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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.