direct role in the matter, there is little question that The Telegraph's scoop remained a sore point for him and that his feelings seeped down through various layers of his company. Soon afterward, The Wall Street Journal, his flagship American newspaper, did its own investigation of American lawmakers' expenses.
And the editor of the rival Telegraph who got the scoop, William Lewis, a former business editor at The Sunday Times of London, was then rehired by Mr. Murdoch as News International's group general manager, in charge of all the company's print publications in Britain. The expenses story was still on Mr. Murdoch's mind two years later: it was the one big British story he mentioned by name at last week's parliamentary hearing on phone hacking.
In that appearance before the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, Mr. Murdoch sought to distance himself from the hacking scandal, explaining that because he employs “53,000 people around the world” he cannot be expected to know everything everyone is doing at The News of the World.
He may have come across at the hearing as vague, detached and unfocused — as an old man who was at times not quite all there. Investors in the News Corporation have been pressing for years for the company to arrange a clear succession plan for Mr. Murdoch, who is 80 years old, and speculation about his future is rife now that the company has suffered a significant blow to its reputation.
But Mr. Murdoch, who every morning reads avidly from what one former editor referred to as “the best clippings service I have ever seen,” has never been a disengaged boss, especially from his newspapers.
“I really didn't buy that, to be honest,” said Roy Greenslade, a former Murdoch editor who is now a professor of journalism at City University London. “I'm sure he's not as interfering as he was 20 years ago, but you can see through the way The Sun and The News of the World operate that his word remains law.”
Indeed, in January, as the phone hacking scandal began to gain traction and Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor, quit his job as the government’s top spokesman (he has since been arrested on suspicion of phone hacking and bribing the police), Mr. Murdoch postponed his trip to the World Economic Forum and swept into London to take charge.
Surrounded by the editors of The Sun and The Times of London; his son James; and Rebekah Brooks, then chief executive of News International (she has also since been arrested on the same suspicions as in Mr. Coulson's case), Mr. Murdoch ate lunch in the News International staff cafeteria. He then appeared at The Times's editorial conference, where he weighed in on one of the day's big stories: the decision by Sky News to fire the host of a sports program who had made lewd remarks to his co-host, a woman, including suggesting that she tuck her microphone in his pants.
To make matters more complicated, Sky is part of the media conglomerate British Sky Broadcasting, or BSkyB, which is controlled by the News Corporation, and the co-host in question, Andy Gray, had recently sued The News of the World, claiming his phone had been hacked. Taking all this in at the news conference, Mr. Murdoch said, according to accounts at the time, “This country has lost its sense of humor.”
Mr. Murdoch began his career when he inherited his father's small newspaper business in Australia. He remains at his core a hard-nosed businessman with the instincts of a tabloid reporter, said many former and current employees, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to make Mr. Murdoch angry.
“He vicariously lives through his papers in many ways,” said a former editor at one of News Corporation's major papers. “He's a news junkie. He's interested in what's driving the sales, what's on the front page. He's always talking to his editors.”
Mr. Murdoch hires editors who often share his philosophy — right of center, anti-big government, anti-European Union, pro-business — and focuses on his favorites. He cements these ties through what a former editor at one of Mr. Murdoch's London broadsheets described as “weird, familial relationships,” in which Mr. Murdoch and his editors socialize frequently and attend one another's weddings. “They go on holiday with him, they attend his conferences in Sun Valley,” the former editor said.
But if the News Corporation's British and American broadsheets — The Times and The Sunday Times of London, and The Wall Street Journal — give him gravitas, his tabloids give him a platform to promote his political and business interests.
And they are where his heart lies. Former editors at The News of the World, new defunct, and The Sun say he called frequently, affecting casualness but conveying just the opposite with pointed questions and long, ominous silences. “We called it telephone terrorism,” Mr. Greenslade said. “You'd try to fill in the gaps, and when you're gabbling you’re bound to make mistakes.”
Mr. Murdoch expects his tabloids to beat the competition with aggressive, intrusive reporting that results in splashy exclusives that expose sexual misbehavior or debunk the establishment line. It is this expectation, former editors and reporters say, that has pushed his tabloids' editors into ever more adventurous news gathering practices.
None of the editors said Mr. Murdoch ordered them to use illegal phone hacking or other illegal methods to obtain information. But his enthusiasm for articles that generated mass sales at the newsstand and riled the political elite was legendary on Fleet Street. “What am I supposed to do, sit idly by and watch a paper go down the drain, simply because I’m not supposed to interfere?” he once said, speaking of The News of the World. “Rubbish!”
Mr. Murdoch has never hesitated to dress down editors at The Sun and The News of the World when they make mistakes, either of omission or commission. It has never been a secret that The Sun promotes his business interests by, for instance, denouncing the BBC, or writing favorably about BSkyB television programs or 20th Century Fox films. At The New York Post, former employees remember how Mr. Murdoch meddled in the coverage of his rival Conrad Black, then the owner of The Telegraph, during Mr. Black’s legal troubles.
Nor is it a secret that Mr. Murdoch's tabloids enthusiastically promote the politicians he likes and denounce those he does not.
“I'm beginning to understand the true scope of Murdoch's influence, and the way he does business, and it's quite scary,” Piers Morgan writes in “The Insider,” his memoir of editing The News of the World and other tabloids. The observation comes after an incident in which Mr. Murdoch began arguing about Europe with the prime minister at the time, John Major, over dinner, rudely dismissing the single currency, which Mr. Major supported, as “a bloody bad joke.” (Soon afterward, Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Morgan and The News of the World switched allegiances to the Labour leader, Tony Blair, who in turn submitted an editorial to the paper titled “Major's Failed and He Knows It.”)
According to Lance Price, a former special adviser to Mr. Blair when he was prime minister, Mr. Murdoch was behind a News of the World headline criticizing Mr. Blair over his European Union policy in 2004. “Treachery,” the headline said, over an article calling the prime minister “Traitor Tony Blair.”
“I understand it was Rupert Murdoch himself who chose that word,” Mr. Price said on the Channel 4 program “Dispatches” on Monday night.
A spokeswoman for the News Corporation said the company had no comment for this article.
In his testimony last week, Mr. Murdoch said that he telephones John Witherow, the editor of The Sunday Times, most Saturday nights, and talks frequently to Robert Thomson, the Journal editor, a fellow Australian and the editor he is closest to.
Since Mr. Murdoch bought it, The Journal's articles have become shorter, punchier and more news-focused, in keeping with the owner's views on how newspapers should look. And for a time, Mr. Murdoch was a constant presence in the newsroom, often sitting in on news meetings, although he usually remained silent and often left halfway through.
“Rupert likes to gossip,” a senior journalist at the paper said. “He is interested in what the news is that day.” But, according to a former editor at one of the London papers, “Rupert has an attention span of — maybe not zero minutes — but nine minutes.”
In an informal conversation with the senior journalist on the newsroom floor, Mr. Murdoch showed that he was especially excited by the future introduction of the weekend Review section, the journalist said. “He said he wanted to make it upmarket. He wanted to make it brainy. He said, 'I really want people to have something to read'— stressing the word read — 'on weekends.' “
But for all their personal closeness, Mr. Murdoch makes no effort to influence the news coverage, said Mr. Thomson, The Journal's top editor.
“We simply do not discuss details of coverage,” Mr. Thomson said via e-mail. “Not once. Never. There is a clear, distinct, very honorably observed demarcation line. Rupert respects the independence of the editor and my autonomy, and to suggest that we skew coverage is an insult to all of The Journal's journalists, who person for person, pound for pound are certainly the best in the world.”
People at The Times of London, where Mr. Murdoch is referred to in absentia as simply “KRM” — the initials are of his full name, Keith Rupert Murdoch — say that the boss's shadow looms large, although he comes into the newsroom at most several times a year.
“Normally he's picking our brains about what's going on in the world,” one former journalist at the paper said. “We tell him what's going on in politics and business and Afghanistan; we sing for our supper.”
But in the last few years, some employees say, the company's focus has shifted, and, with James Murdoch in control in London, it has become more corporate and less concerned about the papers. The legal troubles at The News of the World are very much viewed as having taken place under the aegis not of Rupert but of James Murdoch, who does not share his father's love for newsprint.
“Suddenly, it was all Los Angeles and New York; it was all film and satellite and the Internet,” one former editor said, describing how suddenly the newspapers felt obliged to clamor for attention from the company, lest they be forgotten or sold off. “Newspapers were seen as the old man's hobby.”