Who leaked sensitive legal material to a Murdoch columnist?

Jan 25, 2024
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In the 20th century a series of UK investigations, including the Leveson Inquiry, demonstrated that Murdoch newspapers had engaged in phone hacking, police bribery and resort to dodgy private investigators.

A subsequent parliamentary committee found that Rupert had exhibited ‘wilful blindness’ to what was going on and that he was not a fit person to be running a major international company.

The Leveson Inquiry set up to investigate all the wrongdoing made many recommendations which PM David Cameron initially accepted and then set aside later – with the cowardly support of the Labour Opposition.

The whole scandal was systematically pursued by brilliant journalism from people like The Guardian’s Nick Davies and Private Eye who exposed much media corruption and named names embroiling not only News Limited but also other media outlets. Journalists were sacked and the press secretary to PM David Cameron, Andy Coulson, was forced to resign while newspapers such as the News of World closed.

There were many resignations of Murdoch executives and also the Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson. However, the Murdoch executives, such as Rebekah Brookes, were stood down but promptly re-assumed senior positions after a barely decent interval.

Today, in Australia, there appears to be no need to bribe officials or employ private investigators because, as the legendary Australian journalist Jack Waterford (P&I 27/12/23) revealed, during the recent defamation case between Bruce Lehrmann and Channel 10 the police handed thousands of pages and texts between the alleged victim and others to Lehrmann’s solicitors.

They were also passed on for free by someone or other to The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen who has been a vocal advocate of Lehrmann’s innocence.

Waterford raises the question: How could she have obtained the material?

Did the solicitors hand them over? Did the police hand them over? Did the client? We might think it is impossible to know but we do know how such systems usually work here and in other countries.

Everyone in any aspect of the legal game knows barristers and lawyers frequently brief journalists about the court cases they are involved in. The parties involved often employ PR consultants who are there to help manage the media coverage although they are often really there only for protective colouration and the barristers and lawyers themselves do the briefing.

In the UK, fearsome law firms such as Miscon de Reya, Harbottle & Lewis and Carter-Ruck (affectionately known by Private Eye as Carter-Fuck) work on the basis of protecting the reputations of their clients by seeking to destroy the reputation of their opponents or drowning them in expensive litigation and extensive background briefings.

The UK law firm Schillings, a very aggressive libel law firm, has even set up its own PR and communications agency for clients wanting to manage their ‘reputation’.

In the Lehrmann case it is very difficult to imagine that the lawyers handed the material over because legal media briefings are usually very cautious, verbal, very much off the record and don’t entail dumping thousands of pages of texts and emails.

So, in the Lehrmann case was it the police who had a role? Of course, dealings between the media and police always have an element of quid pro and police in Australia, just as in many other countries, swap confidential information with journalists for favourable coverage. Indeed, it is impossible to cover police rounds unless you have reliable police sources.

Equally many police leak things for a variety of reasons – to protect their own reputation, to promote a particular view of a case or in the expectation of some future favour. Even the very best police reporters accept that reality although in some cases – such as the legendary Age crime reporter and columnist John Silvester – they are sometimes better informed than the usual informants.

Another major question is why the leaker leaked to someone who is not only an advocate for Lehrmann’s innocence but who is also a Murdoch columnist rather than police rounds or other media who are the usual recipients of such drops.

An old legal maxim might be appropriate in this case – cui bono? Who benefits from providing Albrechtsen with the material? Why did they choose her specifically?

We don’t know but perhaps we should.

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