Insight: Inside Rupert Murdoch's UK newspaper clean-up operation

Thu Feb 2, 2012 8:17am EST
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By Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) - The centre of Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper clean-up operation is an unimposing set of offices in a corner of the company's campus in Wapping, east London.

It is here that the scarred reputation and the future of Murdoch's UK newspaper titles may be rescued or broken for good. The chairman and chief executive of News Corp says he has entrusted the operation, known as the Management and Standards Committee (MSC), to investigate the details of phone-hacking and alleged police bribery by his London tabloids and prevent such events from happening again.

On a typical day, say people who are familiar with the operations of the MSC, up to 100 personnel from several of London's top law firms as well as forensic advisers and computer experts file into the MSC's office through special security to search through more than 300 million emails, expense claims, phone records and other documents that amount to several terabytes of data. Their work is expected to take at least another 18 months. Reams of paperwork that cannot fit in the offices are stored in warehouses at another, secret location. In an unusual arrangement, 15 or 20 police are embedded with the team.

The committee was in the spotlight last weekend, when British police arrested three senior current staffers and one former journalist from Murdoch's Sun tabloid in a bribery investigation. The company's chief executive said he understood the arrests came as a result of documents handed over by the MSC. In December, the committee surfaced an email trail that indicated James Murdoch, Rupert's son and heir apparent, was alerted to the scale of the alleged hacking years ago -potentially contradicting testimony James gave to the British Parliament last summer.

Fact-finding committees are a common strategy employed by multinationals engulfed in scandal. But so far, the committee has brought more strife than relief for New York-based News Corp and its British newspaper division, News International. The MSC's work is earning respect from many who have clashed with the company over phone hacking. But it also faces criticism on multiple fronts, including News International journalists who fear it is tossing loyal staff under the bus, parliamentarians who suspect it is insufficiently independent of Murdoch, and lawyers who allege the committee's main interest is in repairing the company's reputation, not outing the truth.

Mark Lewis, a lawyer for victims of phone hacking by Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World, said News Corp's push to settle the dozens of civil cases against News International - the committee is the primary point of contact for lawyers representing hacking victims - conflicts with its remit of transparency. His clients include the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. The revelation that her cell phone was hacked on the orders of a News of the World reporter turned the paper's illegal voicemail interception into an international scandal.

"If they really want the truth to come out, then they should be willing to let things go to a trial," Lewis said. "They should stop trying to settle cases and let it go to a trial."

News International says it "is committed to reaching fair and where possible swift settlements with victims of illegal voicemail interception." It has also launched an online scheme to enable people to settle their cases without having to go to court. Reuters is a competitor of Dow Jones Newswires, a unit of News Corp.   Continued...

<p>Workers clear a drain at the entrance to News International's newspaper headquarters in Wapping, East London, November 23, 2011. REUTERS/Andrew Winning</p>