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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital