The Wall Street Journal: Murdochification Watch

The paper runs a thinly sourced, and quickly denied, scoop on non-News Corp. bribes

Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, unsurprisingly, hasn’t done a whole lot of digging on the News Corp. hacking scandal. Or perhaps it has dug, but it’s been so far behind on the story that it hasn’t been able to advance it.

But today it has a scoop on the hacking scandal—one that implicates a non-News Corp. paper, suggests in the lede that bribing cops may not have been unusual, and raises questions about a man who will help determine the professional and, possibly, the legal fate of James Murdoch, Son of Rupert.

What’s the scoop that “suggests that the practice may not have been unusual,” as the WSJ writes in its lede? That twelve years ago, a Sunday Mirror reporter testified in a libel case that he paid a cop £50 (about $82 at current exchange rates) for a story tip.

To put that in context, which the Journal utterly fails to do, recall that Murdoch’s News of the World paid a minimum £100,000 ($163,000) in bribes to police officials, according to The Guardian. That, of course, and perhaps 4,000 cases of phone hacking—crimes, folks—plus the payment of hush-money settlements and other cover-ups involving figures at the highest levels of News Corp., the Journal’s owner.

(Read my post for a roundup of the known News International sins and crimes as of July 20.)

More problematically, the Journal’s sourcing for this piece is awfully thin. It’s based on the twelve-year-old notes of the plaintiff’s attorney in the libel case and another plaintiff’s attorney’s recollection:

Another attorney for Mr. Blackstone, Christopher Stewart-Moore, added, “Everyone in court looked at each other and said, “Isn’t that odd?’”

You’d think if everyone in court noticed this, that the Journal could have tracked down someone else who remembers it, like, say, the judge or members of the jury.

I’d want to do that before I ran something, since the WSJ says there is no court transcript nor any contemporary media coverage, and the lawyers who represented the Mirror say they “do not recall” it and that it isn’t in their records.

The paper also went with this dicey story despite the fact that Tim Luckett, the reporter the Journal accuses of bribery, didn’t respond to questions by press time. He did after publication, and it’s clear he’s not happy:

Mr. Luckett, who is now a crisis manager for the public-relations firm Hill & Knowlton in London, didn’t respond to requests for comment prior to publication of this article. After it was published, he said, “I can state categorically that during my time as a journalist I have never ever paid a police officer for a story. At the time of the trial I was not prepared to disclose my source but can confirm categorically that it was not someone within the police service.”

The Journal had better hope Mr. Luckett really did bribe a cop or it may find itself with a big libel suit.

But that’s not all. What makes this smell even worse is that in The Wall Street Journal Europe, this is what was put way up in the third paragraph:

At the time, the editor of the Sunday Mirror was Colin Myler, who later became editor of News Corp.’s News of the World. He was hired in 2007 to replace editor Andy Coulson, who resigned after the paper’s royals correspondent was imprisoned for illegally intercepting cellphone voice-mail messages.

Who’s Colin Myler? He’s the guy, along with former News International top lawyer Tom Crone, who says James Murdoch misled Parliament when he said he never knew about prima facie evidence of criminality when Murdoch settled the Gordon Taylor case for more than a million bucks (it’s implausible that Murdoch would sign off on such an enormous sum without such knowledge, in any event, but obviously Myler and Crone’s testimony would help any future case against Rupert Murdoch’s son).

Not only is Colin Myler strangely inserted in the third paragraph of that WSJE story, but The Guardian reports that the paper ran an accompanying picture of him.

Dan Sabbagh notes that toward the bottom of his column today:

On Tuesday, the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal looked like it was hitting back, with a page 7 report in its European edition which said that in 2000 the Sunday Mirror was involved in paying a police officer £50 in exchange for information about the arrest of Tim Blackstone, a PR professional, who was the brother of a Labour peer. High up, in the third paragraph of the already prominent report, the Journal noted that the editor of the Sunday Mirror at the time was Myler, who was also pictured in the title.

Politico media reporter Keach Hagey also thought this one smelled funny, linking to the Journal story and saying this on Twitter:

Amazing WSJ twofer on allegations of (Sunday) Mirror bribery: argues “everybody did it” and dings Colin Myler

A couple of weeks ago, I defended the Journal from the over-the-top criticism of Joe Nocera.

But this is the kind of thing that gives me pause. As I’ve written, whether serious crimes were committed at non-News Corp. papers is clearly a real story. This one doesn’t get there.

(UPDATE 11:08: I’ve made some copy edits here and a modification to the last couple of graphs that got left out because I screwed up Moveable Type somehow.)

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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: , , , ,