Will Rupert Murdoch's editorialists at the Wall Street Journal revisit the phone-hacking scandal?

Media criticism.
Aug. 18 2011 5:04 PM

An Assignment for the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page

About that phone-hacking scandal …

Les Hinton. Click image to expand.
Les Hinton

Unless you're an ombudsman, it's dang difficult to write about the publication or the company that employs you. First, you've got to worry about getting fired if you write too critically about your boss—or about the suits upstairs who issue your paycheck. Then you've got to worry that your bosses are making you part of a coverup scheme by lying to you about whatever internal controversy you've been assigned to cover. Next come your critics. Some will say you're going too soft on your bosses and are a shame to the profession. Others will dismiss your hard-hitting work with a shrug, saying that the only reason you're putting any sort of an edge on your pieces is to maintain your credibility at a shamed institution.

So with all the understanding a mother has for her favorite child, I turn to the Wall Street Journal editorial page with this modest request: Isn't it time to revisit your phone-hacking editorial of July 18, 2011, "News and Its Critics: A tabloid's excesses don't tarnish thousands of other journalists"?

Published at the peak of international coverage of the phone-hacking scandal, the editorial asserts that "News Corp. and its executives have apologized profusely and are cooperating with authorities" for the crimes and misdemeanors of News Corp.'s U.K. tabloid News of the World. The editorial then picks up an ammo belt, loads, and starts firing at the New York Times and the Guardian for their coverage of the scandal.

We … trust that readers can see through the commercial and ideological motives of our competitor-critics. The Schadenfreude is so thick you can't cut it with a chainsaw. Especially redolent are lectures about journalistic standards from publications that give Julian Assange and WikiLeaks their moral imprimatur. They want their readers to believe, based on no evidence, that the tabloid excesses of one publication somehow tarnish thousands of other News Corp. journalists across the world.

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Before the editorial discounts its critics in the press, it mounts an ethical defense of Les Hinton, who headed News Corp.'s U.K. newspaper division when the most notorious phone-hacking went on at News of the World and who had just resigned his position as publisher of the Wall Street Journal and CEO of its parent company, Dow Jones. The editorial states:

In his resignation letter, Mr. Hinton said he knew nothing about wide-scale hacking and had testified truthfully to Parliament in 2007 and 2009. We have no reason to doubt him, especially based on our own experience working for him.

Specifically, Hinton writes in his resignation letter:

My testimonies before the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee were given honestly. When I appeared before the Committee in March 2007, I expressed the belief that Clive Goodman had acted alone, but made clear our investigation was continuing.

In September 2009, I told the Committee there had never been any evidence delivered to me that suggested the conduct had spread beyond one journalist. If others had evidence that wrongdoing went further, I was not told about it.

But revelations published by the Guardianon Tuesday give the Wall Street Journal editorial page plenty of reason to doubt Hinton. The U.K. paper reproduces a March 2, 2007, letter from confessed phone-hacker Clive Goodman to Murdoch's HR department protesting his dismissal from News of the World by Les Hinton. Goodman, who had just been released from prison, asserts that the practice of phone-hacking "was widely discussed in the daily editorial conference, until reference to it was banned by the Editor [of News of the World Andy Coulson]."

The Guardian also reports that Hinton was forwarded a copy of the March 2, 2007, letter "but failed to pass it to police and who then led a cast of senior Murdoch personnel in telling parliament that they believed [then News of the World Editor] Coulson knew nothing about the interception of the voicemail of public figures and that Goodman was the only journalist involved."

I find it inconceivable that Hinton, who fired Goodman and who headed a division that paid Goodman £230,000 in compensation in 2007 and £13,000 in legal expenses after it fired him (according to evidence unearthed by Parliament), would not know the contents of the letter.

But I could be wrong—Hinton could be completely blameless in the phone-hacking scandal. I know it's a thankless job for a newspaper to investigate itself, its former boss, or one of its corporate cousins. But it was the Journal editorial page that threw down the Hinton gauntlet. Now that there's new evidence to doubt Hinton, will the editorial page examine it and reconsider its July 18 editorial?

*****

In other phone-hacking news, Glenn Mulcaire, the News of the World private investigator who went to jail for hacking phones, is suing the paper, which has paid about £246,000 of his legal bills. It stopped paying on July 20 after the Commons hearing. He wants the court to force the company to start paying again. Also, Reuters reports that unnamed News Corp. executives are preparing for the departure of James Murdoch, son of the genocidal tyrant, from the company. Reconsider this column in email to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Please don't hack my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray,"Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.