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Murdoch TV Deal in ‘Grave Jeopardy’ as U.K. Scandal Inquiry Deepens

July 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The British House of Commons is expected to issue a rare unified message to media baron Rupert Murdoch, encouraging him to abandon his bid for British Sky Broadcasting over allegations of journalists hacking phones and bribing police. Ray Suarez discusses the scandal's latest developments with NPR's David Folkenflik in London.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray Suarez has more about the fallout from this story.

RAY SUAREZ: As the tentacles of the scandal grow, one of the key questions is what happens to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, including the potential deal for BSkyB.

David Folkenflik is covering all of this for NPR. And he joins us now from London.

David, welcome.

Rupert Murdoch, as we saw, is in Britain. Who wants to talk to him and what about?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NPR: Well, there’s a parliamentary committee that has requested his presence, the presence of his son James Murdoch, who is the top News Corp. executive here in the United Kingdom, and with Rebekah Brooks.

She’s the chief executive over the News Corp. newspapers here in the U.K. And she also was editor in chief at the News of the World at the time of some of the most egregious alleged incidents.

RAY SUAREZ: That request to talk, does that have the power of a subpoena?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, there’s some question about that.

News International, the newspaper division, has put out a statement saying that both Mr. Murdoch, James Murdoch and Ms. Brooks will cooperate. But they didn’t say necessarily that they would testify. So there’s some question as to what form that cooperation will actually take.

RAY SUAREZ: What does News International have to say about the latest allegations concerning former Prime Minister Gordon Brown?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, he made these very anguished charges that News Corp. had essentially targeted him, had sought to damage him.

And, interestingly, the allegations involved two newspapers that were not the tabloid News of the World that, as we now know, has been shuttered because of its central role in this growing scandal. He said that the Times of London, reporters for the Times — excuse me — The Sunday Times, had misrepresented themselves in order to obtain private and personal financial documents and other records.

He said he was the subject of other forms of blagging, they call it here, and voice mail hacking efforts. And in addition, he said the tabloid Sun newspaper, a part of Murdoch’s stable, had somehow gained access to private medical records for his infant son.

Several years ago, there was this story in The Sun about the diagnosis that the Browns had received that he had the — cystic fibrosis. And it was heartbreaking for the Browns to deal with. But in that moment, just as they were dealing with that diagnosis, The Sun had the information, too. And Rebekah Brooks, then editor of The Sun — and it’s interesting how often she pops up — she called Gordon Brown to inform him of this.

He said they were devastated. And he said, you know, these are private medical records. Accessing them, violating that privacy, can be a crime. He wondered how they could explain it. News International today issued some statements. Statements from The Sunday Times said that the misrepresentation they did was in the public interest to try to figure out if Mr. Brown had obtained the acquisition of an apartment at below-market rates.

And that’s a defense that has some purchase here. The second question was about The Sun. And The Sun issued a statement saying that they didn’t illegally obtain medical records, nor did they commission anything else to do so, that the information of the diagnosis had been brought to them by the relative of someone else who had the disease who was sympathetic to the Browns.

And they said they’re proud of the coverage of the Browns; they didn’t violate medical privacy laws, but in fact had raised awareness about the disease.

RAY SUAREZ: Every day, there seems to be a new revelation concerning a media culture that, if these allegations are true, is not just sleazy and out of control, but may be involving criminal misconduct. What are the latest revelations regarding the police?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, that’s right.

As you suggest, this is really the grand unification theory of scandals here in England. You have got the political establishment back on its heels. You have got the media empire of the most important media player in the country by far, Rupert Murdoch, enmeshed in controversy. And now you have got the question of the police.

And the police are under siege for their actions in two different way, both high and low. There is clearly strong allegations, to some degree acknowledged, at least in small part, by senior police officials now, that there was a significant amount of corruption, that reporters and journalists for the News of the World and possibly other newspapers, were paying for information for both tip offs about arrests, but also perhaps for digging into databases that are supposed to be off-limits.

The second question is the behavior of the police itself in investigating the actions of News of the World. Several years ago, there was a round of scandal when it turned out that some phones of the royals and their closest associates were hacked into for their voice mails. Two people went to jail, one of them a royals editor for the News of the World, the other a private investigator.

And the police then stopped and said this is all the evidence we had. Evidence was raised anew when the Guardian newspaper did some past breaking reporting in 2009, saying, no, no, no, this was incredibly widespread.

The police did another review. An assistant deputy commissioner had to testify about it today. That review found there was no evidence to — on which to base further inquiry. He only reviewed it for a period of several hours on a single day. And it now appears that his conclusion was far off the mark.

RAY SUAREZ: News Corp. wants to acquire the rest of BSkyB, the portion it doesn’t already own. Is that deal in trouble? And has Murdoch indicated he might be willing to jettison his newspapers to save it?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think it’s in grave jeopardy.

You’re seeing a vote in Parliament tomorrow that the Labor Party, the opposition party, has thrown up here to say, we call on Mr. Murdoch and News Corp. to withdraw its bid for BSkyB.

Quite surprisingly, the ruling coalition — that is, the Conservative Party of Mr. Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats — are joining the Labor Party to essentially form a united front to call upon Mr. Murdoch to withdraw the bid.

That said, News Corp. has indicated that they are willing for this to be referred to an antitrust independent regulatory agency. And what that will do is look hard at the question of whether or not it concentrates too much power in one media entity. But it will also kick the can down the road for several months. And it’s clearly the hope of News Corp. executives, who are very eager for this deal to go through to solidify their control of the nation’s largest broadcaster, that it will occur at a time when political passions have cooled and the fires of scandal don’t burn quite so brightly.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s David Folkenflik joined us from London.

David, thanks a lot.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You bet.