Watson book calls Murdoch empire a "shadow state"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - “Dial M For Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain” is among the more provocatively titled books about Rupert Murdoch, the controversial head of global news conglomerate News Corp, owner of FOX News, the Wall Street Journal and other media brands.

True to its nod to the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, the book is a suspenseful tale of the ongoing phone hacking scandal in Britain from one of its key players: Tom Watson, a Labour Party member of Parliament and one the fiercest critics of Murdoch’s media empire, who co-authored the book with The Independent’s Martin Hickman.

As its subtitle suggests, it also offers passionate and aggrieved claims about the power that Murdoch and News International, the publisher of News Corp’s British titles, gained in recent years and about how they sought to protect that power with an all-embracing apparatus of intimidation.

“Incompetence alone cannot explain all of these failures,” the authors write, citing the failure of Scotland Yard, most UK media and many top politicians for failing to prevent or even adequately probe the phone hacking scandal that surfaced in 2009.

“Fear allowed the phone hacking scandal to happen - fear of public humiliation for an indiscretion, fear of not winning that glowing endorsement,” the book states.

The book comes as the scandal continues to rivet the UK, where on May 1 a parliamentary committee -- including Watson - concluded the 81-year old Murdoch was “not a fit person” to lead a global media firm.

News Corp said the committee report contained some “hard truths” but that many comments were “unjustified and highly partisan.”

Watson has been called Murdoch’s “tormentor in chief” by the British press. At one point in the hearings, Watson characterized Murdoch’s son James, executive chairman of News International, as “a mafia boss.”

Lord Justice Brian Leveson continues to conduct a wide-ranging probe of the media industry in Britain. Rebekah Brooks, a top News International executive during the hacking episodes who has resigned, testified on May 11 about the close relationships she had with prime ministers, politicians, top UK government officials, and police.

Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who has been jailed for hacking phones for Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World, and who factors large in the book, has asked Britain’s Supreme Court to support his request not to name those who ordered him to hack the phones of celebrities, athletes and even Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old killed in 2002.

So the saga rolls on. Many of the events in the book have already been reported extensively, such as the closure of the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid and links between Downing Street, News International and Scotland Yard officials.

But stitched together as a ripping yarn of brazen corruption, frantic attempts to cover up the hacking scandal, and aggrieved victims the book makes for, ironically, tabloid-like reading. Watson himself plays the heroic lead role in the melodrama -- with the narrative referring to him, oddly enough, in the third person.

A former trade union official, Watson became a harsh critic of Labour’s Tony Blair and the Conservative Party’s David Cameron, both favored prime ministers of Murdoch’s publications.

Watson called on Blair to resign in 2006 and thereafter became a target of Brooks and Murdoch’s media, he says. Watson later played a lead role investigating Murdoch’s media empire after Mulcaire and News of the World journalist Clive Goodman were charged with hacking into phone messages of the royal family in 2006.

The book relates how Watson’s marriage collapses as he obsessively pursues his investigation of the hacking scandal; he thinks he’s being followed and even fears for his life.

“He kept the curtains and blinds closed … He frequently took different routes to work,” the book says of Watson.

Enabling the phone hacking scandal at News of the World was, the book alleges, a sleazy, alcohol-fueled newsroom under intense pressure to produce scoops and destroy the competition - an environment the authors blame directly on Rupert Murdoch.

“While he depicted phone hacking as an anomaly,” the authors say, “Seasoned Murdoch-watchers identified the wrongdoing as part of a pattern - the greatest manifestation of a win-at-all-costs diktat which bent and broke the rules at will.”

So why did it take so long for the phone hacking and other questionable activity to blow up? Put simply, according to the book, everyone - politicians, police, celebrities - feared offending Murdoch and his News International.

Scotland Yard, whose public affairs office employed 10 former News International employees, repeatedly dragged its feet in investigating phone hacking, according to the book.

News of the World dispatched private investigators to probe the personal lives of attorneys working for its alleged victims and established a secret team to dig into the private lives of members of the parliamentary Culture Committee when it was investigating the newspaper, the book states.

Watson and Hickman reportedly wrote “Dial M For Murdoch” in less than six months. So the rush to publish while the story is still unfolding may explain many tortuous and narrative-numbing sentences filled with facts, figures, dates and names.

But “Dial M For Murdoch” has the urgency of a police blotter and is useful, both for those tracking the story daily or for readers interested in learning more.

The book also highlights the role of journalism in a celebrity-obsessed society; the value we still place in our privacy in the age of Facebook friending; and the dangers of out-sized corporate power and influence.

“Rupert Murdoch was not running a normal business, but a shadow state,” the authors state.

Editing by Peter Bohan