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LONDON — British politician Tom Watson has urged U.S. and U.K. authorities to question News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch after a secret recording emerged late Wednesday in which the media mogul appears to express regret about the level of cooperation his company provided to phone-hacking and bribery probes here.
Watson is a member of Britain’s Labour Party and a longtime Murdoch critic.
In the recording of a meeting in London earlier this year, Murdoch indicates that bribing of public officials was widespread in Britain’s newspaper industry. He also seems to signal that he was aware of bribery at his own company, specifically tabloid The Sun, describing it as “the culture of Fleet Street.”
News Corp denied that Murdoch was aware of any bribery at the time. “Mr. Murdoch never knew of payments made by Sun staff to police before News Corporation disclosed that to U.K. authorities,” it said. “Furthermore, he never said he knew of payments. It’s absolutely false to suggest otherwise.”
The secret tape also showed Murdoch criticizing U.K. authorities and signaling regret about the extent of his company’s cooperation with the police on various probes. A transcript of the recording was obtained by investigative website ExaroNews and picked up by Britain’s Channel 4.
“What he seems to be saying there is that they stopped cooperating with the police before the Sun staff started to rebel,” Watson told Channel 4. “And what I would like to know is, what are they sitting on that they’ve not given the police?”
The politician added that the tape and transcript should be “in the hands of the police,” because “I hope that they’re going to be interviewing Rupert Murdoch about what he did know about criminality in his organization.”
Late on Thursday, Watson also posted a letter to U.S. senators John (Jay) Rockefeller and Patrick Leahy on his website, saying he had attached a transcript of the Murdoch tape to it. Rockefeller is chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation. Leahy is chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, which oversees matters relating to the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act, legislation that prohibits U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials.
21st Century Fox would be responsible for any possible liability coming out of a probe by the U.S. Department of Justice should federal prosecutors determine that the company violated the act. “We have an ongoing and cooperative relationship with the Department of Justice,” Gerson Zweifach, News Corp group general counsel, recently said.
“The transcript reveals Mr. Murdoch’s approach to the alleged criminality within his organization,” Watson wrote in his letter to Leahy and Rockefeller. “It also reveals how his employees claim that they were simply doing what was expected of them and that they had continued a practice of paying public officials that had been going on for decades. Mr. Murdoch’s replies, in my view, demonstrate a significant level of knowledge of the practice and a shocking contempt for the police investigation into it. Perhaps even more sinister is his confirmation that his organization will ‘hit back’ at the police because of their investigation.”
He added: “It has been my view from the outset that the most senior executives within News Corporation should be held responsible and called to account for the wrongdoing of the U.K. journalists and other employees of its subsidiaries. It is Rupert Murdoch who is most responsible for the culture in his organization.”
Concluded Watson: “I would encourage the authorities both in the U.K. and U.S. to ensure that their investigations into News Corporation are not inhibited in going to the very top, notwithstanding the power and influence wielded by Mr. Murdoch.”
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