Hacker Gate

07.12.11

Will Rupert Be Arrested?

The revelations about phone hacking and police payoffs might require Rupert Murdoch himself to appear before a judicial committee, says Geoffrey Robertson. And this would be a good thing, not only for the law, but also for News Corp.’s reputation.

“Be ye ever so high, the law is above you” is the great principle that embodies the rule of law. Should it now require Rupert Murdoch’s detention in custody for long enough to assist police with their inquiries? Anyone whose employees engage in bribery, corruption, or other crimes for his benefit should always be called upon to explain whether he knew or approved of their actions, if only to exculpate himself from secondary liability—e.g., for conspiracy or incitement or aiding and abetting a criminal offense. Murdoch has flown to London to help News Corp. and is therefore available to help “Operation Weeting”—the somewhat puerile name given by Scotland Yard to its inquiry into the hacking scandal. Will his attendance at Wapping police station be required?

This question is of some importance given the prime minister’s refusal to allow a judicial investigation to begin until police inquiries are finished and any trials have run their course. This process will take at least three years and presupposes that police officers have the intellectual ability to get at the truth, through any miasma set up by their corrupt colleagues and by journalists and newspaper executives who are under suspicion. But police inquiries in Britain rarely get to the truth: suspects and potential witnesses have a right not to answer police questions, and no duty to tell the truth if they do.

The incompetence of Scotland Yard in political cases was on display to all yesterday, when its senior officers attended a parliamentary committee and apologized for their behavior back in 2006, when they failed to look at 11,000 pages of evidence because News Corp. told them they would find nothing. What they would have found were the names of 4,000 victims of the ruthless News of the World hacker, Glenn Mulcaire.

The police were guilty of abject failures in elemental detection work and a forelock-tugging acceptance of anything News Corp. told them, however obviously evasive or self-interested. But this is Britain, which has a police force that has not  advanced much since Shakespeare’s Constable Dogberry. There are no special prosecutors, as in the U.S: Conrad Black could never have been held to account in Britain, where other than in terrorist crime (with intelligence provided by the Intelligence Services), sophisticated white-collar criminals run rings around P.C. Plod. So nobody (other than the prime minister) believes that a police inquiry is capable of getting to the bottom of this scandal.

The case of Murdoch provides an acid test. As proprietor of the News of the World he could at least be expected to check any significant payments it was making, in order to ensure that his company was getting value for money. The evidence that he did so was the basis for ex–Labour Party leader Michael Foot accusing him of personal responsibility for an infamous defamation (“KGB: Foot Was Our Agent”)—namely, that he would personally have checked the payment made for the book serialization upon which the story was based. Several editors are on record confirming his routine practice of personally questioning their expenditures. That, after all, is what a good proprietor does or else delegates to a senior executive. Someone in authority must have asked what benefit was obtained from a six-figure payment to Glenn Mulcaire.

When Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks emerged on Monday from a restaurant to face the paps, their ear-to-ear grins looked insincere and rehearsed, and struck the wrong note.

Mulcaire’s position is intriguing. The police have 11,000 pages of his notes relating to 4,000 possible hacking victims, but so far do not appear to have questioned him beyond his rifling of royal privacy back in 2006. Whether he is prepared to talk to police now is unclear—he cannot be required to answer their questions, and it has been reported that he is being financially supported by News Corp. Since he apparently knows where most of the bodies are buried, it is essential that he be required to answer questions—under oath, in public, and soon.

This can be achieved only by a judicial inquiry, under a recent statute that protects the position of suspects (by preventing any comment on criminal or civil liability) but endows the judge with full legal powers to obtain documents and to require Murdoch and Mulcaire to attend for public examination. If set up this week and armed with an effective team of counsel and investigators, it could begin public hearings in October and deliver a report by Easter. It would not necessarily damage News Corp., but would actually provide an element of fairness to its beleaguered journalists and executives, currently overwhelmed by spiraling allegations that they cannot effectively contest.

When Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks emerged on Monday from a restaurant to face the paps, their ear-to-ear grins looked insincere and rehearsed, and struck the wrong note. The hacking of phones of murder victims, the publishing of illegally obtained information about a disease afflicting Gordon and Sarah Brown’s baby, and the bribing of royal protection officers for information imperiling the queen’s security are not laughing matters, and there is said to be even worse yet to come.

Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks have been invited to testify to a parliamentary committee next Tuesday, but its M.P.s have no cross-examiner worthy of the name (unlike U.S. Senate committees) and no counsel or investigative resources. The trio do not have to accept the invitation from a committee of clod-hopping politicians that has already had the wool pulled over its eyes by News Corp. A judicial inquiry, however, has power to gather evidence, to summon the trio, and invigilate them properly and professionally. No other mechanism is available in the U.K. to establish the truth.