the audit

Cops in the Newsroom

The News Corp. fiasco imperils press protections in the UK
February 14, 2012

I noted this yesterday about News Corporation’s Management Standards Committee, set up over the summer to handle the company’s internal investigation into the hacking scandal, but wanted to explore it a little more today.

The New York Times piqued my interest by writing this on Sunday:

Dozens of people — lawyers, forensic accountants, forensic computer technicians and, sometimes, police officers — gather daily at a site in Thomas More Square here, where News International is based, searching through 300 million e-mails and other documents stretching back a decade.

Here we are presented with the spectacle of police and News Corp. cheek-by-jowl investigating together a scandal that the company covered up for years and which involves the police themselves. If you think that sounds a bit awk, you’re not alone.

Behind it is a sticky question: What happens when an organization accused of systematically breaking the law is a news publisher with legitimate interests in protecting confidential sources? The tension is thick on the ground: News International’s newspapers are under criminal investigation for thousands of alleged crimes, including deadly serious ones like bribing police and other public officials, but the company also has sensitive information regarding its legitimate newsgathering.

On one hand, giving cops free run of the place could easily result in the exposure of confidential sources and the chilling of future whistleblowers, who would understandably think twice about ever talking to the press.

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On the other, after years of News Corp. stonewalling, police can’t simply trust the company to sift through its own data on the cops’ behalf.

The result is apparently some sort of a hybrid arrangement, with the coppers on site in News Corp.’s Wapping offices but not directly searching the evidence themselves. This February 2 Reuters story is the most extensive I’ve seen yet on this arrangement and on the Management Standards Committee more broadly.

Reuters reports that about 100 forensic advisers, computer experts, and lawyers “file into the MSC’s office through special security to search through more than 300 million emails, expense claims, phone records and other documents that amount to several terabytes of data.”

A later Reuters story reports this:

Some 15 or 20 police officers are actually embedded with the cleanup team and the committee is often asked to conduct specific searches and pass information back to the police.

It also redacts any sensitive information to prevent police from learning the identities of confidential sources.

This arrangement seems to have paid off—so far—in getting to the bottom of what happened. In the last two months News Corp. has disclosed damning documents to the police that implicated top executives like James Murdoch and erstwhile ones like Rebekah Brooks, as well as ones that broadened the scandal, leading to the arrest of several top Sun journalists.

Still, the sight of police embedded with a team investigation 300 million internal newspaper documents can’t be heartening to confidential sources—especially those on the Metropolitan police force—who may have given News International reporters sans bribes.

Indeed, The Guardian reported last week that some media lawyers are now raising questions about whether News Corp. is cooperating too much with the police:

Experts say allowing police into a media company is unprecedented and raises concerns about the protection of journalistic material that, under law, is privileged. In normal circumstances police need a court production order to access any journalistic material.

But the extent of the alleged wrongdoing inside a media company is also unprecedented, and while there’s no easy answer for this press-freedom dilemma, it seems like the present arrangement is working as well as could be expected, if far, far from ideal

Leave it to News Corp. to allow a situation to get so out-of-control so as to imperil not just its own newspapers, but important press protections as well. That takes some doing.

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.