No one was talking about the News of the World in Washington on Monday morning — at least not beyond the water-cooler fascination that has followed each new revelation in the phone-hacking scandal. Then the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington floated the idea of a congressional investigation into Rupert Murdoch’s News International, founded on the revelation in the Daily Mirror that 9/11 victims may have been targeted as well.
By Wednesday, four US senators had lined up behind the idea, shooting off frothing demands for inquiries to the US Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission. By Thursday, the liberal group ThinkProgress was circulating an Internet petition with the overly excited plea to potential signatories that, “with your help, we can obtain a full criminal investigation of the entire News Corp empire, including domestic subsidiaries such as Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post.”
Now 9/11 families, already bracing for the 10th anniversary commemorations this fall, want an inquiry. Members of the Bancroft family that originally sold the Wall Street Journal to Murdoch are publicly voicing regret. The FBI has opened a “preliminary review.” And Washington is in the full throws of what AdWeek has called “investigation fever” (which is all the more remarkable given that US politicians are supposed to be very busy this week averting the next great shock to the global economy).
Some of the outcry is clearly political in motivation. Liberal advocacy groups that have long detested the conservative bent of Murdoch holdings Fox News and the Wall Street Journal have spied an excellent opportunity to kneecap the opposition press. All four of those senators — California’s Barbara Boxer, West Virginia’s John Rockefeller and New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez — are also Democrats.
But later in the week, a surprising Republican joined the chorus — New York Congressman Peter King, who is best known outside his district for spearheading congressional investigations into the “radicalisation” of the American Muslim community. The 9/11 revelations have touched a particular nerve with politicians from the New York area, now giving the calls for investigation a bipartisan tone.
King wrote to FBI director Robert Mueller of the media reports that New of the World journalists tried to bribe a New York police officer for 9/11 phone records, suggesting they warrant felony charges:
“It is revolting to imagine that members of the media would seek to compromise the integrity of a public official for financial gain in the pursuit of yellow journalism. The 9/11 families have suffered egregiously, but unfortunately they remain vulnerable against such unjustifiable parasitic strains. We can spare no effort or expense in continuing our support for them.”
Eliot Spitzer, the former Democratic governor of New York, also demanded in Slate that the government “go after” New Corp. and potentially revoke its U.S. TV licenses for any violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Spitzer, who is also a lawyer, probably explains the law best:
“It prohibits any American company or citizen from paying or offering to pay — directly or indirectly — a foreign official, foreign political figure, or candidate for the purpose of influencing that person in any decision relating to his official duties, including inducing that person to act in violation of his or her lawful duty. Very importantly, even if all such acts occur overseas, the American company and citizen will still be held liable here. So acts in Britain by British citizens working on behalf of News Corp. create liability for News Corp., an American business incorporated in Delaware and listed on American financial exchanges.”
We must keep an eye on the First Amendment, Spitzer suggests, any time the topic of investigating the media arises. But an investigation of the media is not exactly what we’re talking about here, he insists. Rather, he says, this would be “an investigation of criminal acts undertaken by those masquerading as members of the media.”
His harshest indictment, though, wasn’t of News Corp itself.
“The other reason to investigate here is that there is serious doubt that this matter can be investigated properly in Great Britain. Scotland Yard is already implicated, as is Cameron’s government. DoJ can and should fill the void.”