Stories of naked threats against anyone who dares oppose the Murdochs are reminiscent of the Godfather movies
Dreadful events jolted us from the phone-hacking scandal but we should not forget an emerging theme last week: the pattern of bullying and intimidation that became the default setting at News International, and which in its own way is as disturbing as the evidence of serious criminal activity and the possibility that evidence to the select committees was inaccurate.
"We will get you," is the motto that sums up so many of the dealings Rupert Murdoch and his company have with the outside world, whether political parties, media competitors or lone individuals who stand up to him. What is now exposed is a vengeful and ruthless organisation, which takes its character from its 80-year-old founder.
My first example comes from the response to Vince Cable's reading of the Enders memorandum on the likely effects of Rupert Murdoch's proposed purchase of BSkyB last year. Until the business secretary was approached by Claire Enders, a noted media analyst, at an airport, he did not know of the memorandum. When he read it, he knew the purchase had to be referred to Ofcom, and that is when the Murdoch attack dogs were unleashed.
Senior Liberal Democrats are only now speaking about the intense pressure they came under last autumn. There were multiple approaches of varying menace but at least one cabinet minister was told that if Cable went the wrong way on the BSkyB decision, the Lib Dems, a party that had consistently opposed Murdoch, "would be done over" by his papers.
Cable's declaration of war on Murdoch, taped secretly by the Daily Telegraph and leaked in suspicious circumstances to the BBC, possibly by Will Lewis of News International, meant that the decision on BSkyB fell to the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. If Cable had not made the referral in the first place, Murdoch would certainly have triumphed in the deal that has just been wrenched from his grasp. Cable has been vindicated and colleagues believe the anger he expressed privately last winter was the result of pressure from NI.
Murdoch has probably never been rougher than in defending the company against the phone-hacking allegations that imperilled the deal once it was referred. Direct threats were made to senior figures at newspaper groups.
One was delivered in a private meeting last March with Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny Lebedev, who owns the Independent group of newspapers and the London Evening Standard. The meeting, which was initiated by Murdoch, was presented to the Lebedevs as an informal chat where they would get to know each other and talk about the newspaper business.
Soon after their arrival, the atmosphere changed and Murdoch began to remonstrate with them about the Independent's coverage of his affairs. He said he had three volumes of clippings from their newspapers, attacking him. He was particularly exercised about the offence done to his family – and called the coverage "a vendetta". He ended with a threat. Until then he had held James back from launching an attack on the Lebedevs, but he didn't know how long he would be able to do that.
One is reminded of Vito Corleone speaking about his headstrong son, Sonny, and indeed the Murdoch obsession with family seems strikingly Sicilian. The result of the meeting, however, was that the Independent stepped up its coverage of the scandal.
Other newspaper groups, faced with even more overt threats 10 days ago when news broke about Jude Law's phone-hacking allegations, were similarly undeterred.
Over the two years since the phone-hacking affair reignited, the consistent response to victims of the illegal practice, and to the journalists, lawyers and politicians who caused trouble, has been to browbeat and threaten them.
The ethic of News International is built around the fear of the newsroom, about which former News of the World reporter and whistleblower Sean Hoare gave pathetic testament to Panorama before he died in his home last week. The bullying by Andy Coulson of a sports reporter named Matt Driscoll, and the menacing visits to his home by his employers after he suffered a mental collapse, led to a reported award of £800,000.
NI executives treat outsiders as badly as they do their own, but the essential point is that lawful and unlawful investigative techniques were adapted to become the company's chief means of enforcement.
At the end of last week, we learned that an inquiry agent was following Labour MP Tom Watson around at the 2009 Labour party conference. Watson, his colleague Chris Bryant and the former Plaid Cymru MP Adam Pryce were all threatened. A rumour came from inside No 10 last Friday that private detectives employed by News International are even now compiling dossiers for future use on politicians who attack Murdoch.
Murdoch's power stretches across the globe. How could the actor Sienna Miller, one of the early phone-hacking victims, possibly expect to win a part in a 20th Century Fox film? Indeed, it is said that she firmly believes she lost one role because of her continuing action against News International – now concluded by a large payout.
The company is a case study of vindictiveness. Like WH Auden's tyrant, Murdoch knows "human folly like the back of his hand". For 50 years he has used that knowledge to further his power. He casually sends people to a place they didn't know existed. One phone-hacking victim told me of explicit and intimidating approaches by News International before court appearances. The victim, who is still too wary to allow me to use a name, said: "They're lying left, right and centre. They go for the jugular. It has been vile… hideous. At the moment it feels like a John Grisham novel."
The three main lawyers representing victims were all – it is alleged – put under close surveillance by the company.
Mark Lewis, who represents some 70 claimants, including latterly the family of Milly Dowler, has suffered particularly since he first took on the Murdoch empire with the case of Gordon Taylor. He believes the phone hacking lost him a partnership in the Manchester law firm of George Davies and deprived him of income while he fought the Murdochs. He spoke of being threatened with an injunction by lawyers working for News International, defamed by the Press Complaints Commission and has been generally made to feel a legal outcast, but he tells me: "I may have done a lot of things in life I regret … but I will not be bullied, I have always had that about me."
Against this background, Rupert and James Murdoch's apologies and insistence at the select committee hearing that they simply want the full facts to come out look bogus and hypocritical. I doubt whether we got the full story but we know now that this bullying has got to stop, and, as David Cameron says, News International needs to find new executives. The Murdoch family is no longer welcome here.
Henry PorterThe Observer