Murdoch Phone-Hacking Charges: Britain becomes America

It is normal to see outside courtrooms in the U.S. prosecutors and defendants, or their defense attorneys, battling it out in front of the media in a bid to swing public opinion, but it is highly unusual to see it in the UK. Today that all changed, highlighting the changing ways of the UK.

This morning the legal adviser to the Director of Public Prosecutions held a press conference to announce that charges would be filed against the onetime News of the World editor and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Rupert Murdoch, in connection with the police investigation into the phone-hacking scandal.

Brooks was charged with concealing material from detectives, conspiring to remove boxes of archive records from News International headquarters, and hiding documents, computers and other electronic equipment from the police.

According to Alison Levitt, Principal Legal Advisor to the DPP,  “All these matters relate to the ongoing police investigation into allegations of phone hacking and corruption of public officials in relation to the News of the World and The Sun newspapers.”

Brooks’ husband, Charlie, her secretary and NI security officials are also being charged.

And then later in the day, Brooks and her husband had their turn. “We deplore this weak and unjust decision,” she said.

The Digger And Leveson

Day 2 of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s testimony before the Leveson Inquiry. What a difference in appearance and manner from last summer when he testified before a House of Commons committee. The Guardian described his Commons testimony in July as a “complex performance of shame, wryness and amnesia.”

I saw something else – a man in shock, and an old man at that who just didn’t look like he was altogther there. Was that an act to garner sympathy and wrong-foot his pursuers? Murdoch-haters would say it was, but I am not so sure.

This time round the wryness is still there and so is the shame but the amnesia seems on the whole to have gone. He looks fitter and much more together. And his frankness is appealing, especially when it comes to his relationships with prime ministers.

And he is utterly right about government regulation of the press when he says the laws as they stand now are “perfectly adequate” but “lack of enforcement” is the problem. Do we really want the political elite to have control of what papers say or more importantly don’t say?

But was he convincing on whether there was or was not a cover-up at senior levels at News International of the phone-hacking scandal? He places all the blame with management at the News of the World. But having worked at News International, I find it hard to believe that James Murdoch and other corporate executives were so in the dark. And if they were, then there was monumental incompetence.

Blue Book Shenanigans — But Why Illegal?

The Independent on Sunday newspaper has a fascinating article that spells trouble for Rupert Murdoch’s News International. The article discloses that journalists at the News of the World and other NI titles paid a private detective to provide hundreds of pieces of confidential information, often using illegal means.

The article is based on a confidential document the paper calls the “Blue Book”, a ledger of work carried out by PI Steve Whittamore for News International titles, detailing a series of transactions including obtaining ex-directory (unlisted) phone numbers, telephone accounts, criminal records checks and withheld mobile numbers.

The report will add fuel to the political fire raging in the UK over a phone-hacking scandal involving the News of the World and may well add further embarrassment for Prime Minister David Cameron, who has so far supported Andy Coulson, now his chief spin-doctor. Coulson resigned from the NoW in 2007 after one of his reporters, Clive Goodman, was jailed for tapping into telephone voicemails. Coulson has consistently denied any knowledge of illegal methods being used to secure information during his term as editor.

Labour MPs – often the targets of NI probes – are on the war-path. And so, of course, are NI newspaper rivals, such as the Independent and the Guardian. They would be “outraged” wouldn’t they? For years they have been green with envy at the better scoops NI titles secure.

While not condoning in anyway NI using illegal methods to secure information, I have to ask why it should be illegal to secure half of the information NI journalists were obtaining. Why should it be illegal to find out to whom a telephone number is registered or whether someone has a criminal record?

And why should it be illegal in the U.K. to check the points on a driving licence or trying to establish ownership of a vehicle from its number plate?

On the whole these activties would not be illegal in the U.S.. In my state of Maryland the courts kindly allow anyone to do an online search on civil and criminal court cases. The argument in the U.K. is all about privacy. But how about some transparency! It is always said that justice should be seen to be done, for example. But if you hide information about criminal court cases, how is that justice being seen to be done?

OUCH! TIMES AND SUNDAY TIMES PAY-WALL DRIVES OFF TRAFFIC

Celleno has been on holiday but is now back.

The Times and Sunday Times have seen massive declines in Online readership since News International introduced a pay-wall in June, according to calculations done by the Guardian newspaper. The fall-off may be between 84 and 93 percent – in line with industry predictions before the wall was erected.

The Guardian argues that The Times has now traffic of between 84,800 and 195,700 daily unique users. In February, The Times site had 1.2 million daily unique users, according to ABCe data.

This blog has argued consistently that pay-walls for general daily newspapers won’t work – there are plenty of capable rivals around allowing free access and (The Times isn’t that good). Celleno maintains that pay-walls will only work for niche or specialty publications, especially in the business and sports areas.

iPad Could Save Newspapers

Speaking in Washington DC yesterday Rupert Murdoch said he had “got a glimpse of the future last weekend with the Apple iPad. It is a wonderful thing.”

“If you have less newspapers and more of these… it may well be the saving of the newspaper industry,” he added.

His comments point to what I suggested in a posting the other day: that the paywall News International intends to place around The Times and Sunday Times this summer is now part of a more thought through strategy than when Murdoch first started to threaten to do it last year.

In a Q@A session last week The Times editor James Harding clearly indicated that the pricing difference between the digital editions and print editions was aimed at making the digital far more attractive.

I think Murdoch is right that the iPad and similar tablet devices could well be the saving of the “newspaper” industry.

Johnstone Press Abandons Paywall

The Johnstone Press, the publisher of the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post, is to scrap an experimental paywall it erected around several of its newspapers. The trial, which saw different pricing and schemes being tried across its local and regional UK newspaper empire, saw poor take-up. The scrapping of the scheme comes just days after News International announced it intended to charge from June for online access to The Times and Sunday Times. Will the national titles fare better?

News International has started to market heavily the pay scheme, offering early registration and a chance to preview the new sites and multi-media fare that will accompany the introduction of the charge.

Game-Changing at The Times

Apparently The Times editor, James Harding, shares my thought that there is a financial flaw in News International’s paywall plan. Why pay 8.50 pounds a week for the print editions of The Times and Sunday Times when you will be able from June to read both online for 2 pounds?

According to Harding that price difference is exactly the point. In a Q&A session with readers he made this comment:  “I hope that what we’re doing is providing a simple price and one that, even in these difficult times, is affordable. It’ll be £2 a week for all seven days. The print editions will cost you £8.50. And, I hope, that over time you’ll see that the digital editions of The Times and The Sunday Times will give you so much more…”

In other words this is a game-changing approach designed to slowly kill the papers and turn them into digital online products while bringing the readers along at the same time. Harding says that the digital product to be launched will be innovative. “We can do so much more online: we can provide video, interactive graphics, personalised news feeds and a chance for people to engage, directly, with our journalists.”

Obviously, this is a big market to play in with some tough rivals. They include the BBC and ITN, who both have free sites. Can News International pull this off? Certainly it is a brave move and one preparing the papers for a time when most readers will read their papers on tablets, I-Pads and computers. Curious, though, that one had to find out Harding’s thoughts in a Q&A session and that News International hasn’t marketed or announced such thinking behind the paywall.

Murdoch to Mount the Charge

So Rupert Murdoch will start in June throwing a paywall around the websites of The Times and Sunday Times. Online readers will be charged £1 for a day’s access or £2 for a week’s subscription. Payment will allow access to both websites.

A weekly subscription will give readers also access apparently to an e-paper version and other new, as yet unnamed, digital applications. Those who already subscribe to the print edition of either paper will also gain free online access. The Times editor is gung-ho: “Now, we are leading the way again. Our new website – with a strong, clean design – will have all the values of the printed paper and all the versatility of digital media. We want people to do more than just read it – to be part of it,” James Harding announced in a press release.

He continued: “The coming editions of The Times on phones, e-readers, tablets and mobile devices will tell the most important and interesting stories in the newest ways. Our aim is to keep delivering The Times, but better.”

Now let’s see if it works. I have written elsewhere on this blog that Murdoch doesn’t really get the Web – News International was much slower than its UK newspaper rivals at the Guardian and the Telegraph, to exploit the Web. Likewise in the U.S. with American cable rivals. His belated internet purchases to try to catch up have fizzled badly: he over-paid for already established sites and has generally made a hash of them, MySpace being the best example.

Paywalls as conceived by Murdoch may be over aggressive at this stage. Total paywalls may well put off users, especially in the absence of rivals following suit – a blend of free and paid-for is far more likely to succeed. Paywalls have an effect of reducing online social marketing, blocking blogs and social media sites from linking to stories and giving them wider dissemination.

Clearly, as the online World develops and as new tablets and e-reader devices are developed, paying for content is likely to reassert itself: there will be a convergence of hardware, reading habits and the ability to personalise and market more surgically that will encourage payment. And those who really want real news – you know, the kind that actually involves news-gathering and reporting facts as opposed to opinion-mongering and shouting at opponents on talk shows – will need to pay if they want to get anything of value or authority. News-gathering is expensive. The waning of real reporting and the reduction in the numbers of real reporters able to place events and facts into context in an informing way is becoming ever more apparent.

But is Murdoch too early and too over-reaching? I suspect so. For instance, News International clearly has made the decision to keep the price low for online access in order not to drive away online readers. But is the price too low, if the company wants to keep people buying the actual print editions? Why spend 6 pounds a week on buying the hard-copy The Times when one pound will get you a week’s online access plus other features? Two pounds will get you both papers online. And that doesn’t even factor in the cost of a copy of the print edition of the Sunday Times. Okay, you can subsrcibe to the papers and get everything. But we shall see what we see.