Sunday, 13 November 2011

Think carefully

So, James Murdoch's latest brush with the select committee is over. What do we know? Well, he has stuck to his line that he was not shown, and did not ask to see, the "for Neville" email, Tom Crone's briefing note or the legal opinion that said there was a powerful case that there was a culture of illegal accessing of information.

It has gone curiously unremarked, except by Tom Crone, that James Murdoch's version of events has changed since July when he said he wasn't told about the email or the transcripts. Now he says he was, but wasn't told what they meant and didn't seek to find out more. He simply signed off a massive settlement for an unpublished story. And he never went back and reviewed any details of the case when the Guardian went large on it in July 2009.

More circumstantial evidence was provided by Tom Watson, who revealed that he has spoken to Neville Thurlbeck of "for Neville" fame. According to Watson, Thurlbeck was told by Crone before the key meeting with Colin Myler and James Murdoch, that he was going to have to show Murdoch the email. Thurlbeck asked Crone afterwards if he had shown Murdoch the email and he said yes. It's more evidence against Murdoch's version of events, but still not the killer punch.

Presumably emboldened by the fact that James Murdoch didn't just turn up and say "fair cop, it was me what done it", on Friday the senior independent director at BSkyB sent a letter out to shareholders setting out why the board had unanimously backed him as chair. It includes a defence of Murdoch's personal integrity. I sincerely hope the BSkyB board members know a lot more than they are letting on, because there are now some very serious rumours doing the rounds.

Since BSkyB's letter there have been two further important developments since then. First the Mail has run a story claiming that the police are likely to question Murdoch in relation to new email evidence. Notably the story has been covered, briefly, on the website of The Australian (a Murdoch title) with no denial from News Corp. In addition on Saturday night ex Murdoch editor Andrew "Brillo Pad" Neil tweeted that a source close to The Digger himself had told him that the emails referred to by the Mail could be "devastating" for James Murdoch. There was even an arrest rumour over the weekend when a Sky Business News Twitter account announced that James had been arrested. The tweet was quickly deleted and Sky said they had been hacked (no laughing at the back). Will reality imitate hoax in the coming days?

Secondly, The Guardian's Roy Gleenslade revealed in an interview on Saturday that an ex-Screws employee had told him all the current members of the DCMS committee had been tailed by private investigators and/or News of the World staff... earlier this year. (This is on top of News International titles previous hatchet jobs on the committee in 2009). We know the company's objective was in tailing the lawyers representing hacking victims - to try and discredit them professionally. Wonder what their objective was in tailing the DCMS committee members eh? (This is also on top of already tailing Tom Watson in 2009. He also revealed last week that he had been told by police that his computer may have been hacked.)

I have previously thought that the "fit and proper" test as applied to BSkyB was a low risk. I am starting to think again. If you look at what went on in News International, in particular the targeting of politicians who threatened News Corp's commercial interests, you have to think that Ofcom might focus on getting them to sell their stake down. Otherwise what does a company have to do to fail the test? Hacking phones, hacking computers, paying off cops, tailing commercial enemies - we know all this stuff happened. If that doesn't fail 'fit and proper' then presumably you really do need to be the mafia to fail the test....

Again it's worth repeating that the rumours out there should lead investors to conclude that there could be worse to come. Apparently a lot of people in media-land expect computer hacking to be big. You might also fancy a wager on The Sun closing, as the recent arrest of a veteran reporter over alleged payments to the police has apparently sent shockwaves through the paper. James Murdoch didn't take the opportunity offered last week to rush to the tabloid's defence. Closure is an outside chance, I'd say, but a chance now nonetheless.

Finally, again I think it is worth just asking the question about the possible overlap with BSkyB. Given that we know that News International employed subterfuge to try and undermine commercial threats, including members of parliament, is there any possibility that they may have done the same thing to defend their broadcast interests? I think this deserves some exploration. I imagine some people will recoil at even the suggestion, but this is an organisation that has routinely undershot low expectations.

To finish, I think if you are an institutional shareholder and you support James Murdoch's re-election as BSkyB chair you are now taking a risk. There really is no defence of ignorance if things take a turn for the worse, there have been plenty of warning signs. Think carefully before casting those votes.

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