This article has been updated – see below.

A controversial media outlet headed by a high-profile Australian is alleged to have obtained highly sensitive government information – information that may cost lives – via computer. The outlet is believed to have obtained a range of personal and governmental data with the potential to embarrass some of the most powerful people in the world. It is alleged to have engaged in systematic criminal activity in pursuit of information.

What do Visa and Mastercard, the massive financial intermediaries upon whom the outlet depends, do in response?

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If it’s WikiLeaks, they slap a financial embargo on it that strangles the outlet’s lifeblood of donations.

Mastercard this week confirmed it would be maintaining its blockade of WikiLeaks. “The WikiLeaks decision was complex and one that we did not take without due consideration – and our position has not changed,” David Masters, the company’s vice-president of Strategy and Corporate Affairs told Crikey.

If it’s Rupert Murdoch’s News International, they do nothing. Not even when News International admits its employees were guilty of computer hacking, or its executives admit misleading the UK courts about it.

One of the themes of the concerted campaign of the demonization of WikiLeaks conducted by elements of the media was the claim that it obtained information by hacking, rather than whistleblowing. There were repeated efforts – which to the conspiracy-minded looked not unassociated with the US government – to link WikiLeaks to hacking. What better way to demonstrate that WikiLeaks wasn’t a legitimate media outlet than to show that it had been stealing information?

As it turned out, nothing ever came of the smear campaign.

But while WikiLeaks was obtaining information from whistleblowers, people engaged by News International, supposedly the sort of legitimate outlet to which WikiLeaks could be unfavourably compared, were hacking or alleged to have been hacking national security information.

This week, legal restrictions relating to the conviction on other charges of Philip Campbell Smith were lifted. Smith is alleged to have been engaged by News of the World to hack into the computer of a former British army intelligence officer, and reported to David Coulson, then-editor and later David Cameron’s media adviser. Smith used a Trojan virus to secure access to the target’s emails and obtain information about two IRA informers whose lives were in danger. MI5 became aware of the operation and intervened, but didn’t tell the target, Ian Hurst, at the time.

British police are currently investigating the possibility that Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell, another Labour minister and Labour MP Tom Watson were also the target of computer hacking.

If News International is found to have used computer hacking against the then-Chancellor, Tony Blair’s press adviser or other senior government figures, it would amount to espionage of the most serious kind.

But hacking wasn’t confined to the now shuttered-News Of the World. A journalist of that august journal of record The Times hacked into an anonymous police blogger’s computer in 2009 in an effort to out him (sound familiar?). The Times subsequently misled the UK High Court about the hacking, claiming the information had been obtained legally, to prevent an injunction by the blogger. This was despite it being common knowledge within the paper’s senior ranks — including its legal manager – that it had been obtained by hacking.

In February Times editor James Harding was forced to apologise to the judge and the blogger.

Every charge that has been thrown at WikiLeaks and never been proven — that it illegally hacked computers, that it was irresponsible, that it lied, that it placed lives in danger, that, in short, it was a rogue organization engaged in criminal and unethical activity – has been demonstrated about News International, and often admitted by the company. Moreover they were not isolated incidences, but part of an entire culture, endorsed explicitly or implicitly at the highest levels of the company, of criminal behaviour.

It remains to be seen whether the company was involved in hacking the computers of senior members of a government, but that would represent a new extreme even by recent standards. Overnight, it was revealed that News International executives deliberately ordered the destruction of computer records that might provide evidence of phone hacking even after legal action had commenced which required them to preserve evidence.

News International is plainly a rogue company that saw itself beyond any laws or standards. There is a real question now of whether the entire company should be shut down.

But Visa and Mastercard continue to serve News International. You can use their credit cards to buy News International products, like Times subscriptions. Mastercard refused to address the issue of News International’s behaviour. Visa, despite repeated requests over several days, declined to respond at all to Crikey questions.

As Crikey showed in December 2010, Mastercard and Visa are not usually picky about who they allow funding to be channelled to: both, along with PayPal, are used to provide funding for illegal Israeli settlements — and even to groups that the Israeli Defence Force has condemned.

And if they won’t take action against News International for behaviour far worse than any demonstrated by WikiLeaks, their double standard is greater than ever.

Update: Visa Europe has also confirmed to Crikey that it will continue its blockade of WikiLeaks. Like Mastercard, it failed to address the issue of News International’s behaviour. Visa Europe told Crikey:

“When a merchant wants to accept Visa payments, it must abide by our operating regulations and also the applicable laws in the country or countries where the cardholder and merchant are based. When concerns are raised that this may not be the case, Visa Europe can take action to investigate and if appropriate suspend payments. Visa Europe’s suspension of Visa payments to WikiLeaks’ website remains in place.”

Based on Visa Europe’s response however, it would appear that News International should be subject to the a financial blockade, given it has repeatedly been found to have breached UK laws. Crikey has sought a further response on whether it will be therefore be imposing a blockade on Rupert Murdoch’s British arm.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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