AT THE beginning of 2016 Rupert Murdoch once again dominates British media. David Cameron is back on side. Juries have refused to convict Sun journalists of bribing corrupt police officers. The threat of a tough new media regulator has all but vanished. In September Murdoch felt strong enough to rehabilitate his beloved Rebekah Brooks. In December the most dangerous threat — the possibility of corporate charges — was lifted.
Today, the billionaire is more powerful than ever. But all is not lost. There are millions of people on three continents who oppose him. Today Press Gang has launched a new campaign — The People versus Murdoch. We’ve found an important chink in the media mogul’s armour …
This morning Press Gang sent a four page letter to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom. We asked chief executive Sharon White to launch an inquiry into whether Rupert Murdoch and his family are “fit and proper” people to be involved in the satellite television company BSkyB.
Ofcom has this duty under the Broadcasting Acts of 1990 and 1996. The watchdog looked at the issue back in September 2012 when the phone hacking scandal was at its height. (Its report can be read here.)
Ofcom criticised Murdoch’s son James, who was in charge of the News of the World, for his handling of the crisis. It found his actions:
” … fell short of the exercise of responsibility to be expected of the chief executive officer …”
But there wasn’t enough evidence to declare him unfit.
Of Rupert Murdoch it said there was no evidence he’d behaved inappropriately. But Ofcom also made it clear that it was working “on the evidence available to date”. It added:
“As Ofcom’s duty to be satisfied that licensees remain fit and proper is ongoing, should further material evidence become available, Ofcom would need to consider that evidence in light of its duty.”
Since that statement an enormous amount of new material has come into the public domain. Ofcom has confirmed it has not considered this evidence. Press Gang has now asked it to do so …
FOUR MONTHS after Ofcom published its findings, Lord Justice Leveson produced his report. He was much more critical of the Murdoch family than Ofcom.
On the response of senior management to the phone hacking scandal, he noted:
” … the evidence … points to a serious failure of governance within the NoTW [News of the World], NI [News International] and News Corporation.”
The key point here is that Lord Justice Leveson’s criticisms extended all the way to the top of the empire. Leveson said:
“If News Corporation management, and in particular Rupert Murdoch, were aware of the allegations, it is obvious that action should have been taken to investigate them.”
“If News Corporation were not aware of the allegations which, as Rupert Murdoch has said, have cost the corporation many hundreds of millions of pounds, then there would appear to have been a significant failure in corporate governance …”
Leveson examined one of the key issues of the phone hacking saga.
This was the meeting in June 2008 where James Murdoch met with News International’s legal manager Tom Crone to discuss legal action taken by hacking victim Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association. Taylor’s lawyers had obtained a devastating document — the celebrated “for Neville” email — which contained transcripts of 35 voicemail messages.
Tom Crone took this email to the meeting — and told James Murdoch it shattered the company’s public insistence that phone hacking was restricted to just one “rogue reporter”. James Murdoch denied Crone told him this. Murdoch agreed to settle the case for the colossal sum of £425,000 providing Taylor agreed to keep it confidential. When Ofcom examined this issue, it concluded Crone’s evidence was not:
” … sufficient to demonstrate that James Murdoch was made fully aware of the implications of the evidence disclosed in the Taylor litigation at the time he authorised the payment.”
Lord Justice Leveson took a different view. On the conflict between James Murdoch and Tom Crone he said:
“I … conclude that Mr Crone’s version of events as to what occurred on 10 June 2008 should be preferred to that of James Murdoch.”
This is just one dramatic part of the Leveson Inquiry that Ofcom should consider.
WHEN OFCOM examined the fitness of Rupert Murdoch and his family back in 2012, its emphasis was on the phone hacking saga at the News of the World.
It wasn’t able to examine the corruption scandal which erupted in 2011 when News International handed over emails implicating scores of Sun journalists.
The result was Operation Elveden — the Metropolitan Police investigation into the bribing of public officials. Many Sun journalists had been arrested but the sub judice rules prevented Ofcom from considering the issue in 2012.
In the years that followed, Elveden saw many public employees — including police officers and prison warders — convicted. Almost all of the Sun journalists were cleared by juries.
Operation Elveden points to the Murdoch family tolerating a culture of paying corrupt public officials at both the News of the World and the Sun.
This culture was long-standing. The practice was extensive — four public employees alone were paid a total of £146,000. In 2004, press reports show the Sun paid sources £362,000 — an unspecified but clearly significant amount going to corrupt public employees.
Rebekah Brooks, Sun editor from 2003 to 2009, admitted at a Culture Media and Sport select committee hearing in 2003 that she had paid police officers for information. Sitting at her side, News of the World editor Andy Coulson broke in to say they only did so “within the law”.
Chris Bryant MP told them paying police was unlawful. Despite this clear warning, the Sun went on paying corrupt police officers for another eight years.
One of these was Surrey police detective Simon Quinn. He’d been on the paper’s books since 2000 — and had supplied confidential information about the Milly Dowler case in 2002. Quinn was later gaoled for 18 months after admitting taking £7,000 from the paper over a ten year period.
Press Gang has asked Ofcom to examine the implications of this scandal.
IN ITS 2012 report, Ofcom considered Rupert Murdoch’s role in the “dark arts” saga.
“We do not consider that the evidence currently available to Ofcom provides a reasonable basis on which to conclude that Rupert Murdoch acted in a way that was inappropriate in relation to phone hacking, concealment or corruption by employees of … News International.”
Again, new evidence has since emerged which undermines that conclusion.
Two days after the hacking scandal erupted, in July 2011, Rupert Murdoch made a statement:
“Recent allegations of phone hacking and making payments to police with respect to the News of the World are deplorable and unacceptable.”
This was his public, penitent face.
But he also knew News Corporation — worried about corporate charges that might destroy the business — had just handed over a huge cache of emails incriminating Sun journalists. There was no mention of this in his statement.
In March 2013 he agreed to meet Sun journalists. Morale at the paper was at rock bottom: many journalists felt colleagues had been thrown to the wolves. The meeting was recorded by one of the reporters. In a discussion about the possibility of Sun journalists being charged for paying public officials, Murdoch said:
” … I don’t know of anybody, or anything, that did anything that wasn’t being done across Fleet Street and wasn’t the culture.”
Another journalist said:
“You referred to, you used the phrase, things were done at the Sun for over 40 years. I personally have been here for less than ten. But I’m pretty confident that the working practices I’ve seen here were ones that I’ve inherited, rather than instigated.”
“Would you recognise that all this pre-dates many of our involvement here?”
Murdoch’s reply couldn’t have been clearer:
“We’re talking about payments for news tips from cops: that’s been going on a hundred years. You didn’t instigate it.”
Rupert Murdoch not only knew police officers were being paid by his journalists. He approved of it.
IF OFCOM launches an inquiry, it will be a major blow to Rupert Murdoch’s plans.
Any investigation will take months, if not years. It will be impossible for Murdoch to launch a bid to buy the remaining 61 per cent of Sky he does not own while it’s taking place.
How can David Cameron’s government agree to his complete takeover if Ofcom is considering whether Murdoch is a “fit and proper” person to be involved in the broadcaster at all?
Press Gang has promised to submit a full statement to Ofcom. This will include all of the material which has emerged since Ofcom’s report in 2012.
It will also seek to widen the scope of any Ofcom investigation to the Sunday Times where there have also been allegations of illegal news-gathering.
It will also include new criticisms of Murdoch’s own internal watchdog — the Management and Standards Committee (MSC). In 2012 Press Gang warned the committee that serious problems still existed in the company. The MSC ignored the warning.
This post originally appeared on the Press Gang blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks