What damage could Rebekah Brooks do to News Corp?

July 8, 2011
Bribery Act of 2010 finally became law in the UK.

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The implosion of the News of the World, and of News Corp’s bluster surrounding hacking and bribery allegations, comes less than a week after the Bribery Act of 2010 finally became law in the UK. The Bribery Act had an unbelievably long gestation — a distant relation of mine, Cyril Salmon, headed up the Salmon Commission on Standards in Public Life and put forward recommendations on the subject as long ago as 1976.

Today, the Bribery Act — which finally came into force on July 1 — is considered the toughest anti-corruption legislation in the world. And it’s one of the few pieces of UK legislation under which a company itself can be convicted of criminal activity, as opposed merely to its executives individually. There’s a new corporate offense now, of failure to prevent bribery, which is relatively easy to prove. If News International executives are ever found approving bribes to the UK police, then a conviction under the Bribery Act would be extremely easy.

For the purposes of the current investigation, however, News International looks as though it’s in the clear. The alleged bribes all happened long before July 1 of this year, and the act isn’t retroactive. The UK doesn’t have an equivalent to RICO, in the US, where a corporation’s very existence can hang in the balance if it’s convicted of corporate criminal acts. And even the tough new Bribery Act is relatively toothless in that regard: the worst that can happen is generally that the company in question has to pay a fine. (Many thanks to Barry Vitou of Pinsent Masons for helping me to understand the Bribery Act; I should emphasize that the speculation you’re about to read about News International is very much mine and not his.)

News International, then, is extremely unlikely itself to be convicted of any crime, and if it is convicted, then News Corporation will surely be able to afford any fine. Which in its own way gives News International the leeway to continue acting as a criminal corporation would — not in terms of bribing police officers, perhaps, but more in terms of protecting the people who know where the bodies are buried.

One thing that’s undeniably true about the troika of Les Hinton, Rebekah Brooks, and James Murdoch — and Rupert Murdoch himself, for that matter — is that all of them are extremely smart and capable executives. I personally believe that all of them knew about the hacking and the bribery — and it’s also fair to assume that if Hinton or Brooks were fired and decided to tell everything to the police, they could do enough damage to the Murdochs that News Corp might easily be declared not fit and proper to own a media company in the UK. (There is some precedent for former Murdoch editors telling expensive tales out of school; think of Judith Regan.)

In the grand scheme of things, News International is a very small part of the News Corp conglomerate; it could disappear entirely and the financial impact on News Corp would be small. The political clout which News International gives News Corp in the UK, however, is extremely valuable. And if malfeasance at News International ends up poisoning News Corp’s ambitions with respect to BSkyB, or results in criminal charges against either of the Murdochs, then at that point this scandal really could do serious damage to one of the world’s most powerful and notorious media organizations.

So it’s easy to see one reason why Rebekah Brooks might still have her job: News wants her on the inside, working for them, rather than on the outside, turning witness against them. And the same goes for Les Hinton, too. I still can’t really believe that Brooks is going to survive this scandal. But I can easily believe that the Murdochs will fight very hard indeed to try to keep her in her current position, at least until the police investigation is over.


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