We’ve been waiting a long time, but now the moment of reckoning is here: American journalists, long maligned by their British colleagues as boring and earnest, can finally take their revenge.
American newspapers have featured the News International meltdown on front pages since the story broke. American websites have posted every new development, as it breaks.
Gawker.com cheerfully writes that News International is “besieged by a strange and unfamiliar phenomenon called ‘bad publicity that can’t just be ignored’”.
Slate.com re-imagines Rupert Murdoch as Voldemort, speculating that he would turn the Daily Prophet into a tabloid promoting “Sunday sensation and sleaze”.
But nobody is having as much fun as the New York Times. In fact, given that this is essentially a story about British journalists breaking British law on behalf of a British newspaper that nobody in the US ever reads, the NYT has thrown extraordinary resources at it.
Several journalists – a Pulitzer prize-winning ex-Baghdad correspondent among them – are producing acres of newsprint detailing the impact of the story on British politics, on News Corp’s stock price, on London police.
No doubt the NYT is motivated by its ever-earnest search for “all the news that’s fit to print”. But there are other things going on here, too.
Murdoch is more than just another proprietor: he’s a bitter enemy. He owns the Wall Street Journal, the NYT’s main upmarket rival. He owns the New York Post, its main downmarket rival.
More to the point, Murdoch owns Fox News, the enormously profitable television station which is the NYT’s main ideological rival.
For those Daily Telegraph readers who don’t follow these things, let me draw an analogy: Fox News is to American mainstream media what the Sun is to the British mainstream media. It’s louder, more unreliable, sometimes more entertaining and very much more Right-wing. Fox is the spiritual home of the Tea Party movement – it employs Sarah Palin – and is deeply unpopular among the people who read and write for the NYT.
Trouble for Mr Murdoch is good news for the American liberal establishment, in other words – and the liberal establishment is beginning to scent blood.
Congressional investigations loom: Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat who chairs the Senate commerce committee, has declared that if Murdoch tabloids hacked the phones of 9/11 victims or any other Americans, “the consequences will be severe”.
Others in Congress point out that News Corp’s headquarters is in the US: if the company’s British employees paid policemen for information, that may violate American anti-bribery laws, even if the payments were made in London.
Stories that British tabloids tried to bribe New York policemen are already in circulation, and if those are true, the consequences could be even worse.
From Murdoch’s point of view, this is a terrible moment to attract political attention. He is not on the cusp of a major acquisition in America, as he was, until Wednesday, in Britain. But the scandal is awkwardly timed in other ways.
The newspaper market here, as everywhere, is in flux. The Wall Street Journal now struggles to achieve the profits which it once made so effortlessly.
The Journal’s main asset is its reputation for stodgy neutrality, at least in its news-gathering. If this scandal taints the Journal in any way, business readers are not short of other sources of information.
More importantly, America is about to enter the presidential election season, a period in our political calendar when anything and everything becomes fodder for partisan politics.
Should it turn out, for example, that the Sun or the News of the World really did hack the phones of the relatives of 9/11 victims, then all bets are off.
There could be advertiser boycotts of Fox News. Republican politicians could be forced to declare that they will no longer appear on the station.
It’s not a likely scenario – Fox is too important to the Republican Party – but it can’t be excluded. American politicians are as sensitive to public outrage as their British counterparts.
In the end, though, it is not Murdoch’s American properties that are most threatened by this scandal, it is his control of his publicly owned company.
News Corp’s stock is in freefall: a massive American shareholder revolt may not be far off. One group of shareholders has sued the company in a Delaware court, arguing that the company board “provides no effective review or oversight”.
The same group was already trying to sue over the purchase of a television company owned by Elisabeth Murdoch, and has been seeking to block her appointment to the board of directors.
The group’s lawyers have declared they want to “put an end to Rupert Murdoch’s use of company assets to serve personal and family agendas, without regard for public shareholders”.
Words such as “nepotism” and “cronyism” are in the air. As are “corruption” and “mismanagement”. They will be given extra weight if this story takes on any deeper political significance.
Shareholders and their lawyers are as likely to be members of the liberal establishment as anyone else: in America, the world’s most litigious country, they are unlikely to keep their views to themselves.
As a result, News Corp’s American properties will survive this scandal – but the Murdoch family’s control of News Corp may not.