LONDON -- The phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World involved more than just allegations that journalists on the paper illegally listened to people’s cell phone messages. As is often the case with major scandals, there were also allegations of a cover-up. It is these claims that have caused the biggest headache for senior people at News Corporation.
Dig down into Thursday’s inquiry report and it is the possibility of a cover-up that is the focus. From page 348, the report, overseen by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, accuses Rupert Murdoch, his son James and News Corporation of either failing to address allegations of "widespread criminality within the organization” or — if they didn’t know about it — being guilty of a "significant failure in corporate governance."
These are words that will concern lawmakers in the United States, where News Corporation has many media arms, including Fox News and 20th Century Fox, and recently announced that it is buying a 49 percent stake in the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network.
The Leveson report refers to a series of e-mails and meetings in 2008 when James Murdoch signed off on a substantial payment to a phone hacking victim. He was then head of News Corporation's UK arm, News International. The question during the inquiry was this: How much was James Murdoch told about phone hacking at the News of the World when he signed that check. Those involved said they couldn’t remember.
"If the explanation of James and Rupert Murdoch is correct," the report concludes, then "One or more parts of the management… was engaged in a determined cover-up to keep relevant information about potential criminality within the organization from senior management."
Leveson does not appear convinced that this was the way events actually unfolded, writing that managers had "no reason or motive to conceal relevant facts" from James Murdoch. He goes no further — acknowledging there is an ongoing criminal investigation of what happened at News of the World. But he says again and again, if people at News Corporation didn't know what was going on, that itself is a significant failure.
"In truth, at no stage, did anybody drill down into the facts to answer the myriad of questions that could have been asked and which could be encompassed by the all embracing question 'what the hell was going on'?" Leveson says. "On any showing, these questions were there to be asked and simple denials should not have been considered sufficient. This suggests a cover up by somebody and at more than one level."
Earlier in the report, on page 305, Leveson considers the integrity of Rupert Murdoch’s company. "An organizational culture that is founded on integrity and honesty would require not only full co-operation with law enforcement, but also a determination to expose behavior that failed to comply with the law," Leveson says.
"What happened at the (News of the World) in relation to voicemail interception in this context is particularly informative about the culture that pertained both within the corporate and editorial operation," he concludes.
News Corporation has cooperated closely with British police in the last two years, authorities have said.
None of this reveals any new information, but it does tell us what an independent and experienced British judge makes of it. The British criminal investigation is still underway and the potential trials of former senior Murdoch executives, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, may bring new details of what went on inside of Murdoch’s businesses. When those trials are over, likely sometime next year, Leveson will write another report that should provide more conclusive analysis.
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