U.S. media shouldn’t rush to hang Murdoch’s News Corp for the sins of its London tabloids

August 9, 2011

Peter Scheer


The economic forces that pummeled every American newspaper from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle have barely disturbed Rupert Murdoch’s media properties. The Wall Street Journal, for one, has not only weathered the storm that decimated competitors’ newsrooms, but it has added editorial staff, news features and online resources.

This considerable achievement, however, did nothing to insulate News Corp from the firestorm of scandal involving its tabloid newspapers in Great Britain. A besieged Murdoch has had to shutter the News of the World in London, cancel  a strategic satellite-TV acquisition, jettison long-time News Corp editors and executives by the masthead, and hunker down with his high-powered lawyers to map out strategy for saving his company . . . and himself.

As this story unfolds, one should bear in mind that this is a media feeding frenzy of a media feeding frenzy. We are watching the usual excesses of British tabloid journalism, squared. Some perspective is in order: It’s summertime; breaking news is in short supply; a surfeit of reporters in London is chasing a shortage of stories in one of the world’s most overheated media markets.

And, most important, the prospect of Murdoch’s  downfall, which must be rated a distinct possibility at this point, is enough to create an orgy of schadenfreude among journalists and media executives everywhere.

This is not to excuse News Corp’s conduct. The most serious charges to have surfaced so far focus on the hacking of voicemail accounts belonging to public officials, celebrities, and private individuals. These actions are crimes (in the US as well as in England) and should be prosecuted. But as News Corp editors and reporters are placed under arrest, charged with felonies and compelled to testify about sources and stories, let’s pause for a moment before piling on

Breaking the law in pursuit of news is a crime. Journalists have no immunity to laws of general application. Reporters and editors in the US understand this and, in my experience, refrain from illegal measures for obtaining information. If American journalists are more scrupulous about legal rules than their British counterparts, that may be because First Amendment protections favoring the press give American journalists a stake in the legal system–something that British journalists, subject to arbitrary censorship and injunctions from hostile courts, do not share.

That said, some of America’s best journalists push the limits– obtaining information from sources who break the law–to produce important news stories that otherwise could not be written. Consider articles based on classified information, or that result from the breach of federal grand jury secrecy (for example, the Chronicle’s reporting that led to the prosecution of Barry Bonds), or are based on corporate trade secrets that have been taken by disgruntled employees. In these and other cases, journalists depend centrally on information supplied by sources who commit crimes, either in obtaining the information or in giving it to journalists (or both).

The  immunity of the journalist, despite the liability of the source, is a crucial distinction in US law and First Amendment jurisprudence. But outside journalism and legal circles, the distinction is not so obvious. Demagoguing politicians incensed by the hacking scandal are unlikely to appreciate the difference between voicemail-hacking committed by a journalist’s source, acting independently, and voicemail-hacking by the journalist himself.  Out of such confusion can emerge investigations and legislation posing grave threats to civil liberties.

News Corp’s British publications also stand accused of paying bribes to news sources. Although actual bribes should, of course, be prosecuted, some skepticism is in order here, too. “Checkbook journalism” has become a common practice in certain quarters of the US news media, especially television networks competing for exclusive on-camera interviews.  Only last week CNN confirmed to Howard Kurtz (in the Daily Beast) that it had paid for photos sent to Rep. Anthony Weiner by a woman to whom the priapic Congressman had sent one of his trademark digital greetings. A recent New York Times article detailed numerous cases of  US networks paying for access to sources, often under the guise of purchasing licensing rights.

Public outrage over questionable payments by London tabloids could easily morph into public demands for a legislative response targeting American media companies. But, while checkbook journalism is deplorable, and though some of its American practitioners might even welcome government intervention to curb it, any legislative solution would be fraught with risks to free speech.

The list of News Corp staffers who have resigned, including Les Hinton, head of Dow Jones & Co. (and publisher of the Wall Street Journal) and Rebekah Brooks, the head of News International (who was also arrested), gets longer by the day. They should not be written off  by the press as criminals—not yet, at any rate. What is needed is measured, thoughtful reporting and a dose of due process.

Let’s see what the evidence shows.

Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition (FAC). The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the FAC Board of Directors.



  1. slomike says:

    Hey, hey, hey CalCoast. Who’s your Daddy?

    (-1) 1 Total Votes - 0 up - 1 down
  2. JonnyB says:

    Newscorps legal trail in the US

    As it turns out, a News Corporation division has twice come under significant civil and criminal investigations in the United States, but neither inquiry went anywhere. Given what has happened in Britain with the growing phone-hacking scandal, it is worth wondering why.


    (4) 6 Total Votes - 5 up - 1 down
  3. ososkid says:

    Mr. Sheer I am a strong proponent of taking a deep breath and looking at the facts before rushing to judgement. However there are some facts that are easily seen (though not as easily seen as ignored by the US media) that would indicate a similar pattern in practices performed here in the states by Murdoch s interests. A few months ago there was a story that surfaced about Roger Ailes using Fox Security to spy on the former publisher/editor of a small town upstate New York paper Ailes had purchased. It had always struck me as odd at how this kind of rolled off the backs of people in the media as almost regular business. I think in light of the parallels with the recent scandal in the UK and the reasonable assumption that practices on one side of the pond are easy emigrants to this side of the pond should at the very least warrant a second look at this case.

    It appears to me that you made the assumption that these practices are more of a product of local process rather than corporate policy when you point to the relative protections US journalists enjoy compared to their British counterparts, but the case of Chiquita Bananas vs the Cincinnati Enquirer would tell us otherwise (I cant explain the whole story here but anyone interested should google those two entities)

    The truth of the matter is that in the states this story has short legs and really has not captured the imagination of the public in large numbers. I believe that this is due to the medias true bias which I dont think is really either to the left or right as much as it is a bias towards power and in US media there are not many entities with more power than News Corp. Why would Jane Pauley call out Foxnews when she may very well someday go to work for Murdoch, for a substantial sum of money?

    (7) 15 Total Votes - 11 up - 4 down

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