WASHINGTON – The Rupert Murdoch scandal unfolding in London involving alleged phone-hacking by Murdoch’s now defunct tabloid, News of the World, continues to dominate the international headlines; and like a giant octopus with its many legs and testicles, the scandal continues to drag Murdoch’s closest associates into a sea of charges involving violations of journalism ethics, lying to investigators, and alleged criminal misconduct.
U.S. media experts all agree that this rapidly moving scandal challenges the public to seriously analyze where they get their news and question the authenticity of the source or sources used in stories. First, here is the up-to-the minute latest news on the Murdoch scandal, which surfaced just prior to this article being published on July 15:
July 15, 2011:
- Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s loyal and most powerful executive, resigned as chief executive of News Corps/News International, becoming the highest-ranking member of his close entourage of advisers and executives to take a hit.
- Les Hinton, former Dow Jones chief, who led Murdoch’s British newspaper subsidiary during the period in which phone hacking occurred, joined Rebekah Brooks in resigning.
July 14, 2011:
- Rupert Murdoch, 80, spoke out for the first time since the scandal broke in an interview with his U.S. owned publication, Wall Street Journal. Murdoch stated, “… the News Corporation management had handled the crisis “extremely well in every way possible” with just a few “minor mistakes.”
- London police arrested Neil Wallis, former deputy editor and then executive editor of News of the World, in their investigation into phone hacking and bribing police for information.
- Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, agreed to give evidence about the phone hacking scandal to a parliamentary committee scheduled for July 19, 2011. Many legal experts say that the Murdochs will simply read a statement and refuse to answer any questions. Their entourage of attorneys expected to be present will speak for them.
July 13, 2011:
- Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. withdrew his $12 billion bid for BSkyB amidst an extraordinarily united show of disapproval of the deal from all sides of the London House of Commons.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigations (F.B.I.) formally opened an investigation into allegations that Murdoch’s News Corp. sought to hack into the phones of September 11 victims, according to the The New York Times. The Times reported that the investigation was expected to be handled jointly by two F.B.I. squads in the bureau’s New York office, one that investigates cybercrimes and another that focuses on public corruption and white-collar crimes.
- The Nation Magazine reported and alleges that FOX News CEO, Roger Ailes, may have spearheaded a secret in-house ‘brain room” whose sole purpose was to hack into phone records of 9/11 victims. San Diego County News left repeated messages to FOX News for Ailes to comment on the allegations, but FOX never returned our calls.
- Two U.S. Senators from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, both Democrats, called on the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate whether News Corp. violated U.S. law by allegedly bribing British law enforcement officials. Ironically, U.S. Representative Steven King (R-NY) is the only Republican Congressman who has publicly called for an investigation of News Corp.
July 12, 2011:
According to John Abrams’ Medialite online publication, CNN and America’s Got Talent co-host, Piers Morgan, has a lot of explaining to do in connection with his past dealings with Rupert Murdoch. According to the publication:
- Before Piers Morgan worked at CNN, he worked in the British tabloid industry. In 1994, Rupert Murdoch gave him a job as editor of News of the World, a paper you might be familiar with if you have seen the news in the past week. After a year at that paper, Morgan left for rival magazine The Daily Mirror. He worked at that paper until 2004, when the paper admitted the pictures it ran of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi civilian were faked — Morgan was fired from his position.
- Now that one of the biggest stories continues to be corruption in the British press, it was only a matter of time before Morgan’s name was dragged into the conversation. However, it seems that Morgan’s term at the Mirror was tarred with the same scandal that the News of the World did.
- Both the News of the World and the Mirror hired a private investigator named Jonathan Rees to get juicy information for stories. Rees paid off police officers in exchange for confidential records, and served six years in jail after being arrested in 1999 for attempting to frame an innocent woman with cocaine possession. After being released from jail, Rees went right back to working for the News of the World.
- Rees was allegedly working for the Mirror at the time when Morgan was the editor, so Medialite suspects that it is possible Morgan knew what Rees was up to and did not say anything about it.
- Piers Morgan has stated publicly that he has no knowledge of any phone hacking that took place at any of the tabloids he worked at during his career.
Media experts believe News Corp. violated U.S. Privacy Laws
George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr, a former special counsel for Supreme Court nominations for U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and an expert in computer crime law, has stated that News Corp.’s hacking of individuals in the United Kingdom may violate the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
“We don’t know all the details but it is possible that the U.S. Justice Department can prosecute individuals for hacking in the United Kingdom under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S.C. 1030), which prohibits unauthorized access to protected computers,” said Kerr.
Kerr emphasized that in “the case of News of the World hacks – we don’t know yet what role any U.S. networks or computers played.” It is Kerr’s belief that depending on how the foreign commerce clause arguments are resolves, there is a chance that the intrusions may be chargeable under U.S. criminal law in addition to under U.K. laws.
Federal prosecutors in New York are looking into whether there is a connection between FOX News and the U.K. scandal to determine if a Grand Jury should be convened. If evidence surfaces that FOX News was engaged in any hacking of phones in the U.K. or U.S., subpoenas will be served to targeted individuals to testify before the Grand Jury. Nevertheless, the reality, said legal experts, is that unless bribery allegations go beyond London police officers and is found to be widespread, the case will likely remain on British soil.
Journalism ethics are trampled upon for sake of profits
Stephen Ward, of the Center for Journalism Ethics, at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison, stated that the controversy swirling around the closing of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World shows, once again, the dreary truth that journalism is often a poor place to look for serious and honest ethical discussion.
“Whenever journalists get caught acting unethically, as in the phone hacking scandal, we see a number of typical and unedifying responses:
(1) Circle the wagons and impute unethical motives to their critics. Point the finger elsewhere. Instead of dealing with facts, attack other people. Try to dodge ethical questions aimed at their own behavior;
(2) Claim they follow “strict standards” although they do not; and
(3) Amid well-justified public outrage against ethical abuses, argue that nothing can be done. Raise the specter that any talk of holding the press more responsible means the end of a free press. Claim that the press is perfectly capable of regulating itself and, even if it is not so capable, there is no other press system worthy of consideration.
All of these unsavory tendencies are found in the writings of journalists in England and elsewhere over the past few days.”
Ward went on to state: “The abuse of ethical language in the case of the News of the World was a shameful act of hypocrisy. When the paper went out of business last Sunday, it claimed it has insisted on tough “standards”. How could the paper say this when its practices have been for years the antithesis of journalism according to ethical standards? Are these editors that out of touch with the public or do they talk the public to be a fool? Better for the paper to reject calls for ethical journalism and standards altogether. Some honesty, please.”
Howard Kurtz, a former media reporter for The Washington Post, and a Washington bureau chief of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, did not waste any ammunition when criticizing the mass media for consistently tramping on journalistic ethics.
“The News of the World debacle is just an extreme example of a news business that increasingly pushes the ethical envelope — and perhaps of a public that wants the juicy stuff and isn’t too particular about how it gets unearthed.”
Kurtz stated that “News of the World didn’t exactly discover phone hacking. Back in 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer paid $10 million and apologized to Chiquita Brands after a reporter obtained voice-mail messages from a company executive “in violation of the law,” the paper acknowledged.”
Kurtz alluded to several examples of U.S. media abuses of journalism ethics by implying that “we may look down our noses at tabloids paying for stories, but American networks essentially do the same thing. In 2008, ABC paid Casey Anthony $200,000 for photos and video of her missing 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Anthony was charged with child neglect and endangerment the next day and indicted for murder the following month.” (Casey Anthony was acquitted in a highly controversial verdict.)
In another incident, which occurred in June 2011, Kurtz alluded to the fact that ABC paid $15,000 to Meagan Broussard, one of the women who were texted by then-Congressman Anthony Weiner, for her photos (and an interview). However, the network was burned when it offered $10,000 to Sheena Upton, who claimed to have injected her 8-year-old daughter with Botox, and rescinded the offer after the woman, admitted it was a hoax. NBC Entertainment forked over $2.5 million for the rights to the Concert for Diana in 2007, and Matt Lauer just happened to land exclusives with Prince William and Prince Harry ahead of the remembrance of their mother.
Future of honest journalism rests with the public
In the end, the public’s indifference to how salacious stories are procured creates this lucrative market. When a News of the World reporter posed as a fake sheik last year, taping Sarah Ferguson as she offered access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, for a huge payoff, almost no one focused on the paper’s lying and deception. Most folks had a great laugh instead at the hapless duchess of York. It was only when such sleazy tactics were employed against ordinary Brits those politicians such as Prime Minister David Cameron (who had hired the former News of the World editor arrested last week in the scandal) felt compelled to demand an investigation.
Kurtz may be on to something when he vented his frustrations with the sad state of journalism by suggesting this remedy: “If media ethics were Rupert Murdoch’s primary concern, he would have fired his top London executive, who ran the paper during the phone hacking, a long time ago. Maybe someone should put up a statue of Murdoch outside the News of the World building, to remind us of the dangers of corrupt journalism.”
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Washington, DC based National News Correspondent.