Stop the Murdoch Witch Hunt

As the Justice Department prepares subpoenas for News Corp., press baron and Rupert frenemy Conrad Black warns that an unfounded U.S. prosecution of Murdoch threatens our country’s rule of law.

07.22.11 11:39 PM ET

Whatever happens, the News Corp. telephone and email-hacking imbroglio will not obscure Rupert Murdoch’s astounding achievements in conquering the British tabloid market, smashing the antediluvian British printing unions, cracking the U.S. television network triopoly, and being a pioneer in media integration and satellite telecasting all over the world.

But this controversy now threatens to boil over into America and unleash forces infinitely more sinister than anything at News Corp. The ease and zeal with which American prosecutors keep pushing on the open door of their unaccountable prerogatives has rarely been as visible or alarming as in Eliot Spitzer’s demand for prosecution of Rupert Murdoch under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, without ascertaining the likelihood of a triable prosecution case. This unregenerate public masturbator and almost certain (unprosecuted) violator of the Mann Act, is urging an unfounded prosecution of Murdoch for acts there is no evidence he knew anything about, committed in a foreign country that needs no help from the United States, and certainly not its out-of-control prosecution service, and least of all former Governor Spitzer, in maintaining and operating the world-respected British justice system. And Spitzer is being seconded, as of July 18, by The New York Times, all but explicitly accusing News Corp. management of covering up crimes and obstructing justice, on the basis of their own (doubtless immaculately impartial) reporting, and without regard to the jurisdictional sovereignty of the United Kingdom.

The statute, designed to combat bribing foreigners, like the Honest Services statute, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the Civil Assets Forfeiture Reform Act, and the laws against obstruction of justice, are among the catch-all statutes used by American prosecutors to ensnare whomever they choose to target. If the United States indicts everyone around Murdoch, the usual practice, many will roll over and point at him in exchange for immunities. This is the core of U.S. criminal justice: The plea bargain exchange of inculpatory perjury for immunities or reduced sentences. In my case, almost all the government witnesses appeared with rods on their backs, and gave their catechetical, carefully rehearsed answers to the prosecutors before being torn limb from limb by defense counse, and 95 percent of their testimony was revealed to be a pack of lies, as jurors acknowledged in post-trial interviews.

The most nauseating aspect of the News Corp. imbroglio, until recently, has been the spectacle of self-righteous hypocrites in the British establishment who groveled to Murdoch for decades now piously demanding that he pull up his ethical corporate socks. The intrusion into the investigation of a kidnap-and-murder case, and the apparent bribery of some lower-level police officials, torque up the high moral tone a bit, but it has been no secret how News Corp. has operated for decades. It is a nasty, vulgar, cynical, dirty laundry operation that for decades has reduced standards of public taste and decency on at least four continents. The only quality product it has ever touched that did not wither in its hands is The Wall Street Journal.

But this is not illegal, and I didn’t think there was any good reason to stop News Corp. from buying the shares it did not own in the satellite telecaster BSkyB, as it already controls that television service, and the bid, if it proceeded, would have conferred billions of dollars of capital gains on minority shareholders. Before the British prime minister and leader of the opposition embarked on an old-fashioned debate over who had a more rigorous upbringing, over who wishes a more profound dismemberment of News Corp. because of its evident moral turpitude, they should have contemplated the evils of political prostitution in their own political parties. In his recent memoir, Tony Blair, proudly confessed that he had prostrated himself before Murdoch to try to win his support away from the British Conservatives. Stanley Baldwin, three term inter-war prime minister, was a shilly-shallying appeaser, but at least in his day, it was famously “the harlot press” and not the harlot prime minister.

Some good may come of this. It’s too late to expect moral rearmament from News Corp., but there is a chance that British politics will be a little less contaminated with toadying to the highest pitch sleaze-merchants than it has been. The British will work this out, and its system of public inquiries and police investigation and impartial justice can be relied upon to prosecute those against whom there is a real case without destroying the interests of the News Corp. shareholders or crucifying innocent members of the Murdoch family, a category that probably includes, and certainly should be presumed to include, all of them. Rupert Murdoch wrote the playbook for uninhibited journalistic swashbuckling and must have known that some wild and woolly things happened in his service. But there is no known reason to believe that he knew specifically about compromising a police criminal investigation or bribing police officers, and I doubt if he would have approved such actions.

News Corp. outlets in the United States and Britain and elsewhere are never hesitant to recommend that people in controversies be sent to prison before any charges have been laid, much less proved. They jubilantly did so with me, screaming for my imprisonment from the first hint of a legal problem in our company, and when I was released on bail after 29 months in a federal prison, with all 17 counts abandoned, rejected by jurors, or vacated by a unanimous Supreme Court, with the relevant statute having been rewritten by the high court, only The Wall Street Journal, of all the News Corp. outlets, took any real notice of it. (I will resurrender to prison in September for 7 1/2 months because one of the judges excoriated by the Supreme Court and then ordered to assess the gravity of his own errors spuriously resurrected two of the vacated counts, something most of News Corp., apart from the WSJ, was still celebrating when the heavens fell on it.) This is only to say that I don’t feel an irresistible inner compulsion to ride to Murdoch’s assistance.

If Spitzerism prevails in the Justice Department, it will be the epic struggle of the American prosecutors to demonstrate that they can bring down anyone, regardless of the facts—unless seriously incriminating facts about Murdoch’s conduct are unearthed by the British—and regardless of the resources of the accused. If they can convict the greatest media owner and builder in history with suborned or extorted perjury about events in another sovereign country, no one should doubt that it is the end of the rule of law in the United States. Already the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendment guaranties of due process, no seizure of property without adequate compensation, the grand jury as assurance against capricious prosecution, access to counsel, an impartial jury, prompt justice, and reasonable bail have gone over the side with the bilge.

More dangerous for Murdoch is the complaint just raised by New Jersey’s Senator Frank Lautenberg about News Corp.’s alleged cyberhacking against Floorgraphics, a New Jersey firm to which News Corp. then paid $29.5 million to end a lawsuit, and subsequently bought the company for an unspecified sum. News Corp. has paid more than $500 million in two years to settle uncompetitive claims. And there have been further allegations of News Corp. hacking into the telephones of families of 9/11 victims. If any such activity has been conducted in the United States, this is not a matter of contorting a catch-all statute and shouldering aside a juridically respected sovereign country, but of the possibility of significant and consistent breaches by News Corp. of American criminal statutes in the United States, with an apparent gross lack of compliance to disclosure practices.

If News Corp. is vulnerable to conviction of routinely breaching American laws in America on matters touching intellectual property, privacy, invasion of private communications, corporate espionage, and the obstruction of legitimate official curiosity about corporate misconduct, the company could shortly be facing serious charges in both countries, without recourse to Orwellian Spitzerism.

Should the Justice Department throw this grenade, piggy-backing on British developments, it will be the most important case in this country since school desegregation. The Strauss-Kahn fiasco is just a warm-up act. Two other things: No one, no matter how strong, can go through either the foreign or domestic version of this at Murdoch’s age (80); the prosecution would be an attempt on his life. And those who dissent from the liberal biases of the mainstream national media should not doubt the consequences if Fox News and The Wall Street Journal change hands. That objective may be assumed, especially in the absence of any evidence or jurisdiction, to be the real motive for even considering such a prosecution in this country, starting with Spitzer and The New York Times; and is unlikely to be far from the thoughts of Democratic Senators Lautenberg, Boxer, and Rockefeller in their importunity of the FBI.