Murdoch, News Corp. and the United States: The nice smile might come off

As the blood-spattered UK side of the scandal unfolds, some troubles may be looming for Team Murdoch in den United States. There are two potential lines of inquiry.

Protesters in front of Fox News headquarters in New York, 2004. Bild: ap

Some in the United States view the phone-hacking scandal in the UK with a wary enjoyment, like mice watching a feared tomcat treed by a Pinscher. Fox News, Rupert Murdoch's most important U.S. redoubt, is widely understood to be a propaganda wing of the Republican Party, but little is made of this in day-to-day coverage of the network, even by the nation's most powerful TV critics. The plain but unspoken hope of many here is that the wound will incapacitate Murdoch in the UK and perhaps – be still their beating hearts!—eventually bleed state sward.

Murdoch's peculiar genius is finding the people who can help him assess a market and then devise the best way to debauch it. In the UK, he and executives like Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton took advantage of the country's little-enforced privacy laws and an apparent culture of complicity in the police force to create a feared and unapologetically power-wielding phalanx of journalistic thuggery. Oversteps in this area have pleasantly brought this ugly empire to its knees.

In the U.S., the approach is slightly different. Here Fox News practices thuggery with a smile; a broad and bland mien of innocence — and the comic slogan "fair and balanced" — are its trademarks. The network does not, as is often suggested, campaign for conservative causes. It's a specifically Republican operation, working efficiently with GOP power brokers to deliver the day's message, no matter how contradictory or inconsistent it is with previous ones.

Die deutsche Übersetzung von Bill Wymans Text können Sie hier lesen.

One of its very smart practices is to promote the idea that the "mainstream media" – of which Fox, the most watched news channel, is somehow not a part — is liberal and biased. In this worldview, Fox and conservative (not Republican) views are under attack. Those who say the obvious — that Fox as a matter of course each day repackages the news through a partisan filter — just prove the network's contention.

The move may turn out to have had a down side

As the blood-spattered UK side of the scandal unfolds — with developments on a Grand Googol scale happening daily, almost hourly — News Corp. could be excused for not focusing on its transatlantic flank. But some troubles here may be looming.

When Murdoch began buying up TV stations in the United States, he ran up against a law prohibiting foreign ownership of broadcast outlets. So with impressive alacrity he became a U.S. citizen, and News Corp, previously Australian, became a U.S. business, technically incorporated in the tiny state of Delaware. (Because of some quirky biz-friendly state incorporation rules, many well-known companies keep post-office boxes there.)

The move, so beneficial to him up till now, may turn out to have had a down side.

With scandal looming, a number of powerful organizations — regulatory bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission; investigative operations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI; not to mention the U.S. Congress itself— can make life difficult for it.

The question is whether the organization broke any U.S. laws. There are several strands opponents are looking at.

While the widespread hacking of phones and suborning of police officers seem to have been a UK phenomenon, some legislators have seized on a stray phrase in a report in the UK's Daily Mirror — to the effect that employees at the now-defunct New of the World tabloid had talked to a private investigator about hacking into the phones of 9/11 victims in the New York area.

Jude Law is suing another Murdoch paper

That is the sum total of the allegation, and while liberal commentators and some elected officials here have made hay with it, there is as yet no real evidence of such activities. Additionally, the British actor Jude Law, it was reported last Friday, is suing another UK Murdoch paper, the Sun, for what the actor says was hacking into his phones. The suit is interesting in that it pointedly alleges that the hacking occurred when he was in New York City. That conceivably could be the basis for a US. prosecution.

As yet, there are no allegations that News Corp. operations here engaged in such behavior. In the U.S., even the most Murdochian dailies have standards of behavior far higher than most UK papers. (They're much lazier reportorially, too, and as a rule much less aggressive.) The British tabloid niche of the market is filled by what are called "supermarket tabloids," including the National Enquirer and the Globe. (These are commonly purveyed on racks at supermarket checkout lines.) These weekly papers are aggressive in the UK mode—routinely, for example, paying for stories, a practice still fairly unusual at most broadcast outlets and daily newspapers. While the tabloids have a dubious reputation for accuracy, it's also true that they rarely lose libel suits and have broken many important stories, most prominently among them the John Edwards sex scandal of 2007 and 2008.

The second potential U.S. line of inquiry is more promising, if you're rooting against Team Murdoch. A federal law called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits bribery by U.S. corporations. This ban is mostly thought of in terms of payments to corrupt foreign governments, but bribing police officers in Britain is said to qualify. The act gives the government extraordinary powers to dig through corporate documents; while there is of course enormous political and legal hurdles to overcome before the Department of Justice would begin such an investigation, since even Brooks herself has formally testified to Parliament that her paper had undertaken such payments (a remark she subsequently tried to backpedal from), it would seem to be a legitimate area of inquiry.

Where the fun begins

That's where the fun would really begin. The prospect of holding the proprietor of the hated Fox News accountable might bring out some bravery in Congress, and hearings would follow, with Murdoch and other corporate figures trotted out for public humiliation.

Such a spectacle would create a wonderful moment for Fox News watchers; how would the cable news network respond?

We’ve seen a sample of what might happen this week, as the august Wall Street Journal, now owned by Murdoch's News Corp. as well and his most presentable face to the American establishment, delivered a thundering, curious editorial on the UK scandal.

The piece has generated a great deal of comment, most of it negative. The WSJ editorial page is a ferocious but fairly rational beast. (This writer has contributed to it.) The editorial a) came to a ringing defense of most News Corp. doings; b) half-acknowledged that hacking had occurred but blamed Scotland Yard (!) for not putting an end to it; and c) curiously did not substantively address the suborning of police officials, which would of course explain contention b).

Since Les Hinton, after his time running the Murdoch UK papers, had come to America to oversee the Journal and other properties, the editorial could speak of him with some familiarity. While the editorial writer was happy to testify to the probity of Hinton, it took him at his word that he had not been aware of hacking when he was in London, though he didn't seem to have been pressed too hard in the matter either. (Among many dubious News Corp. contentions, the idea that a top editor routinely did not know the sources for the paper's biggest stories is simply not credible. I don't recall the scene in "All the President's Men" where Jason Robards says, "My, I can't imagine where you two come up with all of this stuff!") The paper also took time to go on the attack against its perceived enemies, among them the New York Times and a nonprofit investigative journalism group, ProPublica.

It was not, in other words, American journalism at its finest. But it was perhaps portentous in its defiance and belligerence. If its master comes under serious attack on these shores, the façade of the nice smile at Fox News might come off once and for all.

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