Politics & Policy

Spitzer’s Attack on Murdoch

It’s really an assault against justice.


As I have written elsewhere, the most nauseating aspect of the News Corporation telephone- and e-mail-hacking imbroglio, until recently, has been the spectacle of self-righteous hypocrites in the British establishment who groveled to Rupert Murdoch for decades now piously demanding that he pull up his ethical corporate socks. How did they imagine that some of the indiscretions on both sides in the latter days of the marriage of the Prince and late Princess of Wales came to light? The intrusion into the investigation of a kidnap-and-murder case and the apparent bribery of some lower-level police officials torque up the high moral tone a bit, but it has been no secret how News Corporation was operated for many years. It is a nasty, vulgar, cynical, dirty-laundry operation that has reduced standards of public taste and decency on at least four continents for decades. The only quality product it has ever touched that did not wither in its hands was the Wall Street Journal.


But this is not illegal, and I didn’t think there was any good reason to stop News Corporation from buying the shares it did not own in the satellite telecaster BSkyB, as it already controls that television service and the bid, if it proceeded, would have conferred billions of dollars of capital gains on minority shareholders. Before the British prime minister and the leader of the opposition embarked on an old-fashioned debate like the Monty Python comedy team over who had a more rigorous upbringing, over who wishes a more profound dismemberment of News Corporation because of its evident moral turpitude (which every adult with an IQ above single figures in the U.K. or New York has known for decades), they should have contemplated the evils of political prostitution in their own political parties. In his recent memoir, Tony Blair proudly confessed that he had prostrated himself before Murdoch to try to win his support away from the British Conservatives. Stanley Baldwin, the three-term inter-war prime minister, was a shilly-shallying appeaser, but at least in his day, it was famously “the harlot press” and not the harlot prime minister. (When the German air force bombed Baldwin’s family business in the Midlands in 1943, Winston Churchill privately said: “That was very ungrateful of them.”)


Some good may come of this: It’s too late to expect moral rearmament from News Corporation, but there is a chance that British politics will be a little less contaminated with toadying to the highest-pitch sleaze-merchants than it has been. The British will work this out and their system of public inquiries and police investigation and impartial justice can be relied upon to prosecute those against whom there is a real case without destroying the interests of the News Corporation shareholders or crucifying innocent members of the Murdoch family, a category that probably includes, and certainly should be presumed to include, all of them. Rupert Murdoch wrote the playbook for uninhibited journalistic swashbuckling and must have known that some wild and woolly things happened in his service. But there is no known reason to believe that he knew specifically about compromising a police criminal investigation or bribing police officers, and I doubt that he would have approved such actions.


News Corporation outlets in the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere are never hesitant to recommend that people in controversies be sent to prison before any charges have been laid, much less proved. They jubilantly did so with me, screaming for my imprisonment from the first hint of a legal problem in our company, and when I was released on bail after 29 months in a federal prison — with all 17 counts abandoned, rejected by jurors, or vacated by a unanimous Supreme Court, with the relevant statute having been rewritten by the high court — only the Wall Street Journal, of all the News Corporation outlets, took any real notice of it. (I will resurrender to prison in September for seven and a half months because one of the judges excoriated by the Supreme Court, and then ordered to assess the gravity of his own errors, spuriously resurrected two of the vacated counts, something most of News Corporation apart from the WSJ was still celebrating when the heavens fell on it.) This is only to say that I don’t feel an irresistible inner compulsion to ride to Murdoch’s assistance.


Whatever happens, Murdoch’s astounding achievements — in conquering the British tabloid market, smashing the antediluvian British printing unions, cracking the U.S. television-network triopoly, and being a pioneer in media integration and satellite telecasting all over the world — will not be obscured. But this controversy now threatens to boil over into America and unleash forces infinitely more sinister than anything at News Corporation. The ease and zeal with which American prosecutors keep pushing on the open door of their unaccountable prerogatives has rarely been as visible or alarming as in Eliot Spitzer’s demand for prosecution of Rupert Murdoch under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, without ascertaining the likelihood of a triable prosecution case.


Spitzer is urging an unfounded prosecution of Murdoch for acts there is no evidence he knew anything about, committed in a foreign country that needs no help from the U.S., certainly not its out-of-control prosecution service, and least of all former governor Spitzer, in maintaining and operating the world-respected British justice system. And Spitzer is being seconded, as of July 18, by the New York Times, all but explicitly accusing News Corporation management of covering up crimes and obstructing justice, on the basis of their own (doubtless immaculately impartial) reporting, and without regard to the jurisdictional sovereignty of the United Kingdom.


The statute, which is designed to combat the bribing of foreign officials, is — like the Honest Services statute rewritten by the Supreme Court in my case, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO; used against, e.g., the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles), the Civil Assets Forfeiture Reform Act (which was invoked to violate my Sixth Amendment rights to counsel), and the laws against obstruction of justice (of which I have been falsely reconvicted) — among the catch-all statutes used by American prosecutors to ensnare whomever they choose to target. If the United States indicts everyone around Murdoch, the usual practice, many will roll over and point at him in exchange for immunities. This is the core of U.S. criminal justice: the plea-bargain exchange of inculpatory perjury for immunities or reduced sentences. In our case, almost all the government witnesses appeared with rods on their backs, and gave their catechetical, carefully rehearsed answers to the prosecutors before being torn limb from limb by defense counsel and 95 percent of their testimony was revealed to be a pack of lies, as jurors acknowledged in post-trial interviews.


If Spitzerism prevails in the Justice Department, it will be the epic struggle of the American prosecutors to demonstrate that they can bring down anyone, regardless of the facts (unless seriously incriminating facts about Murdoch’s conduct are unearthed by the British), and regardless of the resources of the accused. If they can convict the greatest media owner and builder in history with suborned or extorted perjury about events in another sovereign country, no one should doubt that it is the end of the rule of law in the United States. Already the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendment guarantees of due process, no seizure of property without adequate compensation, the grand jury as assurance against capricious prosecution, access to counsel, an impartial jury, prompt justice, and reasonable bail, have gone over the side with the bilge.


I’ll leave the U.S. next year after my victory lap in prison, bruised but unbowed, but if the Justice Department throws this grenade, it will be the most important case in this country since school desegregation. The Strauss-Kahn fiasco is just a warm-up act. Two other things: No one, no matter how strong, can go through this at Murdoch’s age (almost 80); the prosecution would be an attempt on his life. And those who dissent from the liberal biases of the mainstream national media should not doubt the consequences if Fox News and the Wall Street Journal change hands. That objective may be assumed, in the absence of any evidence or jurisdiction, to be the real motive for even considering such a prosecution in this country, starting with Spitzer and the New York Times.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


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