The Murdochs’ Casablanca Moment

Commissioner Ray Kelly and NYC Mayor Bloomberg

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.


by Leonard Levitt


What lessons can New Yorkers draw from the Rupert Murdoch phone-hacking scandal in England? What lessons can we draw about the NYPD?

Lesson Number One: The Shock Factor.

Why are so many leaders shocked at things they should have been aware of? Rupert Murdoch and his son James pronounced themselves shocked to learn that illegal phone hacking was widespread at the Murdochs’ British newspaper, the News of the World.

This sounds like the same shock a federal judge accused Police Commissioner Ray Kelly of experiencing after he supposedly learned for the first time that NYPD detectives had questioned anti-Iraq war demonstrators about their political activities.

In 2008, James Murdoch, who runs the Murdoch European and Asian operations, had just been given authority over the News of the World when subordinates asked him to authorize a secret $1.4 million payment for a phone hacking victim — a record amount for a privacy case. He did, but testified before Parliament last week that he never realized this was but one of numerous instances of the paper’s phone hacking.

Nor, if James can be believed, did he seek advice from his father, who knows more about newspapering than anyone on the planet.

As for Kelly, in May, 2003, U.S. District Judge Charles Haight mocked his assertion that he and Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence, David Cohen, knew nothing about the “data debriefing form” that the police had used in questioning hundreds of the anti-war demonstrators in their jail cells.

Haight compared Kelly’s reaction to the scene in the movie Casablanca, where Police Prefect Claude Rains says he is shocked to discover gambling in Rick’s café just as the croupier hands Rains his winnings.

Lesson Number Two:The Accountability Factor.

Commissioner Ray Kelly and NYC Mayor Bloomberg

Scotland Yard’s two top guys have resigned after revelations that they failed to conduct a thorough investigation of the phone hacking. Police are usually held more accountable for their misdeeds than any other occupation — i.e., doctors, lawyers and newspaper executives.

Except in New York City. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, police accountability stops with the rank and file cops.

Nearly two years later, we are still waiting for Police Commissioner Kelly to explain why police hauled off whistle-blower Adrian Schoolcraft to the psych ward of Jamaica Hospital after he reported that crime statistics were doctored in the 81st precinct where he worked.

We are also waiting for the results of Kelly’s crime statistics commission, which grew out of Schoolcraft’s revelations. The results are nearly a month overdue.

As for the ticket-fixing scandal, how long has Kelly known that such practices have gone on? Perhaps he is as shocked as Rupert and James Murdoch.

Lesson Number Three:  The Coziness Factor.

The phone-hacking scandal has exposed the too-cozy relationship between the Murdoch newspapers and the London police. There have been reports about lunches and dinners between Scotland Yard officials and Murdoch news executives; of Scotland Yard’s hiring as its spokesman a Murdoch editor linked to the phone hacking scandal; and even of payoffs by the News of the World to Scotland Yard officials for information.


Well, in New York, no one is cozier with the NYPD these days than the Daily News, having taken that mantle from Rupert Murdoch’s Post.

So far as we know, there have been no payoffs, although in 2004 Deputy Commissioner David Cohen did use Intelligence Division detectives to conduct a private investigation for Daily News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, who claimed he was being followed and imagined his pursuers were terrorists.

Of course, this coziness existed long before Zuckerman purchased the paper in the 1990s.
But in 2009 when a sergeant in the NYPD’s Public Information office harassed and threatened a News reporter after he asked for details about a subway stabbing, the News rolled over.

Instead of writing about the incident, the News finessed it behind the scenes. It accepted the department’s refusal to discipline the sergeant in return for a promise that such mistreatment of its reporters would not be repeated.

Last week, the News‘ pre-eminent sports writer, Mike Lupica, apparently seeking to enlarge his portfolio, wrote that Kelly should be the city’s next mayor, noting that he “brought a painful humanity” to the funeral service of a murdered eight-year-old boy. (Mike, better keep your day job.)

Lesson Number Four: The Lord Acton Factor.

With the possible exception of Mark Zuckerberg, Rupert Murdoch is probably the world’s most powerful and influential person. Besides having corrupted the British body politic, here in the good old USA, he seems to have placed half the likely Republican Party presidential nominees on his Fox News payroll.

Now serving his third term as mayor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is probably this burg’s most powerful and influential person.

Just recall how he obtained that third term.

First he went to the city’s three daily newspapers to explain how he wanted to change the two-term limit law that he had supported when he ran in 2001. He went directly to the papers’ owners. Zuckerman at the News. Mr. Murdoch at the Post. Even the naifs at the Times went along with him.

Then Bloomberg bribed enough city councilmen to vote to overturn the law.

As Lord Acton famously put it, power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Lesson Number Five: The Transparency Factor.

Now that the phone hacking scandal has hit the front pages, everyone in England — from the Murdochs to all its politicians — is talking about the importance of transparency.

Here in New York Bloomberg also talks about transparency, saying there is more of it in his administration than ever before.

In fact there is less. Bloomberg even refuses to tell the public when he leaves the city for Bermuda.

In the police department, there is no transparency whatsoever. None. Nil. Nada. Kelly even refuses to reveal his public schedule.

Other than Kelly, no one in the NYPD is allowed to speak to reporters. No one has any idea what is going on in the department. No one has any idea what is going on in the non-profit Police Foundation, which, with its $3 million budget, has become a professional slush fund for Kelly, who has spent $30,000 of foundation money for free lunches and dinners at the Harvard Club, supposedly for police business.

Lesson Number Six: The Hypocrisy Factor.

Rupert Murdoch says he wants to get to the bottom of the phone hacking scandal. Kelly says how important it is for the NYPD and the FBI to cooperate in fighting terrorism.

Kelly reiterated that claim last week following the conviction of Mohammed Wali Zazi, the father of convicted terrorist Najibullah Zazi, who had plotted to bomb the New York City subway system in 2009.

But while the FBI tracked Najibullah Zazi from his home in Colorado to New York, NYPD officials, seeking to one-up the Bureau, ordered Intelligence Division detective Dan Sirakowky to show Zazi’s picture to an NYPD informant without informing the FBI, as Sirakowsky testified last week.

The informant, Queens Imam Amid Wais Afzali, tipped off Zazi’s father, who tipped off his son, who cut short his trip to New York, forcing the FBI to scramble and arrest him prematurely.

After Mohammed Wali Zazi was convicted last week for conspiracy to obstruct justice, Kelly said: “One of the reasons for New York’s safety in the decade since 9/11 was manifested in today’s verdict. The collaboration between NYPD detectives and FBI agents, and the prosecutors’ pursuit of justice in the case, has once again demonstrated the importance of that partnership.”

Lesson Number Seven:  The Love Factor.

Joel Klein: Beware.

So now we have Rupert Murdoch professing his everlasting admiration for the city’s “transformative” former Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, who sat directly behind him and son James at the Parliamentary hearings.

Back in the day, Rupert Murdoch and this reporter became somewhat chummy. (I think he was impressed that I followed him into the men’s room to pin him down on a question.)

Mr. Murdoch persuaded Your Humble Servant to sign on (albeit briefly) with the New York Post.
“Dear boy,” advised its editor, a brilliant but diabolical Englishman, “just remember that Rupert falls in and out of love very quickly.”

To Joel Klein: Beware.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: From 1995 to 2005, Leonard Levitt wrote the column “One Police Plaza” for the newspaper Newsday about the New York City police department. Before joining Newsday, he worked as a reporter for the Associated Press and the Detroit News, as a correspondent for Time Magazine, and as the investigations editor of the New York Post. His work has appeared in Harper’s, Esquire and the New York Times magazine. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the Columbia School of Journalism, Levitt served two years in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, East Africa and has been the recipient of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the Humanities. He received an Edgar Award in 2005 for his book Conviction: Solving the Moxley Murder. His website can be found at

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