Top members of the Senate Commerce Committee asked a special panel set up to protect Dow Jones to launch a broader investigation on Wednesday into whether a former company CEO knew about hacking or bribery in the United Kingdom—or whether any illegal activity happened on this side of the Atlantic.
With questions flying about who knew what and when, Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sent a letter to the Dow Jones Special Committee, and asked the panel to ensure that no misconduct happened in the United States.
“As you know, allegations of illegal phone hacking and bribery in the United Kingdom at properties owned by News Corporation, a United States-based company, have outraged people around the world,” the letter says. “The American people need to be reassured that this kind of misconduct has not occurred in the United States and that senior executives at News Corporation properties in our country were not aware of or complicit in any wrongdoing.”
So far, no illegal activity has been confirmed in the United States, but the FBI is investigating, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to call for more information on the activities of News Corporation, which owns dozens of American news outlets, including Fox News, The New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
The special committee was set up in 2007 to protect the editorial independence of the Journal and Dow Jones Newswires when News Corporation bought them. Many U.S. journalists and members of Congress expressed fears that News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch, known for his heavy influence on his many media holdings, would interfere with the high-profile newspaper and newswire. Rockefeller and Boxer asked the panel to more closely examine the role of Les Hinton, who resigned last week as Dow Jones CEO.
Just hours after Hinton resigned, the Dow Jones committee released a statement clearing Hinton of any wrongdoing and stating that to its knowledge, no illegal activity had occurred at Dow Jones. But that wasn’t enough for the Senate Commerce Committee.
“We were surprised that the committee’s statement appears to foreclose any further investigation, despite the fact that the former chief executive officer of Dow Jones and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal served as the top official at News International [News Corporation's U.K. company] while illegal phone hacking occurred at its newspapers,” Wednesday’s letter states.
News Corporation executives, including Murdoch, answered questions before a British Parliament committee on Tuesday about allegations that reporters at the now-closed News of the World newspaper hacked into thousands of people’s cellphone voicemail accounts and bribed police officers.
Several executives, as well as British police officials, have resigned.
Also on Wednesday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., wrote the Justice Department and FBI to remind them of a 2005 case in which a News Corporation subsidiary, News America Marketing, was accused of hacking into the computer system of the New Jersey-based marketing firm, FLOORgraphics.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said he is confident that the FBI will determine whether anything illegal happened in the United States. "I am especially interested in knowing whether there was telephone and voicemail hacking in the U.S.," he told subcommittee staff on Tuesday. "Were bribes paid to cover up hacking here?"
Congress has a duty to make sure media owners are acting in the best interest of the public, Rush argued.
"Media ownership in America is a privilege, not a right, and it's based upon trust and responsibility," he said. "First Amendment freedom of the press is critical to our democracy and must never be compromised by corrupt and illegal practices."
Despite calls for regulators to break up News Corporation's vast international media holdings, Rush said consolidation doesn't automatically lead to corruption. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the company's broadcast TV stations, has declined to wade into the controversy and analysts say it's unlikely that the media giant will lose its broadcast licenses.