By John Helmer, Moscow
Naivety is not what the British establishment can ever be accused of. Certainly never towards Rupert Murdoch, whose British nickname has been the Dirty Digger — a reference to his business practices and to his Australian nationality.
So yesterday in the House of Commons, when the Conservative Party and Labor Party leaderships claimed to have just woken up to what reprobates Rupert , his son James, and the senior management of his UK newspapers are – in relation to a telephone hacking and police bribes scandal – their statements drip with cynicism. Ed Miliband, the Labor party leader, led the chorus of hypocrites, referring to a News Ltd. Executive whom Murdoch himself continues to defend: “[she] “should take responsibility and stand down”. Actually, what Miliband means is that she should play scapegoat for Murdoch, and suffer nothing more serious than retirement on pension.
A Miliband camp follower had a more revealing remark to make about the Labor Party’s decision to go public against Murdoch’s abuse of journalism. According to a report in the Financial Times: “we had a brief internal discussion about the risks. But in the end it was a simple decision – sometimes things are just so obviously wrong that you have to speak out.”
What that really means is that since Murdoch’s media are so categorically against the Labor Party’s return to power, and since he has been caught red-handed corrupting the police and state prosecutors, there is no election risk now in attacking him. But the risk if Miliband doesn’t go against Murdoch is that, while every reader of every newspaper in England is lapping up the evidence of the Dirty Digger’s culpability – “criminality” is the term used by other members of parliament – Miliband may be soiled if he looks like he is mitigating the scandal or protecting Murdoch.
Russian government policy towards Murdoch has never, not even in the lapdog days of the Yeltsin presidency, displayed the favour which Murdoch’s backhanders buy in most countries, including the UK . The most recent Russian method for dealing with Murdoch was to cut off his money supply. The despatch last October of tax police to the headquarters of News Outdoor Russia (NOR), in which Murdoch has a substantial stake, was the culmination of almost two years of pressure against him. The tax claim, sustained by an appellate court ruling in August of 2010, is for the equivalent of $45 million.
The first police raid against Murdoch’s Moscow premises was in 2008. The charges then under investigation involved alleged corruption of Moscow city officials in return for favourable rents for NOR’s outdoor advertising placards and city tax benefits. Murdoch reacted then with outraged innocence: “The more I read about investments in Russia, the less I like the feel of it. The more successful we’d have been, the more vulnerable we’d be to having it stolen from us. Better we sell now.”
Murdoch’s reporters in Russia, led by Mark Franchetti of the Sunday Times, have dutifully sung in chorus to their conductor’s anti-Russia tune. Murdoch’s London Times has tried to take its revenge on Moscow by attacking former Mayor Yury Luzhkov and his wife, Elena Baturina, but Murdoch will have to go to trial in the UK High Court if he doesn’t retract the published libel beforehand .
Murdoch’s attempted exit from Russia has been blocked since 2008; his $1.7 billion asking price for the NOR stake has been far too high, especially after the autumn 2008 financial crash led NOR’s revenues to collapse in 2009. The latest public report in January of this year indicates that Murdoch is now being offered between $300 million and $400 million for his ticket of leave. The state investment bank, VTB Capital, is reported to have formed a syndicate with Alfa Group for this buyout.
Today NOR refused to say what has become of this deal, or of Murdoch’s shareholding in the company.