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Category: Leveson Inquiry

Despite seven hours of questioning at the Leveson Inquiry – and his abject apologies for the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World – Rupert Murdoch was not challenged directly over the reasons for the “culture of illegal payments” which the Metropolitan Police have alleged became a regular practice among some journalists at the Sun.

Murdoch was clearly troubled by the recent arrests of Sun journalists – “great journalists, friends of mine” who had been with the paper for twenty to thirty years; and he explained at length the steps News Corporation had taken at considerable cost to introduce new ethical procedures. (26.4.2012)

But although counsel for the inquiry, Robert Jay QC – and Lord Justice Leveson himself – asked repeatedly about the culture which tolerated illegal phone hacking at the News of World – and then covered it up as Murdoch claimed – there were no follow up questions about Scotland Yard’s allegation that authorisation had been given at a senior level in the Sun for the payments of “regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money” to police and public officials.

Yet the Sun was the newspaper which Murdoch said mirrored his views and he insisted that the company’s new editorial standards demonstrated that it was still possible to produce the Sun – the “best newspaper” in Britain – without the bad practices which had previously been disclosed.

 

Much of the questioning by both Jay and Lord Justice Leveson concentrated on the reasons for what Murdoch acknowledged were the ethical lapses at the News of the World and what he described as the aberration on his own part for having failed to challenge the line that only “one rogue reporter” had been involved in phone hacking.

He had been “misinformed and shielded” by a cover-up from within the News of the World where “one or two very strong characters” had forbidden journalists from talking to Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch, then chief executive and chairman of News International.

Since his personal pledge to a House of Commons select committee in July 2011 that he would “clean up” News Corporation he had spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” on internal investigations and in introducing new compliance procedures.

News International in London had gone “way beyond what the Police had asked for”; the company had examined 300 million emails of which two million had been chosen for closer examination and “anything faintly suspicious” had been passed to the Police.

“That led to a dozen midnight arrests of Sun journalists because of my pledge...I remain greatly distressed that people who had been with us more for twenty to thirty years, great journalists,  friends of mine...that it led to disturbance and hurt for the people arrested. But I am glad we did it and we have a new company with new rules of compliance.”

In view of Murdoch’s admission that he had failed to pay enough attention to the News of the World ever since its purchase, it was all the more surprising that the inquiry failed to probe the reasons for such widespread illegality at the Sun, especially in view of Murdoch’s constant praise for the ability of his daily paper to tackle the political issues of the day.

 When Lord Justice Leveson challenged Murdoch over his failure to have asked “what the hell was going on” when News International paid its first compensation payment for illegal phone hacking, the judge expressed surprise that a newspaper proprietor with “printing ink running through your veins” had not been intensely concerned about what his journalists were doing.

Murdoch paused before replying: “I have to admit some newspapers are closer to my heart than other. I also have to say I failed.”

The judge was not convinced by Murdoch’s answers about phone hacking. “But surely you would want to know what was the atmosphere and climate in your newspaper which had encouraged a reporter to think this was the correct way to proceed, that the paper would be prepared to let this happen and go this extra illegal mile to get a story.”

Murdoch’s answer was that reporters did act on their own, they did protect their sources and did not disclose to their colleagues what they were doing. “And I am guilty of not having paid enough attention.”

But that explanation hardly squared with the evidence to the Leveson inquiry in February 2011 by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers that illegal payments by Sun journalists were authorised at a senior level.

Surely this was the moment to ask Murdoch whether, if he had failed to pay enough attention to the News of the World, that same failure on his part also applied to a lack of focus on the conduct of senior editorial staff at the Sun, a question of perhaps far greater importance in view of the Sun’s influence on British politics. But it was a question that was left both unasked and unanswered. 

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