Rutten: America’s Murdoch problem


The Anglo-American democracies owe their durability to many attributes, but two of the most crucial involve restraint: No exercise of authority without accountability; no expression of liberty without limits.

The ongoing meltdown of News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire is providing us with a reeducation on what can happen when those restraints are routinely ignored. Each day’s revelations leave us with a clearer picture of Murdoch newspapers that routinely violated the privacy of Britons, from the sovereign and prime minister to the grieving families of murder victims and war widows. In the process, journalists and others employed by Murdoch’s papers allegedly bribed police officers and officials, intimidated investigators assigned to probe reporters’ misconduct and paid off some of those who cooperated with lucrative consulting and writing contracts.

Eager for the highly partisan Murdoch papers’ support, and fearful of the retribution that seemed to follow anything the company’s editors or executives construed as opposition to News Corp.'s interests, Britain’s Parliament and political establishment cowered while unprincipled journalists attenuated freedom of the press into grotesque malevolence and corrupt officials made public accountability a dead letter. It was a mutually beneficial little arrangement for as long as it lasted, but like any relationship built on fear, it was bound to come apart — with a vengeance. Thursday brought the arrest of another former News of the World sub-editor, Neil Wallis, and Friday the resignations of Rebekah Brooks, formerly the paper’s editor and, most recently, the executive in charge of Murdoch’s British papers, and Les Hinton, chairman of Dow Jones, who ran the British papers from 1997 to 2005.


Here in the United States, the FBI and U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. confirmed that a preliminary inquiry has begun into allegations that News of the World reporters may have tried to enlist a retired New York police officer to assist in obtaining access to the voice-mail accounts of people killed on 9/11. New York Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) first requested that probe, and the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission also should respond to requests from other lawmakers that News Corp. be investigated under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

That law forbids U.S. corporations doing business abroad from bribing foreign officials to further their commercial interests, and it also penalizes companies that make such illicit payments and then fail to report them or attempt to conceal them on their balance sheets. Our own 1st Amendment protections might make payments made in the course of reporting difficult — perhaps even impossible — to prosecute, but not bribes paid to obstruct justice, as allegedly occurred in the News of the World case. Moreover, as Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), one of the senators requesting the probe, pointed out to the New York Times this week, “If indeed bribes were made and were not properly recorded, this too may be a violation of the law.”

News Corp., despite its global reach, is an American company, headquartered in New York; its shares are traded on our exchange. Murdoch was born in Australia, but he obtained U.S. citizenship so that he could further enrich himself by acquiring broadcast properties here. Having availed himself of American opportunity, he and his subordinates are now accountable to U.S. law, and there is every evidence that the chain of culpability for this scandal extends high up into News Corp. As Niri Shan, a leading London media lawyer, said, given the extraordinary severity of British libel law, “it [is] hard to believe that the editor or other people in the organization didn’t know the provenance of the information” Murdoch’s papers illegally obtained.

We Americans owe our most fundamental democratic traditions and respect for the rule of law to Britain. It would be outrageous if we now stood idly by and ignored credible allegations that an American company used our territory as a haven from which to subvert the laws and democratic processes of our closest cultural and political ally, as Murdoch’s firm allegedly has. Moreover, as Philip Shenon reported in the Daily Beast this week, federal law enforcement officials have become increasingly wary of sharing information involving prominent personalities or celebrities with their British counterparts because of what the Americans regard as their colleagues’ inappropriate relationship with London’s tabloid press.

The Murdoch meltdown has become an American problem too.

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