Thursday, July 07, 2011

The news of the world

The other big story in the world, beyond the debt ceiling biggie in the U.S., is the unfolding U.K. phone-hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch's tabloid News of the World. Some are viewing it as a real turning point for the press in the U.K., with politicians being freed from Murdoch's dominance. The issue to watch is whether Murdoch's bid to gain further control through broadcaster Sky News is allowed to go forward by the Tory government, who had been inclined to go along. Things have changed drastically though and the hacking revelations really couldn't come at a better time in terms of stopping that bid. Here, the Guardian editorializes against the bid as the scandal keeps getting worse:
The outlines of the story are familiar enough: it involves a giant media organisation presided over by one of the last great press tycoons, who has ruthlessly played at the boundaries of politics and business. As he grew larger, bolder and more successful, the less people in public life wanted to take him on. This reticence was well-founded, since it now transpires that his company retained criminals on the payroll to dig the dirt on anyone and everyone.

It is this power and dominance that ties the phone-hacking (and worse) with the imminent decision of the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, over whether to allow Mr Murdoch to become still more powerful and dominant. It is obvious to most people who have followed the sordid twists and turns of the phone-hacking saga that it would be extremely undesirable to let Mr Murdoch – who already owns nearly 40% of the national press – to have complete control over a vast broadcasting operation as well. Mr Hunt (and, yesterday, Mr Cameron) repeat that this is a "quasi-judicial" decision and that they must simply follow due process. But, as both the former minister Gerald Kaufman and the former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell argued in the Commons, there is in fact plenty of room for ministerial judgment.

Senior members ofthe government – including Mr Hunt and the attorney general, Dominic Grieve – have drawn attention to Ofcom's powers to use a "fit and proper person" test in judging the suitability of a particular company or individual to be a media owner. But Ofcom cannot presently trigger such a test: it would require criminal charges against senior executives before the regulator could act.

The police operation has already led to several arrests and there is a distinct possibility of such charges. Indeed, some lawyers have even mentioned the possibility of charges against company directors under section 79 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which can be levelled if it can be shown that directors have been guilty of "neglect, consent or connivance". Knowing of these possible outcomes, it would be extraordinary for Mr Hunt to wave through the merger now.

We have suggested that Mr Hunt should pause for a period while the police find out who did what, and who knew what, when – and at what level in the company. That suggestion met with broad all-party support in the Commonson Wednesday. In the intervening 24 hours we have learned of NoW journalists bribing police officers; that News International's chief executive was warned by police in 2002 about the behaviour of private investigators; and that her paper hacked the phones of the relatives of 7/7 victims. How much worse does it have to get before Mr Hunt listens?
This commentator at the Independent makes a good argument on the legal issues facing Murdoch (see the piece), as he raises the section 79 referenced above:
Forgive me for now penetrating deeply into the thickets of the law, but eventually, in the growing scandal of the News of the World's behaviour, everything will turn on Section 79. I hope charges will be brought under this section. It is entitled the "Criminal liability of directors etc". (I like the "etc"). It states that "Where an offence under any provision of this Act... is committed by a body corporate and is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or to be attributable to any neglect on the part of a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate, or any person who was purporting to act in any such capacity, he (as well as the body corporate) shall be guilty of that offence and liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly."
Rupert Murdoch has owned the News of the World for nearly 42 years. When he arrived in England as an unknown Australian newspaper proprietor to bid for the News of the World in 1969 in opposition to Robert Maxwell, I went to meet him at Heathrow Airport and travelled into town with him. I was a young financial journalist. When we got to the Savoy Hotel, he went up to reception to sign in. As soon as he was given his room number, he demanded that he be given a different room. I asked him why. You see, he said, I fear that my room will have been bugged.

Even then phone hacking and electronic eavesdropping obsessed him. Now they will be his undoing and Section 79 could be his final reckoning.
The British media regulator is also now raising the "fit and proper owner" test publicly, further salt in the wound. Quite a turn of events in Britain that could be quite beneficial to their media and politics.

Why should we care, from the Canadian perspective? It would not be helpful to see such a powerful right wing media empire's control expand in the U.K.. It's a poor precedent for other nations, like ours. And obviously, it would compound the significant power Murdoch wields through Fox News in the U.S. that in turn influences our conservatives. A prospective halt to this march should be applauded.