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.

Sleight Of Hand Reporting On Murdoch

The Guardian is running a big story today on how U.S. shareholders are “deeply troubled” by the testimonies provided by Rupert and James Murdoch before the Leveson Inquiry.

“U.S. shareholders are said to be worried that the Murdochs’ testimony this week has raised new questions about the management of the company and posed potential threats to other areas of its media empire,” the report claims.

And then it goes on to quote from a “senior policy analyst with Change To Win (CtW), a U.S. advisory group that works with pension funds with over $200bn in assets.”

According to the analyst, Michael Pryce-Jones, the Murdochs’ testimony raised two immediate concerns for shareholders: the future of the firm’s control of broadcaster BSkyB and the ethics of top management.

I am sure some shareholders are nervous about what is unfolding in the UK vis-à-vis phone hacking, public inquiries and the on-going investigation by broadcast watchdog Ofcom. But are they the immediately relevant shareholders?

The Guardian should have explained who Change To Win is? It isn’t just some kind of neutral advisory group. It was founded in 2006 as the CtW Investment Group and, as the organization explains, it “works with pension funds sponsored by unions affiliated with Change to Win, a federation of unions representing nearly 5.5 million members, to enhance long-term shareholder returns through active ownership.”

The leadership council of the Change To Win federation consists of Joseph Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers; James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters; Geralyn Lutty of the United Food and Commercial Workers; Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union; Arturo Rodriguez of the United Farm Workers of America; Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees Union; and Tom Woodruff of the Service Employees International Union.

So, I think, we can take it that there is no love lost for Rupert M. from such an organization. Does that mean their views should be discounted? Of course not. If the union pension funds have investments in the Murdoch media empire, they have every right to voice their opinion and concerns. But it would have been more honest journalism for The Guardian to explain exactly who Change To Win is and where they might be coming from.

Of course, if the paper had done so, then the story would have been weakened. Maybe that explains the omission. And also why the report glides over as quickly as it can this bit of contradiction: “Nonetheless News Corp shares rose during the three days of testimony, rising 0.7% to $19.76 on Thursday.”

Hmm. In the end, the only important News Corp. shareholders are the top five in voting terms: the Murdoch family and Rupert Murdoch, who control 39.74 percent of the votes in News Corp.; Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud (7.04 percent); Invesco (1.8 percent); Bank of New York Mellon (1.19 percent); and Taube Hodson Stonex (1.07percent).

 

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?

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.

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.