May 10, 2012
May 10, 2012
Last Thursday, in Surrey, England, shortly after sunrise, British police arrested a fifty-seven-year-old retired Scotland Yard detective. He was the twenty-seventh person arrested in a bribery investigation known as Operation Elveden, which is the most opaque but arguably the most important of the multiple investigations of journalism and crime at News Corporation, the media giant controlled by Rupert Murdoch. News Corp. has its headquarters in the United States and is the parent company of Fox News, among other properties.
In comparison to the sensational revelations of phone and voicemail hacking by News Corp. reporters in Britain—with alleged intrusions into the lives of the British royal family and celebrities such as Elle Macpherson and Sienna Miller—Operation Elveden lacks bold-faced names. It has the familiar grubbiness of cash exchanged for favors.
Yet Elveden has the potential to upend News Corp. The known facts suggest that behind a veil of police secrecy lies one of the most fraught and treacherous crime and legal dramas ever to unfold inside a news organization.
Elveden’s investigators are looking into allegations that News Corp. reporters bribed police, Army, and defense ministry officials—and possibly other British officeholders—to win scoops and perhaps other business favors. That means the evidence Elveden turns up could form the basis of charges in the United States against News Corp. and its employees or executives under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars American-based companies from paying off “foreign officials” in order “to obtain or retain business.”
The investigation began last July, when a fresh series of allegations about phone hacking became public. At that time, it was also alleged that reporters at Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid newspaper had paid as many as five police officers at least a hundred thousand pounds in cash in exchange for information. The Justice Department and the S.E.C., urged on by Democratic members of Congress, reportedly opened F.C.P.A. investigations in the U.S., and Operation Elveden was born in Britain.
Since then, other investigations of News Corp. have delivered fresh jaw-dropping testimony and records. Lowell Bergman’s terrific “Frontline” documentary, first broadcast in late March, provides a primer. Last week, a British parliamentary committee added a long and lively report about Murdoch’s earlier obfuscation before it and concluded, in a split verdict, that Murdoch was not a “fit and proper” person to have a broadcast license.
Elveden’s developments are considerably less visible, but even in outline form its narrative of betrayal among the lords and minions of journalism is riveting. The investigation apparently gathered force after Murdoch and his top executives decided last year to coöperate more fully with police, even if that meant turning against their own reporters—a turn that may ultimately rebound against News Corp. by prompting journalists to turn state’s evidence against their bosses.
The principal setting appears to be the Sun, Britain’s leading national tabloid. (News Corp. shut down the News of the World last year.) The arrests so far indicate that Elveden’s investigating detectives are looking at whether Sun reporters and editors routinely conspired to bribe police and other official British sources.
News Corp. reportedly has granted Elveden’s detectives access to voluminous information—e-mails, cash accounting records, and other documents. That decision has not gone down well with the reporting staff. Michelle Stanistreet, the head of Britain’s national journalists’ union, told the Guardian that many reporters sensed a “witch-hunt” and felt Murdoch’s turning on them was “a monumental betrayal.” She added, “Once again Rupert Murdoch is trying to pin the blame on individual journalists hoping that a few scalps will salvage his corporate reputation.”
A new book published in Britain, “Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain,” by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman, provides a sense of how intrusive and unnerving Elveden’s in-house investigation must now be. The book reports that when Murdoch decided to coöperate with police, he hired “up to 100 lawyers” from the City firm Linklaters “to root out criminality” at all of his British newsrooms, including his more respected broadsheets, the Times and the Sunday Times.
The attorneys conducted interviews and began “combing through old expenses claims, invoices and emails dating back years.” (Anyone who has reviewed the expense claims of a newsroom full of old-school reporters can imagine the thrill of discovery available to the investigators.) Murdoch also permitted “up to twenty police officers” from Operation Elveden to be “embedded” with the corporation’s lawyers, the new book reports.
If this sort of intensive, prolonged investigation—involving collusion among an oligarch media baron; police reporting to a Home Office run by the baron’s longtime political allies; and highly paid corporate lawyers—were taking place in, say, Russia’s largest group of opposition newspapers, the investigation would be denounced as an outrage against press freedom.
Are we really to believe that whatever corruption and criminality can be proven to have flowered at News Corp. during the last decade or more is attributable to rogue reporters and editors on the front lines? Isn’t it obvious by now that the corporation itself and the Murdoch family are the culpable parties, at least in a political and business sense, if not also a legal one?
In a section entitled “The Corporate Culture at News International,” last week’s parliamentary-committee report quoted Murdoch’s defense on this question:
I feel that people I trusted—I am not saying who, and I don’t know what level—have let me down. I think that they behaved disgracefully and betrayed the company and me.
The committee report was cautious about challenging Murdoch’s attempt to deflect blame. It did discuss, however, a “hypothesis” that News Corp.’s topmost executives constructed “a deliberate policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ designed to shield senior executives from events taking place beneath them.”
Criminal investigations of the Elveden type—whether they involve foreign bribery, corporate fraud, or insider stock trading—can take years to play out. Now that Murdoch has turned his newsrooms over to the police, each of his arrested reporters and editors will calculate his or her self-interest and options to roll over on others in exchange for leniency.
It seems safe to assume that loyalty to the Murdoch family will not factor much in these decisions. If the police are doing their jobs impartially, they should push the low-level reporters and editors they’ve targeted for arrest and try to persuade them to talk about senior News Corp. executives.
Flipping on a boss in return for reduced charges apparently is not as easy in the British legal system as it is in the American one, but it can be done—if British police and prosecutors are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. And if British investigators won’t build cases that way, American prosecutors and F.B.I. agents might. That will depend partly on the level of coöperation between the two justice systems. Will the British Home Office share Elveden’s evidence with F.B.I. agents and prosecutors, and let the chips fall where they may? Or will the British stall?
Rupert Murdoch absolved himself by blaming his employees. Now he must rely on their allegiance. Murdoch is famously anti-élitist, but every Australian schoolboy knows his classroom Shakespeare: “Though those that are betrayed do feel the treason sharply, yet the traitor stands in worse case of woe.”