Rupert Murdoch

Who leaked the Rupert Murdoch tape?

News U.K. management would like to know, said Exaro News editor in chief Mark Watts, and it has launched what he calls a “mole hunt” for the London Sun staffer who gave the investigative news website access to a controversy-generating recording of a meeting that Murdoch held with reporters and executives from the tabloid.

Over the July 4 weekend, Exaro posted a transcript of the tape as well as audio excerpts in which the 82-year-old media baron dropped a number of news-making morsels, including his acknowledgement that “payments for news tips from cops: that’s been going on a hundred years” and the revelation that either his son Lachlan, or News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson would take over the company when he dies. (His younger son James had been presumed the heir apparent.)

Murdoch’s comments have piqued the interest of Operation Elveden detectives who have been investigating inappropriate payments made to police by reporters at the Sun in exchange for information. (Watts said he is providing investigators with copies of the audio excerpts that were posted on the website.) The News Corp. owner has also agreed to make a second appearance before U.K. Parliament, reportedly in late fall, to answer questions about the tape. He originally testified there in July 2011 about the phone-hacking scandal that erupted when it was discovered that another News Corp. tabloid News of the World had tapped in to the cellphone voicemail of a murdered teenager. (The 168-year-old paper was shuttered that same month.)

In a statement released by News Corp., a spokesman said, “Mr. Murdoch welcomes the opportunity to return to the Select Committee and answer their questions. He looks forward to clearing up any misconceptions as soon as possible.”

“I’m sure he welcomes it – like a hole in the head,” said Exaro News’ Watts, who added that in the wake of the controversy that the tape has caused, “we do know that there is a hunt within the Sun –because after all, it was Sun journalists who were there– to determine who leaked it.” Watts added that News U.K. (formerly News Intl.) executives “haven’t asked us because that would be a pointless exercise.”

On July 3, Exaro reported that nearly two dozen Sun reporters and executives, “who had been arrested by detectives over allegations of illegal newsgathering practices,” took part in the March meeting with Murdoch.  “There were quite a lot of people who were recording it,” Watts said.

“I am conscious that, at various times, there have been chief suspects in mind as the mole hunt has gone on within the Sun. One moment they think it’s one person and, at another moment, they think it’s someone else. I think the position is that they’re flailing around trying to find out whodunit.”

News Corp. declined to comment.

Watts said the leak is significant given the value that is placed on loyalty among Murdoch’s press corps. As Roy Greenslade, media columnist of the U.K. paper the Guardian posted on July 11, “Murdoch will view it as an act of betrayal.”

“It is the breaking of the omerta, isn’t it?” Watts said.  “I think what it shows and, in fact, what the transcripts show, is the real level of anger there is among journalists at the Sun.”

In a July 4 column about the tape, Greenslade wrote in the Guardian: “What shines through is [Sun staffers] collective sense of betrayal. They had been loyal to the Sun, and to Murdoch for years, they explained, and he let them down.”

The Guardian columnist observed that, in the wake of the phone-hacking controversy, the journalists were “none too pleased to hear that [Murdoch] set up the management and standards committee (MSC), which handed over the information to police about payments to their sources, in a panic. Nor were they mollified by his refusal to underwrite their future should any of them be convicted.”

“They are livid about this, and, quite frankly, they have reason to be,” Watts said. In light of Sun staffers’ disgruntlement, ferreting out and making an example of the person who leaked the tape could result in even more of a backlash against Murdoch.

Meanwhile, although news of the tape made international headlines, it remains to be seen whether it will have any real consequences for Murdoch and News Corp.

Alex DeGroote, a media analyst at Panmure Gordon in the U.K. who revised News Corp.’s offer for BSkyB is skeptical. “I doubt any more damage will be done to News Corp. The major carve-up has been done, and the News of the World closed in the U.K.,” he said. (More than 100 arrests have reportedly been made in connection with the phone- and computer-hacking and Operation Elveden investigations.) “So I would expect only mild censure by disgruntled U.K. politicians.”

One member of Parliament who has Murdoch in his sights is Labour’s Tom Watson. He has posted a July 4 letter he wrote to Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia referencing the Exaro tape that notes: “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.”

Rockefeller heads the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which looked into the phone-hacking scandal last year. The senator, who last weighed in on Murdoch’s media practices in November 2012, has yet to issue a statement in response.

According to a Committee spokesman, “Chairman Rockefeller hasn’t received the letter from MP Watson and will review it when he does.”

Email the author at frankdigiacomo@mac.com.

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