Monday, July 18, 2011

Reverse Ferret

My feelings on the News Corp hacking scandal shouldn't really have to be guessed at. Nor should I waste time mincing words. Assuming News Corp is guilty as charged, I want them to go down and go down HARD. Hacking the phones of your subjects has no place in journalism or decent humanity. Add that to your subjects being murder victims and 9/11 victims, and your hacking actively impeding the investigations of same, and to say the least, you have no place in the journalism industry. Or polite society.

Bribing the cops to give you your scoops? Seriously, come on.

That established: one of my new favorite phrases has come out of this whole sorry affair. You know, one of those phrases you say you're going to start working into everyday conversation, and then you actually do that maybe twice before realizing you have no place for it in everyday conversation. That phrase is 'reverse ferret'.

As the story goes, Kelvin Mackenzie, former editor of The Sun, loved to go after people. When he had a target in his sights, he'd instruct his newsroom to "put a ferret up their trousers." At the same time, though, Mackenzie wasn't stupid. He knew that sometimes, taking this tack, he would have to back off lest The Sun get into trouble, legally, financially, politically or in the court of public opinion. When The Sun was at risk in this respect, he'd go into the newsroom and yell "Reverse ferret!" This was the signal for The Sun to play nice until they were out of danger.

You'll hear the phrase a fair bit over the course of the scandal. First, 'reverse ferret' is the most wonderful phrase in the world and every excuse should be taken to use it as much as possible. Reverse ferret. Reverse ferret. Reverse ferret. Second, the meaning of the phrase- back off the outrage and play nice- describes why Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corp., is completely and utterly screwed. One of his holdings needs a specific, special emergency phrase just to tell them not to be jerks.

Translation: there's really no apology or measure of restitution Murdoch could possibly make to get himself out of this mess on his own terms. Any such measure will simply be called a reverse ferret and all investigations (oh, the glorious, glorious investigations) will simply continue on schedule.

Case in point, take Rebekah Brooks, editor of News of the World when the catalyst for this entire saga, the hacking of the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler, occurred. When Murdoch closed News of the World, the very first thing that crossed people's minds was that it was a move to protect Brooks. There was no celebration, no relief, no 'this is a positive step' editorials. No reaction whatsoever that would have signified a successful reverse ferret. The stink was not with News of the World, even though it was there too. The target was Brooks herself.

A few days ago, Brooks resigned from News Corp. Earlier in the scandal, that might- MIGHT, not a guarantee- have worked as a reverse ferret. Now, though, it's too late to be a successful fix. Enough time had passed to where the scandal had spread to every corner of Murdoch's empire. Brooks' departure was characterized by The Independent as "After 52 years, mogul's ally quits to protect jewel of US empire".

The phrase 'to protect'. Meaning, 'that's nice and all, but we have a bigger target in mind and we're not going away'. And the target is now Murdoch himself. Considering that News Corp. is centralized around Murdoch- structured to be so- to the degree that nothing really gets done without his say-so, that's a gigantic threat. Murdoch's been able to take a slow, steady stream of loyal opposition, but he hasn't dealt with something on the scale of the FBI and a united British Parliament going after him simultaneously.

So what happens to him, ultimately? On the American side of the Atlantic, the major criticism in my social circles is that while England may savage him, America won't care enough, his supporters are entrenched too deeply, for him to suffer in America or for Fox News, his most prominent American holding, to take any true damage.

My rebuttal is twofold. First: reverse ferret.

Sorry. Couldn't help it. First, the 9/11 victim-hacking aspect of this story hasn't fully unfolded yet. There is speculation, investigation, but so far nothing solid. So far, all the official, confirmed aspects of this scandal are UK-contained, and so given America's inclination to only care about America, more airtime has been given over here to Casey Anthony. (Which is downright shameful.) If the 9/11-victim link goes official, though, if the name of an affected victim comes out, well, all bets are off over here. There's no way that can't blow up... at least outside of Fox News, which is Murdoch-owned and thus has every incentive to try to save itself. Those who only watch Fox News still won't have a clue, but they're not the ones conducting the investigations. And the ones conducting the investigations are the ones Murdoch has to worry about.

Second, the kind of empire Murdoch has built isn't really structured so that he can just run to the other side of the Atlantic. If Murdoch goes down hard enough in Britain, it won't matter what he has going for him in America. Rupert Murdoch does not have clones running around. He is one man. If that one man, that one man that the entire empire is structured around, is taken down, the whole fortress is liable to crumble in his absence, like a video game boss whose lair collapses the second you beat him. News Corp., in Murdoch's absence, could do anything from undergoing a semi-orderly transition to shattering into a billion pieces.

And every new wrinkle, every new body found buried, only fuels the investigation further and digs the hooks in deeper, making Murdoch's ultimate departure more and more likely. For example, this newly-breaking news about the original News of the World whistleblower ever-so-magically turning up dead. The police do not, at least initially, consider it suspicious, but even official statements from the police have been rendered suspect, with multiple high-ranking officers of New Scotland Yard under investigation themselves for their roles in the scandal.

As deep as Murdoch's problems are in Britain, whether he suffers fallout in America is almost beside the point. He is liable to suffer a fall in America merely by proxy, rendered unable to operate in America to the degree he has been accustomed due to the damage suffered in Britain. It's all the same empire in the end.

So could he make an orderly transition to save News Corp from maximum damage (and there's almost no telling what 'maximum damage' might entail)? Given that he's 80 years old, he's certainly made plans. He would prefer to hand it down to his children. However, they've all got problems of their own, ranging from inexperience (42-year-old daughter Elisabeth) to past corporate failures (39-year-old son Lachlan) to being consumed by the scandal themselves (38-year-old son James). Elisabeth has been spotted verbally attacking James, saying that he "fucked the company". Shareholder pressure exists to hand control to someone from outside the family entirely, someone that doesn't have the tainted Murdoch name. Were that to happen, whoever took over almost certainly would not run things in so centralized a manner.

Which would probably be the biggest reverse ferret of all.

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