News Corp. (NWSA)’s Sun, the best-selling U.K. newspaper, said multiple police and government inquiries into the press are hurting free speech and constitute a “witch hunt,” following the arrest of five of its employees.
“In what would at any other time cause uproar in Parliament and among civil liberty and human rights campaigners, its journalists are being treated like members of an organized crime gang,” Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor, wrote in the newspaper today. While New York-based News Corp. is right to hand over evidence, some reporters “have been held, at least on the evidence so far revealed, for simply doing their jobs” for the company, he said.
Five Sun journalists were arrested during the weekend as part of police investigations into bribery of U.K. officials. News Corp. Chief Executive Officer Rupert Murdoch is flying to London this week to reassure employees, a person familiar with his plans said on condition of anonymity Feb. 11.
Murdoch reaffirmed his “total commitment to continue to own and publish the Sun,” according to a memo obtained by Bloomberg News and sent from News International Ltd. CEO Tom Mockridge to the tabloid’s workers.
News Corp. created a Management and Standards Committee to assist police after reporters at its U.K. News of the World newspaper hacked into the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler for stories. News Corp. shut the tabloid in July.
New Press Rules
Paying for stories is common practice and “has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed,” Kavanagh said. “There is nothing disreputable about it. And, as far as we know at this point, nothing illegal.”
Kavanagh also criticized what he says are overly large numbers of officers and resources that the Metropolitan Police Service, London’s police force, have been using to run the three investigations into phone hacking, computer hacking, and improper payments.
“Given the seriousness of the allegations currently under investigation and the significant number of victims,” the police said in a separate statement, “the MPS does not believe that the level of resources devoted to the three inquiries is in any way disproportionate to the enormous task at hand.”
The police have 169 officers on the three investigations, they said in the statement, adding that as many as 10 police went to each of the arrested reporters and editors’ homes.
U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said an agreement is emerging on changes to press regulation after newspaper executives and hacking victims gave testimony in nearly three months of hearings on media ethics.
“We’ve come much closer to a consensus on the way forward than I would perhaps have predicted” Hunt, whose department oversees the media, told BBC television yesterday. “Everyone agrees that we don’t want the state regulating content” and that the industry should take the lead, he said.
The inquiry led by Judge Brian Leveson was set up last year by Prime Minister David Cameron in response to the phone-hacking scandal. Police are also probing alleged computer hacking and bribery of police by the company’s journalists, leading to more than 30 arrests.
“I would like Rupert Murdoch to stand up for clean investigative journalism and I’d like him to clean up what went on at News International,” Tom Watson, the opposition Labour Party lawmaker who has been at the forefront of a separate parliamentary probe into phone-hacking, told BBC television yesterday. “I just want him to take responsibility for what’s happened at this company, and thus far there are a lot of people lower down the food chain who’ve carried the can for this.”
Watson said Murdoch was not a “fit and proper person” to hold a television broadcasting license at British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY), in which News Corp. is the largest shareholder.
The five journalists arrested two days ago were Geoff Webster, deputy editor of The Sun; reporter John Sturgis; picture editor John Edwards; chief reporter John Kay; and chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker, according to Mockridge’s memo. A police officer, a member of the armed forces and a Ministry of Defense employee were also detained.
‘Not Be Repeated’
News Corp.’s Management and Standards Committee provided the information to London’s Metropolitan Police, which led to the arrests, according to a company statement. “News Corp. remains committed to ensuring that unacceptable news-gathering practices by individuals in the past will not be repeated,” the company said.
News International has agreed to pay $15.6 million in settlements to victims of phone hacking.
Speaking on the BBC yesterday, Hunt said that a replacement for the media’s current Press Complaints Commission regulator will need to be “tougher,” though he was waiting to hear what Leveson would recommend. The inquiry in London has been hearing testimony from newspaper owners, journalists, celebrities and victims of phone hacking.
Hunt said there could be no possibility of some proprietors opting out of any new arrangements, as Richard Desmond, the owner of Express Newspapers Group, has done from the PCC.
“I would like it to be an industry-led system, but it needs to be properly independent of newspaper proprietors and newspaper editors, and if a newspaper is going to be punished for stepping out of line, then it needs to be a credible punishment,” Hunt said. “I would love the industry to come to me with their proposed solution, but what I would say to them is that whatever you propose must have the confidence of the public, because the public are not happy with what’s been going on.”
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