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Of #Splat and Alleged Skulduggery

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, July 19 2011

Other folks are providing wall-to-wall coverage of all things News Corp., from Rupert Murdoch's testimony today before British Parliament to the unease-causing closeness there seems to have been between British politicians and people at the embattled media empire who were implicated by allegations that Murdoch-owned tabloids paid people to hack the voicemail messages of British notables.

Of course it didn't escape notice that the man behind a shaving-cream-to-the-face moment for Murdoch during his testimony appears to have had a Twitter account, or that, if the account was his, he coined a hashtag for his actions: #splat. Mainstream media even realized that the parliamentary hearing was happening live on camera for an Internet audience that might not know the names and titles of everyone in the room — causing the BBC to release a helpful visual who's who to the hearing. The Telegraph and The Guardian earned attaboys for their live text coverage of parliament's grilling of Rupert and James Murdoch, although in the final analysis it seems they had nothing unexpected to say.

Conversation now has turned to what this means for the News Corp. empire, which, having lost its head at Dow Jones, Les Hinton, and at News International, Rebekah Brooks, some seem to think is destined to crumble. At the fringes of that conversation, I think, we're starting to see a parallel discussion about what will happen to British politics after one of the biggest progenitors of the Old Way of Doing Things has taken such a massive hit. It's very safe to say that the media and political elite in Britain will have to renegotiate their relationship at least to some degree, similar to the way the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals forced the New York Times to rethink its interactions with Americans here. The networked citizenry will absolutely be a part of this renegotiation, and indeed it already has — it took a matter of minutes for the cream in Murdoch's face to sprout a Twitter account.

Guardian columnist Dan Sabbagh called Murdoch "the great old man of newspapers," and the way the News Corp. patriarch has maintained a very much 20th-century print empire had led to speculation in the past that he'd be the one to preserve, or perhaps revitalize, the power and prestige of the printed page. But no one has to cast this as a struggle by a mammoth institution with an aging organizational outlook, lashing out not just at upstart competitors but at the way communication has changed since it held a monopoly on influence — News Corp. has already done that itself.

Swinging back at News Corp. critics in the wake of Hinton's resignation, a Wall Street Journal opinion-section missive calls the raking-over that Murdoch is now getting "Schadenfreude is so thick you can't cut it with a chainsaw," in particular assaulting "lectures about journalistic standards from publications that give Julian Assange and WikiLeaks their moral imprimatur." The Journal saves some more venom for — of all outlets — ProPublica, who earns the Journal's "prize for righteous hindsight."

All this makes it hard not to point out how much this looks like a battle of old politics versus new as much as a battle over who knew what and when at a single, particular, highly influential media outlet. What people and institutions, particularly in Britain, do next — and how they use their own networks to fill any power vacuum left there — will be worth watching.

One obvious answer: Typically merciless Internet humor, more of which is sure to come.

(This post has been corrected to properly name News International's former CEO.)