A Reuters writer gets the law wrong on News of the World

A misleading item on a major news site.

Many people are rightly concerned at an alarmist blogpost at Reuters entitled "Is Murdoch free to destroy tabloid's records"?

In the post the Reuters writer attributes the following view to a named London lawyer:

Rupert Murdoch's soon-to-be shuttered tabloid may not be obliged to retain documents that could be relevant to civil and criminal claims against the newspaper -- even in cases that are already underway. That could mean that dozens of sports, media, and political celebrities who claim News of the World hacked into their telephone accounts won't be able to find out exactly what the tabloid knew and how it got the information.

If News of the World is to be liquidated, says the lawyer it "is a stroke of genius -- perhaps evil genius.

The Reuters writer adds:

Under British law, [the lawyer] explained, all of the assets of the shuttered newspaper, including its records, will be transferred to a professional liquidator (such as a global accounting firm). The liquidator's obligation is to maximize the estate's assets and minimize its liabilities. So the liquidator could be well within its discretion to decide News of the World would be best served by defaulting on pending claims rather than defending them. That way, the paper could simply destroy its documents to avoid the cost of warehousing them -- and to preclude any other time bombs contained in News of the World's records from exploding.

The lawyer is then quoted again:

Why would the liquidator want to keep [the records]? Minimizing liability is the liquidator's job. That's a very different scenario, [...] from what would happen if a newspaper in the U.S. went into bankruptcy. In the U.S., a plaintiff (or, for that matter, a criminal investigator) could obtain a court order barring that kind of document destruction. In the U.K., there's no requirement that the estate retain its records, nor any law granting plaintiffs [sic, claimants] a right to stop the liquidator from getting rid of them.

The Reuters blogpost is, however, misleading. It may well be that the lawyer quoted was misquoted, or that the context of his answers has been misrepresented. But the blogpost is, in my view, flatly wrong and it is to the severe discredit of Reuters that it is even hosted on its site.

To begin with, the blogpost asks in its title whether Murdoch would be free to destroy records. It then goes onto discuss whether the liquidator - a person independent from and not controlled by Murdoch - would have the power to destroy records. The title does not make sense in terms of what follows.

As I explained yesterday, the closure of the News of the World means merely that one branded product will no longer be offered to the market place. Indeed, that is all the official statement from James Murdoch actually says: the News of the World will not be published after Sunday. There is no mention of the appointment of any liquidators.

On the information available, the News of the World is not itself a corporation. For example, civil litigation involving the News of the World - including the CTB case - is in the name of News Group Newspapers Ltd. The terms and conditions of the News of the World website are also in the name of News Group Newspapers Ltd. News Group Newspapers Ltd also publishes the Sun.

A better legal view is that the civil and criminal cases are entirely unaffected by the closure of the News of the World, as I said yesterday. All the relevant evidence for criminal and civil cases should still be preserved.

The conduct of those at News of the World was bad enough without creating scare stories based on nothing other than wild supposition.

So to put it plainly: there is no suggestion, other than on this Reuters blogpost, that News Group Newspapers Ltd is about to be liquidated.

Indeed, such a statement can be defamatory of a corporation, and actionable if it is untrue. Ask any media lawyer.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.