The Murdochs are not fit and proper people

It's a "truly dreadful situation" declares the UK's Prime Minister on learning of the latest revelation of the outrageous lawlessness of the Murdoch empire. The response should go further than criticism of journalists and editors, it is the proprietors, Murdoch senior and son, who should be held to account and removed from any say in the Britain media. Those inside the loop should not be outside the law.

So, News International hired an agent to hack into the phone of a missing girl, Milly Dowler. He was encouraged to wipe out messages so that there was space in her message box for further messages that could be hacked, leading her family to believe she was alive and using her phone. In fact she had been murdered.

This outrage seems to have broken even the compliant back of the UK's political class. Or has it? According to the BBC, the Prime Minister declared that he found it "quite shocking... this is a truly dreadful act and a truly dreadful situation". 

Indeed. But is what he finds "truly dreadful" the fact that News of the World did it, or that that this has now been exposed (by the Guardian's wonderful Nick Davies) so the public sees clearly that a crime has been ongoing?

I'll come to the question of the public in a moment. Let's start at the top. One does not have to be a cynic to suspect that what Cameron finds truly dreadful about the situation is that his own negligent judgement will be exposed and, even more dreadful perhaps, he might have to take action against Murdoch, and risk the wrath of Moloch himself.

What the Prime Minister and the leader of opposition should do has been obvious for many months: they should state that Rupert Murdoch and his son James are not fit and proper persons to run a company, that they must step down from any company that has any dealings in the United Kingdom, and that no company they have shares in should be allowed to buy or acquire anything that the government can legally prevent it from doing. They should also ask the Public Prosecutor to consider whether to press charges against Rupert and James Murdoch for obstructing justice. Whether or not there is sufficient undestroyed evidence to mount such a criminal case, the ethical case is clear.

We should not allow a misogynist media to demand News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks' head and satiate itself on a female scapegoat, while its male proprietors breathe a sigh of relief. This is a very important point. When the phone hacking scandal saw the first journalists being sent to jail in 2007, Andy Coulson resigned as Editor of News of the World while - absurdly - denying he knew anything himself or was  directly implicated. He resigned out of noble responsibility because it took place on his watch. As the Dowler hacking took place on Rebekah Brooks' watch in 2002, surely she should follow Coulson's example, even if she is saying how shocked and upset she is at the news?

This is the line Ed Miliband took according to Guardian, saying that Brooks should "consider her conscience and consider her position".

Doubtless she should be behind bars with her proprietor. But who was aiding and abetting whom? This is the question we need to ask. It is Moloch and sons we should be most concerned about, not their maid.

In April last year I wrote an article called 'The Heart of the Matter' on the corrupt relationship between political and media power in the UK. I quoted Peter Oborne's warning to David Cameron that if he won the election he should not import Andy Coulson into 10 Downing Street as his Communications Director. For Coulson, Oborne stated authoritatively, had presided over "what can only be described as a flourishing criminal concern".

Oborne's advice was ignored and in January this year Coulson was humiliatingly obliged to resign. He had become "a distraction". What this meant was that while originally he joined Cameron to protect Murdoch's interests, and ensure a quid pro quo in News International coverage, now his prominence was damaging Murdoch's interests as it provided a focus for growing opposition to his bid for all of BSkyB.

The Murdochs must go

All this attention on the journalists and editors displaces attention from  the core issue. This is that the Murdochs have shown they are not ethically fit or proper people to be running influential public companies in the United Kingdom.

It is clear enough that for some years criminal activity was encouraged by senior staff at News International. It may be that only his editors and not Murdoch himself knew about this at the time. But as soon as legal questions were raised Murdoch had two options, as anyone who has been a boss is aware. The first option is to demand to know the full facts. Anyone who is capable will do this so they can take control of the situation and limit any damage. We know that Murdoch is capable and that he was concerned about the damage, as he asked Tony Blair to ask Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister to ease off on the hacking scandal. Given that Murdoch is who he is, it is reasonable to assume therefore that he knew the score in all important details. I am not suggesting he had it written down in a legal form that he might then have been obliged to hand over to the police. He would have called his editors in a private room and said "How bad does this get?" Furthermore, they would have been prepared for this question. 

So we can say with confidence that Murdoch knew. And if you are aware that crimes have been committed and you withhold this information and do not tell the police then you are obstructing justice and, most certainly, your behaviour is unethical.

Suppose, you might object, that Murdoch didn't know. Suppose he took the deniability route and didn't ask. Given his position at the head of a large public media company and that people were going to jail for crimes his organisation had participated in, taking the route of deliberate ignorance would make him incompetant as well as ethically unfit.

Either way, he is not a proper person to run a public, media company.

The same applies with even great force to James Murdoch who it is said personally signed off hush payments to some of those who had been hacked.

The same also applies to the board of News Corp who own News International. You can see their names here. Didn't Andrew Knight, once  editor of the Economist and now with Rothschild Capital Management ask, as Chairman of the Board, that a full report on all suspected criminal activities be placed before it? Is this how José Maria Aznar ran Spain? (No need to answer that.)   

It is grimly amusing if you look at the News Corp Code of Ethics for its Chief Executive. It goes on at such length that it stinks of protesting too much. It is introduced by a letter from Rupert Murdoch himself on News Corps Standards of Business Conduct, "Each of us has the power to influence the way our Company is viewed, simply through the judgments and decisions we each make in the course of an ordinary day. It’s an important responsibility and I’m honored to share it with you".

Oddly enough, though I may have missed something in scanning a long set of documents, while they state that News Corp employees must "immediately" report "any suspected fraud or financial irregularity" and must not be involved in any kind of double-dealing on the business side, the varieties of which are spelt out in great detail, and must be "at all times truthful and accurate when dealing with government entities or officials", there seems to be no simple strong instruction to behave lawfully and report crimes. There is a merely a mealy-mouthed note that employees should "adhere to all applicable trade, labor and other laws in the countries in which we do business". 

By all accounts Rebekah Brooks adhered herself to David Cameron while it was Tony Blair who did the adhering to Rupert and encouraged here, as in so many other places, the idea that those inside the loop are outside the law.

Rebekah Brooks' own statement today explaining her innocence is enough to make even a hardened journalist sob. We could not have known, she explains in an email to News International staff because,

Since 2006, when the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) seized the documentation from the private investigator Glen [sic] Mulcaire, News International has had no visibility on the evidence available.

The process of discovery is complicated. The MPS first present relevant documents to potential victims. We only see the evidence much later during the legal process.

So how come Nick Davies without the resources of News International could find out? Roy Greenslade once made the obvious point that it is ironic that "a paper that makes so much of its investigative skills" was unable to investigate itself! But the point is to stop blathering about journalists losing their bearings, the pressures of competition and all the other indulgences of hacks talking about other hacks. The real axis of responsibility in a newspaper always take us to the proprietor. All Murdoch, senior or junior, needed to do, each in his own inimitable way, was to ask.

I'm sure they did. They knew more than enough. Then they sent a message to the Prime Minister and the police saying 'lay off'. When that didn't work they sent a Director of Communications into Downing Street. When that seemed to make matters worse, they pressured him to resign in case they lost a big financial deal. Now the deal is apparently going ahead.

If the public has woken up why did it take so long?

Which brings me to the question of where is the public in all this. Why only now, when the danger of News International's cold, illicit indifference has been clear for so long, is there a public reaction? Previously, the hacking of royalty, or celebrities, or the chancellor of the exchequer, or senior policemen, was seen as somehow one part of the political class having a go at another lot, a bit like Prime Minister's Questions. It shouldn't have been seen in this way. But the media covers its own backs and encouraged public indifference. The BBC never led with the Guardian's scoops until the New York Times made them a major story. The Telegraph could have dished The Times and consolidated its reputation for busting sleaze and corruption but didn't. Are its Barclay Brothers owners concerned about what the Sunday Times might publish about them, should the omertà of proprietors be broken?

This hacking story and its cover-up are consequential in terms of democracy, otherwise known as who rules Britain, but it has been neutralised on the grounds that celebrities and their relatives are 'fair game'. Now, it has broken free. Everyone identifies with the family of Milly Dowler. In this case we can all see the behemoth undeniably trampling upon the innocent.

Every effort will be made to corral public concern as narrowly as possible, scapegoating the News of the World and its editor at the time, so as to leave the monster who created it, and his tribe of offspring, free to roam once more. Both Avaaz and 38 Degrees have on-line petitions to protest against a full Murdoch acquistion of BSkyB that is scheduled for Friday. A flashmob has been called for Thursday evening. Hacked Off, a campaign to demand a public enquiry is being launched tomorrow (Wednesday) by the Media Standards Trust as parliament holds an emergency debate. None of this welcome activity goes far enough. Media owners are public figures. We may not vote them in but if their organisations break the law and they then collude in a cover up we should be able to remove them.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy