The shaving cream hurled at Rupert Murdoch on Tuesday as he sat before a British parliamentary committee may be the only punishment he'll get. True, the tycoon -- whose News Corp holdings encompass Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post, as well as giant swathes of the world's English-language media -- pronounced himself humbled before millions of viewers and listeners. But whether or not Murdoch and his coterie of close collaborators will ever get their comeuppance, Murdochgate is exposing how power and influence, infused with insidious new forms of corruption, operate today. And we'd better pay attention if we want to understand -- let alone have a say in -- the policies that affect everything from our pocketbooks to our health care and habitats to "our" wars.
The actors caught up in the scandal exemplify the modus operandi of the shadow elite -- the top power and influence brokers of our era. The media/police/political nexus over which Murdoch presides showcases the intertwining of state and private institutions, relationships, and power that characterizes the era to a T. And this story, with its swirl of players and networks is red meat for a social anthropologist like me.
Here are key markers of the shadow elite, as illustrated by Murdochgate:
- A government/business/political/media nexus. A web of tight relationships that span media, police, and political establishment elites under-gird the collusion between government and private institutions.
- A family-like network of trust across institutions of influence. Exhibit A is Rebekah Brooks, who, as we know, ran Murdoch's News of the World, Britain's best-selling tabloid, and is suspected of involvement in paying police for information and hacking the phones of public figures. She is said to have a daughter-like relationship with Murdoch and is a close personal friend of British Prime Minister David Cameron.
- An "evolving door" practiced by those in the network. As reported, the metropolitan police -- Scotland Yard -- employed former News of the World journalists and executives as consultants or staff. Prime Minister Cameron appointed Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor, as his director of communications. Coulson had resigned from the tabloid after two of its employees were prosecuted for phone hacking.
- The corruption and compromise of government institutions and top officials by private organizations and agendas. The News of the World allegedly obtained proprietary information through bribery and cozy relations with police. And while the prime minister's office employed the former tabloid editor Coulson, Scotland Yard hired Neil Wallis, a leading editor at the tabloid when the phones were being hacked, as a media strategist.
- The blurring and blending of institutions. Where did the activities and agendas of the News of the World end and those of Scotland Yard or the prime minister's office begin? It's not clear. As the New York Times found, former News of the World editor Wallis reported back to the tabloid while working on the hacking case at Scotland Yard.
- The fusion of state and private power. Scotland Yard, the government agency responsible for pursuing allegations of wrongdoing at the Murdoch news establishment, instead became intertwined with it.
- Global reach. There's no firm line between Murdoch's influence in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere. As has been reported, Les Hinton, the head of the Murdoch-owned Dow Jones & Co. and the publisher of the Wall Street Journal who has now resigned, previously served as chairman of Murdoch's British newspaper arm during some of the time its employees are alleged to have engaged in phone hacking.
- Bailing out alleged collaborators. News of the World editors and reporters who landed in trouble were paid even after being fired. And the tabloid's parent company assumed the legal fees of two employees who pleaded guilty to charges of phone hacking.
- Full-frontal coverup by members of the network. Murdoch operatives masked inquiries and skirted adverse consequences by mobilizing their networks. Evidence that the News of the World bribed the police for information was withheld for four years, and other evidence was destroyed. The Metropolitan Police, whose two top officials have resigned in the wake of the scandal, now alleges a "deliberate campaign to undermine the investigation into alleged payments by corrupt journalists to corrupt police officers." As the New York Times put it: "The testimony and evidence that emerged last week, as well as interviews with current and former officials, indicate that the police agency and News International, the British subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and the publisher of the News of the World, became so intertwined that they wound up sharing the goal of containing the investigation."
- Control of the media and message and cutting-edge use of information technologies. Murdoch's establishment obviously specializes in this.
- Failure to take responsibility. Murdoch told the parliamentary committee that he doesn't accept responsibility for what happened. To blame instead, he said, are the "people that I trusted to run it [the news organization], and then maybe the people they trusted."
- Ability to defang, override, and outrun investigatory bodies. Shadow elites know no borders, but the government auditors and investigative journalists who can monitor them often do. Murdoch's News Corp faces a worldwide probe of its news outlets under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to determine whether any other subsidiaries are implicated in bribery. But while such investigations are a step in the right direction, they are, at best, limited in reach and partial in scope.
In the days and weeks to come, Murdoch-related intrigues will likely fill the airwaves as the mighty are "humbled" and some of their practices exposed. As details flood forth, the question is this: Will we take Murdochgate as a case study of today's top power brokers in action and do the work required to understand and challenge them? Or will the ability to hold them to account end with nothing more than a close shave?