Now that the British parliament has opened its inquiry into allegations of phone hacking and official bribery at the News of the World — and subjected one of the world’s most powerful media magnates, Rupert Murdoch, to the harsh light of public scrutiny — calls for a similar investigation by lawmakers here in the United States have grown. But News Corporation’s political influence runs deep, including among the members of Congress who would theoretically be charged with investigating the company, and it’s unclear how willing lawmakers are to probe one of their most prominent benefactors.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have urged the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission to examine whether the phone hacking at the News of the World, which is owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation, violated U.S. laws. Rep. Peter King, Republican of New York, has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that News of the World reporters sought access to the phone records of 9/11 victims. And several members of the Senate, including Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, have pressed regulators to examine whether alleged bribes paid to London police violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which forbids U.S.-based companies, like News Corporation, from making payments to foreign officials.
The SEC has said it will consider the request, and the FBI has already opened a preliminary investigation into the 9/11 accusations. But several media watchdogs and public interest groups have called on Congress to open its own investigation into whether News Corporation violated Americans’ privacy and broke U.S. laws. A coalition that includes the groups Free Press and Public Campaign has already collected more than 100,000 signatures demanding such an inquiry.
Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government wrote a letter last week to the leaders of the House and Senate committees on commerce urging them to “immediately investigate whether and to what extent News of the World journalists hacked or attempted to hack the voicemails of American terrorist victims, politicians, and celebrities, as well as whether journalists working for any other News Corporation media outlet in the United States engaged in such tactics.”
Sloan added: “There is no need to cede all investigative authority to the executive branch. Just as the British Parliament has held hearings and heard the testimony of witnesses, Congress has the ability to subpoena News Corp. employees and require them to explain themselves.”
As Ellen Podgor, a professor of white collar crime at the Stetson University College of Law, has noted on her blog, an investigation by the FBI or SEC into News Corporation for crimes committed abroad “would be like entering a minefield.” So an inquiry by Congress, which is not constrained by the strictures of an obscure federal statute, might be more productive. Indeed, the U.S. might benefit just as much as Britain from a wide-ranging examination of the practices of our establishment media, and of the consolidation of media ownership in increasingly fewer and more powerful hands.
But, just as in Britain, News Corporation’s political influence in America reaches well beyond its already-considerable sway over public opinion. News Corporation, the world’s second-largest media conglomerate, has been a generous patron of politicians in both parties. A review of Federal Election Commission filings shows that the company’s political action committee has disbursed a combined $340,000 to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — the two committees requested by CREW to investigate News Corporation.
That sum breaks down roughly evenly among the two parties. And it excludes donations from News Corporation’s many affiliates and executives, which totaled more than $580,000 in 2010 alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The chairman of the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton, even owns between $1,000 and $15,000 of stock in News Corporation, according to his 2011 financial disclosure filing. And News Corporation gave $1 million last year to both the Republican Governors Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
None of that is to say, of course, that lawmakers can’t competently scrutinize News Corporation’s practices. King, for example, has pressed the FBI to investigate the 9/11 phone hacking allegations even while acknowledging his friendship with Murdoch. But the largesse of News Corporation is just one more indication, if it was needed, of Murdoch’s outsize political influence here in the U.S. — even among the lawmakers who may one day be charged with investigating the American arm of his empire.