Is Rupert Murdoch doing a Bosasa on M&G?

Announcing last week that Sun on Sunday will launch tomorrow, Rupert Murdoch said in email to News International staff – published on the Guardian on 17 February – that the company which is before the Leverson Inquiry over its phone hacking saga “will obey the law”.

Murdoch said “illegal activities simply cannot and will not be tolerated – at any of our publications” because “our board of directors, our management team and I take these issues very seriously.” He said the company had been “instructed to co-operate with the police”. And yes, there is actually nothing wrong with this directive.

Murdoch said he “will turn will turn over every piece of evidence we find – not just because we are obligated to but because it is the right thing to do”. Why is he doing the most stupid thing any media owner can ever do: handing over information that might reveal its “sources” especially without any court order to do so?

Of course I am not against his handing over this information, but I think in doing so all editors and journalists and editorial teams should first be consulted so as to delete “privilege” information. And by privilege one is referring to all “sources”.

As I argued previously that Mail & Guardian newspaper should not to succumb to Bosasa’s court challenge to reveal its “sources” over its corruption-related activities dating as far back as 2009 – I also think this is a dangerous step Murdoch is willing to take. At least in the case of Bosasa vs. M&G it would be the court that will determine whether or not the newspaper should reveal its “sources” unlike in the “hackgate” saga whereby it is Murdoch who voluntarily and without a court order hands over the information to a public inquiry that will very much likely also reveal the identity of his newspapers’ sources over the years since the start of the phone hacking scandal.

Murdoch said they were “doing everything we can to assist those who were arrested – all suspensions are hereby lifted until or whether charged and they are welcome to return to work”. This after some of his newspapers’ journos were arrested, allegedly for their involvement in the phone hacking scandal. The Sun associate editor, Trevor Kavanagh, whose journos were also arrested, called the arrest last week Sunday a “witch-hunt”, while Murdoch said he “will cover their legal expenses” and that “Everyone is innocent unless proven otherwise”.

It would seem the reason for handing over this “information” is because of a “commitment” Murdoch made last year. He said he had committed himself to doing “everything I could to get to the bottom of our problems and make this company an example to Fleet Street of ethical journalism”.

Does this mean even if this information puts at risk the lives of his newspapers’ “sources”?

At the same time Murdoch claimed he would “continue to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken to protect legitimate journalistic privilege and sources, which I know are essential for all of you to do your jobs”.

But, I ask, how will this actually happen because by handing in that “information” Murdoch is actually not taking appropriate steps to “protect legitimate journalistic privilege and sources which are essential for [journos] to do [their] jobs”?

He said people who paid public officials would not be protected and “confident we can live by these commitments and still produce great journalism”, he was quote as saying in the letter to the staff.

However, George Robertson, a leading human rights lawyers, said Murdoch is not legally “obligated” to hand over that information as he had claimed. He told the Guardian on 18 February that Murdoch’s email to staff was “full of errors, both of law and history”, adding that he had been “ill-advisedly and unethically throwing away the shield that parliament gave to journalists in 1984 so they could protect their sources”.

Robertson said Murdoch thought “it is right to hand over confidential source material – including the names of whistleblowers – to police without them even asking”. “This is a breach of the most fundamental ethic that journalists must not betray their source and there is no law that requires it”.

He said the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act defined confidential journalistic material as “excluded material”, which police cannot seize at all, other than in a few cases such as official secrets, when they have to get an order from a circuit judge, according to the Guardian.

News International insiders had expressed concern to the Guardian that Murdoch’s letter to disclose sources was in breach of the code of practice for journalists.

Robertson said “What is so unattractive about Mr Murdoch’s behaviour is that he is handing over journalists without ever asking them, or their editors, or their executives who must have signed off on the payments, what they were doing and whether they were genuinely pursuing a public interest story. Any significant payment must have been approved by executives, and News Corp does not appear to have turned them over.”

He said the letter was a “real danger” and “a blow to investigative journalism, which depends on the cultivation of sources”. And as argued in the M&G vs. Bosasa case – Robertson also agrees with me that “whistleblowers will be much less likely to come forward, however much they trust the journalist, if they fear that his proprietor may turn them over to police”.

But it remains to be seen – for now – how this “information” serves as a committment to the News Corp titles to “produce great journalism” especially when the lives of their “sources” as ingredients to that journalism and journalistic ethics are put at risk…

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