Feb. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Rupert Murdoch faced down angry labor unions and journalists a quarter-century ago to establish a new printing plant in east London. This week he travels to the same part of town to calm unhappy employees.
Staff at the Sun, the U.K.’s best-selling newspaper, met with managers on Feb. 14 to demand an audience with the 80-year-old chief executive officer of News Corp. tomorrow while he’s in London, said a person with knowledge of the meeting who declined to be identified because the discussion was private.
Employees want to hear that Murdoch is going to stand by the paper and its staff as a phone-hacking scandal at News Corp.’s U.K. unit, which resulted in the closure of the News of the World, spreads to more of his newspapers. Nine Sun journalists have been arrested since Jan. 29 as part of an investigation into bribes to police officers and officials.
Discontent in the Sun newsroom is growing after the Management and Standards Committee, formed by New York-based News Corp. to assist police in their investigations of phone-hacking and bribery, said it handed over information that led to the arrest of the Sun journalists.
The MSC estimates that at least 100,000 pounds have been paid in cash over several years to public officials, a person with knowledge of the committee’s investigation said, declining to be named as the matter is not public.
In return for the meeting with Murdoch, managers wanted reassurance that employees would be respectful when he arrived, said the person with knowledge of the meeting. A News Corp. spokeswoman declined to comment.
Trevor Kavanagh, associate Sun editor, called the investigation a “witch hunt.”
“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,” Kavanagh wrote in the Sun on Feb. 13. While News Corp. is right to hand over evidence, some reporters have been held “for simply doing their jobs,” he said.
Journalists at News Corp.’s U.K. unit, News International, feel betrayed after seeing their colleagues arrested and being subject to record searches by agents of the MSC, three people in the newsroom said on condition of anonymity. Police officers as well as reporters from other newspapers, including the Evening Standard, have also been arrested.
Murdoch began digging through his employees’ pasts after the 168-year-old News of the World was shut down in July because journalists hacked into the phone voice mail of politicians, celebrities and murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. News Corp.’s Times newspaper in Britain is being investigated by police over possible computer hacking by a reporter.
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.”
The National Union of Journalists has spoken to lawyers John Hendy and Geoffrey Robertson, to advise on legal measures to challenge the MSC, General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said today. She encouraged reporters to join the union in a statement on the NUJ’s website.
Some of the Sun staff briefly considered a walkout, though that plan has been abandoned because people are concerned about keeping their jobs, one of the people said. Employees are currently represented by the News International Staff Association.
Confronting The Unions
Murdoch is no stranger to public outcry and confrontation with unions. In the mid-1980s, he faced down labor unions resisting the introduction of new technology after secretly establishing a new production plant at Wapping in east London. His victory in the dispute changed Britain’s newspaper industry.
Murdoch this month reaffirmed his “total commitment to continue to own and publish the Sun,” according to a company memo to the tabloid’s workers.
Reporters will get legal fees paid until they are convicted of a crime. The News International Staff Association negotiated the deal, a change from the company’s original offer to pay staff legal bills only until they were charged with a crime, national chairman Nick Jones, said in an interview.
The tabloid culture in the U.K. led to aggressive reporting techniques, said Neville Thurlbeck, the former News of the World chief reporter, who has been arrested, and not charged, in connection with the phone-hacking investigation.
“You were only as good as your last story,” he said in an interview on Feb. 13 at his home. “Once your competitive edge was blunted, through age or boredom, then it was time to go.”
Following the News of the World closing, Murdoch and his son James, the former chairman of the News International publishing unit and now deputy chief operating officer of News Corp., had to appear before Parliament to explain how much they knew. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron sponsored another inquisition, led by Judge Brian Leveson, into press ethics that is ongoing and may lead to new rules to discipline the media.
The panel has interviewed celebrities and newspapers executives as well as people who say they were victims of an overly aggressive tabloid culture, such as the family of Madeleine McCann, a toddler who went missing during a holiday to Portugal.
“There was absolutely no respect shown for me as a grieving mother, or for my daughter,” Madeleine’s mother, Kate McCann, told the inquiry in November as she described hearing in 2008 that the News of the World had apparently obtained a copy of her diary from Portuguese police. “I had written these words at the most desperate time of my life, and it was my only way of communicating with Madeleine,” she said.
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