December 9, 2013
Murdoch empire faces ‘corporate suspect’ charges
Report from UK for the Herald
LONDON—A glance at the papers in the UK in the last week would give a casual observer the distinct impression that a key ingredient to late summer articles this year is the issue of freedom and rights.
These rights come in different shapes and sizes, naturally: the right of local inhabitants to protest exploratory drilling in their village; the argument over who should be using the waters off Gibraltar and for what purpose; and the right of a terminally ill man to be allowed to die.
These stories have been overshadowed in recent days by the rights of Brazilian citizen David Miranda, whose nine-hour detention has generated outrage across the globe, with accompanying accusations from The Guardian after the newspaper suffered a visit by security forces in which their hard drives were wiped and potential legal recourses to be adopted against the Home Office.
In this context, the focus of 2013 thus far has been a spotlight on what the state is up to, and the media has voiced the concerns (and fanned the flames) of an angry populace.
What a difference a year (or a year and a half) makes. Just over 12 months ago, the Leveson inquiry was in full swing, the Sun on Sunday had been released to fill the gap left by the News of the World and Rupert Murdoch had resigned as chairman of News International. The public’s anger and outrage was aimed squarely at the media, although Rupert Murdoch was the biggest target, and rightly so.
Investigations into the extent of the phone hacking scandal are still ongoing on either side of the Atlantic but it is clear that journalists working for News of the World paid large sums of money for access to private information.
Over 125 people have been arrested and more than 40 people charged so far. Among the most infamous of the former News International employees charged with involvement is former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, and David Cameron’s former PR guru Andy Coulson.
Until recently, Murdoch and his executives had insisted that the practice of phone tapping and paying for such information was the work of rogue journalists within his organization despite apparently mounting evidence to the contrary.
However, a story broken by The Independent on the weekend revealed that News International (or News UK, as it is now known) was now to be prosecuted as a “corporate suspect” by the British Metropolitan Police under charges of “hacking and bribing offenses”, which has serious connotations for the media mogul and his empire.
The story was not picked up on by all broadcasters and was off the 24-hour news cycle relatively quickly. In truth, the information revealed was not “news” as such: according to The Independent, News UK was informed of this decision on May 18, 2012. Up to that moment, News Corp had been cooperating with the police under guidelines established by a Memorandum of Understanding reached with the company’s Management and Standards Committee (MSC). Apparently, News Corp responded by hastily demanding that cooperation with police be “scaled back”; in July 2012, Murdoch resigned as News International director.
The revelations that the investigation is not only ongoing but is set to be elevated once again threaten to place the shady dealings of the Murdoch empire into the public eye. In reality, the continued investigation demonstrates several key issues about media conduct seen in the light of the hacking scandals: that Murdoch and his minions were either clueless or complicit, and possibly both, and remain so; the phone-hacking case was game changing for how the media relate with their audience; and an investigation that dominated headlines from 2011 onwards has a lot longer to run.
The clearest indication of News Corp’s surprise at the turn of events is that much of the evidence on which the charges were apparently based came from meetings held between the Metropolitan Police and News Corp’s MSC.
It was only on realizing this that News Corp scaled back the amount of information it provided the police with, but commentators in the UK have suggested that this cooperation may have been as full as possible to mitigate possible future prosecutions a ploy that can be seen to have failed.
And then there are the attitudes of Murdoch himself. At a private meeting with employees of The Sun earlier in 2013, the mogul admitted that bribes were paid but insisted that this was a practice that had gone on for “a hundred years.”
In the meeting, which was secretly recorded by participants and published by Channel 4 on July 3, 2013, the 82-year old Murdoch stated “I don’t know of anybody, or anything, that did anything that wasn’t being done across Fleet Street and wasn’t the culture. And we’re being picked on.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these comments brought the case back to the attention of MPs. However, the levels of actual guilt and involvement are unclear. It is this lack of clarity that has ensured that the investigation has not just slipped away. The failure of the company and its leader to fully understand this is indicative of a failure to understand how the media environment has changed.
As stated earlier, 2013 has so far been focused on rights, with the media once again in a position of power after enduring the gruelling examination of the Leveson inquiry.
It is clear that, post-Leveson, the media in the UK are striving to determine their relevance to contemporary society. The NSA leaks have been the most recent example of this trend.
In this environment, the resurfacing of the hacking enquiry represents a step backward, the equivalent of lifting the rock that has gingerly been placed over the mess and leaving it exposed once more.
Murdoch and News International have dominated headlines for so long that new allegations no longer produce shocked reactions but weary acceptance, a collective admission that both will forever be synonymous with underhand and shabby criminality.
The problem for all concerned is that these allegations and the investigation are not going away. On August 20, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that nine others, including The Sun’s current managing editor Graham Dudman, were having charges brought against them in relation to Operation Elveden, which is a police investigation based on documents provided by News Corp’s MSC. One of those charged was also Grieg Box Turnbull, a former Daily Mirror employee, accused of paying prison officers for information on inmates.
The indications are that both sides are taking the investigation very seriously. John Turnbull, a Linklaters lawyer who helped News Corp establish the MSC, has already been formally interviewed by the police under caution. A News Corp analysis quoted by The Independent in its article suggests the company fear punitive financial consequences from the investigation and that “46,000 jobs would be put in jeopardy.”
Whatever the final outcome of the investigation, the revelations that News Corp and Murdoch have not escaped further punishment is a grim satisfaction, a silver lining in the latest round of dredging corporate misdeeds committed by journalists whose employers’ led them to believe they were beyond the law.
This news is as important as it is unpleasant. It isn’t as glamorous as state spying nor about a media group as headline-friendly as The Guardian, but it surely deserves more attention.