The US Department of Justice, on its website, helpfully offers links to the text of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in fifteen languages, from Arabic to Urdu. The English version is sixteen pages long, and probably ought to be in Rupert Murdoch’s iPad so he can skim through it during his flight this week from New York to London, where the British branch of his media empire made more headlines on Saturday. That was when British police arrested another five journalists from the Sun, Murdoch’s flagship British tabloid, including the paper’s current news editor, deputy editor, chief reporter and chief foreign correspondent, making a total of ten current and former Sun staff who have been arrested in the past four months. A few hours after the arrests Tom Mockridge, who replaced Rebekah Brooks (arrested in July) as head of News International, Murdoch’s British newspaper subsidiary, read out a memo to staff quoting his boss’s “total commitment to own and publish the Sun.”
That such an assurance should have been necessary is a sign of just how bad things have been going for the economic migrant media mogul lately. And like all such assurances—older Nation-istas may recall George McGovern’s assurance that he stood behind vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton “1,000 per cent,” while younger readers can doubtless fill in their own examples of iron-clad promises made to be broken—no sooner are the words spoken than hopes begin to fade. The press here this morning was already full of pundits urging Murdoch to shun the Sun.
Although the paper sells 2.75 million copies a day—and makes tens of millions in profit a year, cross-subsidizing its up-market stablemates the Times and the Sunday Times—the temptation to offload it must be considerable. The latest arrests were triggered by Murdoch’s own Management and Standards Committee, an in-house group chaired by a prominent British barrister and which is supposed to ensure that the company cooperates with British authorities investigating phone hacking, payments to police and other public officials, and other public enquiries. The committee, which reports internally to Joel Klein, the former Justice Department official hired by Murdoch to run his education division, turned over some 300 million e-mails, expense forms and other internal memos to the British police, and it was that document dump that triggered Saturday’s arrests.
But as the Guardian’s Nick Davies, the reporter who broke the hacking scandal this summer, explained last week, what makes this handover particularly dangerous for the Murdochs is that this data, “which was apparently deliberately deleted from News International’s servers,” might also “yield evidence of attempts to destroy evidence the high court and police were seeking.” Destroying such evidence, or perverting the course of justice, as it’s known here, is a felony in Britain. But it is also a crime under the FCPA—§ 78m (b) 5, which states: “No person shall knowingly circumvent or knowingly fail to implement a system of internal accounting controls or knowingly falsify any book, record, or account.”
Although Davies’s reporting exploded the “rogue reporter” defense, until now the Murdochs have just about managed to maintain plausible deniability for themselves. But the traditional prosecution strategy of picking off the guilty underlings and then flipping them up the corporate ladder has gotten uncomfortably close to James Murdoch—and that was before the company started throwing employees off the train, which is how even longtime Murdoch minions like Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun’s former political editor, see this weekend’s arrests.
As the evidence mounts that much of Murdoch’s journalism was built on illegal invasions of privacy and corrupt relationships with police, three questions remain in urgent need of answers: Why should British authorities permit an in-house News Corporation committee, regardless of how fragrant its members may be, to serve as gatekeepers of the company’s records—especially when there is abundant evidence of efforts to destroy or delete incriminating evidence? In light of the latest arrests relating to corrupt payment to government officials, and bearing in mind actor Jude Law’s claim that his phone was hacked on his arrival at JFK airport, when will the Justice Department get serious about its own investigations? (There is also the lesser question of whether we are really to believe that methods which consistently delivered tabloid gold for editors and reporters in Britain would be too sleazy to tempt the high-minded hacks at the New York Post?)
And finally, what did the Murdochs know and when did they know it? Unlikely as it might have seemed in July, we may be about to find out. As more News Corp. executives come to believe they are being sacrificed to protect Rupert’s succession plan, the probability increases that someone who knows the answer will decide to cooperate with authorities. This gives the Justice Department, in particular, enormous leverage. In 2009 Siemens paid $800 million in fines for violating the FCPA—which also provides for possible prison sentences of up to five years. Amid the steady drumbeat of revelations from London it is important to keep an eye—and ear—on Washington. That’s where you’ll hear the sound of the other shoe dropping.