Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.’s woes will continue

Rebekah Brooks's acquittal is big, but there's much more to come

Rupert Murdoch has known since sometime last year that he is a suspect in the investigations probing the systemic corruption at his British tabloids.

Which is why the $18 million he paid Rebekah Brooks when she resigned in disgrace from News Corp. and the tens of millions of dollars more he poured into her legal defense may be the best money he’s ever spent.

While one of Murdoch’s former top editors, Andy Coulson, will go to jail, Brooks had much more potential to bring the Dirty Digger himself down. She, like Coulson, was one of Murdoch’s top news executives while systematic hacking and bribery was filling her pages with salacious scoops. But she was later CEO of News International when the coverups of those crimes were ongoing and by all accounts a close confidant of the tycoon.

Brooks knew, despite her denials and her acquittal, what her newsroom was up to, at least on the more serious issue of bribing public officials. We know this from her own testimony:

That smoking gun, from a 2003 parliamentary inquiry into the press, wasn’t admissible in Brooks’s trial “because of rules around parliamentary privilege,” writes Nick Davies in an essential read on why she skated (Brooks later explained, improbably, that she had been speaking generally about the newspaper industry rather than her own paper).

Her acquittal makes it more difficult to connect any crimes or coverup to Murdoch himself.

Difficult, but not impossible. Because Murdoch has his own smoking gun to worry about: a recording of him admitting to his Sun journalists that he knew about payments to public officials by his papers:

We’re talking about payments for news tips from cops: that’s been going on a hundred years, absolutely. You didn’t instigate it….

I remember when I first bought the News of the World, the first day I went to the office… and there was a big wall-safe… And I said, “What’s that for?”

And they said, “We keep some cash in there.”

And I said, “What for?”

They said, “Well, sometimes the editor needs some on a Saturday night for powerful friends. And sometimes the chairman [the late Sir William Carr] is doing badly at the tables, (laughter) and he helps himself…”

That one presumably isn’t protected by some arcane privilege.

Nor are charges against Murdoch himself essential to damage him personally. News Corp. is essentially an extension of Murdoch’s ego whose “entire reason for being is to reflect, imitate, and amplify Murdoch himself,” as I wrote in 2011. And it is being investigated at the corporate level not only in the UK, but also here in the US, by both the Department of Justice, and by Congress. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits American companies from paying bribes to government officials overseas, and News Corp. has admitted it did so.

The Daily Beast reports that the FBI “has copies of at least 80,000 emails taken from the servers at News Corp in New York,” implying prosecutors didn’t see them (something backed up by a thinly sourced Mirror article, though News Corp. told Reuters “we understand that material was fully available to the authorities in the UK.”

Beyond the corporate investigations, there are another dozen trials of News Corp. journalists on the way, with much more information to come (much of it the press knows but can’t report yet because of British law). And then there are the hundreds of civil lawsuits from hacking victims.

While this incredible story is far from over, it has always been and will continue to be a slog to challenge Murdoch’s resources.

Davies, The Guardian reporter who all-but-single-handedly broke the hacking scandal, writes that Murdoch’s legal team overwhelmed the underfunded crown prosecutors:

But when it came to handling the police evidence in court, Brooks and Coulson had squads of senior partners, junior solicitors and paralegals, as well as a highly efficient team monitoring all news and social media. The cost to Murdoch ran into millions. Against that, the Crown Prosecution Service had only one full-time solicitor attached to the trial and one admin assistant.

They’re going to need much more than that if they ever manage to get Rupert in the dock.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,