Rupert Murdoch

News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch has denied knowing before 2011 that his UK journalists were paying police officers for information, despite telling journalists at The Sun the practice had existed on Fleet Street for “a hundred years”.

Two letters written by Murdoch — but no doubt heavily legalled — were released overnight, and represent his first detailed response to a leaked recording of a meeting with Sun journalists. Murdoch is facing a fresh UK police investigation over the tapes and they may have implications in the United States, where the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it illegal for a company to bribe officials.

He has also retracted claims that the British police investigation into wrongdoing at his newspapers had been “totally incompetent” and was over “next to nothing”.

In his leaked meeting at The Sun, first published on the ExaroNews website, Murdoch said:

“We’re talking about payments for news tips from cops. That’s been going on a hundred years, absolutely. You didn’t instigate it … Now there was a law passed against this in 1906. That’s when it was first recognised as a problem … I think it’s just outrageous, but — and I don’t know of anybody, or anything, that did anything that wasn’t being done across Fleet Street and wasn’t the culture.”

Murdoch also described his direct experience of seeing a wall safe in the office of the News of the World CEO containing emergency funds for payments to powerful friends.

Murdoch says reports interpreting these comments to mean he was aware of payments to police officers — illegal under UK law — are “completely false”. He writes in the letter to John Whittingdale, chair of the Commons media and culture house committee:

“When I first heard there was evidence of inappropriate payments in Spring 2011, I agreed with the decision to seek counsel and then report this information to MPs, which led to Operation Elveden.”

In a separate letter to Keith Vaz, chair of the home affairs committee, Murdoch says he used the “wrong adjectives” to describe the police investigation into his papers. In the leaked tape, Murdoch said:

“I mean, it’s a disgrace. Here we are, two years later, and the cops are totally incompetent. The idea that the cops then started coming after you, kick you out of bed, and your families, at six in the morning, is unbelievable. But why are the police behaving in this way? It’s the biggest inquiry ever, over next to nothing.”

The media mogul has now retracted those claims, saying:

“I am in no position to judge the competence of the investigation and should never have done so … While I regret my choice of words in that highly emotional meeting, I care deeply about my employees, and I was and am troubled by the effect of these events on them.”

Vaz, a member of the UK Labour Party, told the ABC overnight he was “grateful” for the letter and said it provides “all the information that we were seeking”. But Murdoch is still expected to be recalled for another appearance at the culture, media and sport committee.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey