The Federal Communications Commission's Media Bureau has rejected an attempt to deny News Corp.'s renewal licenses for three Fox TV stations based on Rupert Murdoch's character because "there has been no final adjudication" of misconduct in the U.K. phone hacking and bribery cases.
In a decision that could raise new questions on whether News Corp.'s U.K. problems could yet spill over into the U.S., the FCC turned down a request from consumer group Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics to prevent the renewal of two Washington, D.C., and one Baltimore station, but also rejected Fox's attempt to dismiss the petition on procedural grounds.
"Serious questions have been raised regarding non-FCC misconduct by News Corp. subsidiaries," the decision said. But it indicated that the FCC would not act until an English court reaches a decision that misconduct by the company or Murdoch himself is more than alleged.
The decision leaves a path for a follow-up complaint in the event that company officials are formally convicted in the U.K., though it's still not clear how the FCC would assess the complaint. The unit of News Corp. that has been accused of misdeeds is News International. Fox Television Stations, a sister company, holds the station licenses.
"We were sort of surprised that the FCC acted at all," Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director told TheWrap. "Traditionally they haven't acted on some of these petitions for years. They left the door open to reopening the case. It is not perfect, but we will take it."
CREW filed its petition last August. Citing broadcasting law that says TV stations should only be owned by those of good "character" who serve "the public interest" and speak with "candor," it suggested that the U.K. hacking scandal had demonstrated News Corp. no longer qualified.
"It is well established that News Corp. has been involved in one of the biggest media scandals of all time. Its reporters hacked voicemails and bribed public officials while top executives -- including Rupert Murdoch -- either approved the conduct or turned a blind eye," Sloan said in the original petition. "To say those responsible are not of good character is a colossal understatement – 'despicable' and 'loathsome' are more apt."
The petition also cited a parliamentary committee's determination that Murdoch was not fit "to exercise stewardship of a major international company."
Besides asking the FCC to deny the licenses, CREW asked for an evidentiary hearing "to investigate the truth of the allegations raised and to determine whether News Corp., Rupert Murdoch and Fox lack the requisite character to be commission licensees."
In a nine-page decision, issued late Monday, the FCC's Media Bureau repeatedly questioned whether the English accusations against News Corp., Murdoch or other top officials were more than allegations.
The decision noted that the parliamentary committee's own report questioning Murdoch's right to run a company states "a select committee is not a judicial process."
"We do not believe the Ofcom decision, which state that it does 'not consider Rupert Murdoch acted in a way that was inappropriate in relation to phone hacking, concealment or corruption by NGN or News International' is a final adjudication.
"When the Commission is reviewing non-FCC misconduct of an applicant, its parent company or its principals, it looks for adjudicated misconduct. … None of the allegations raised by petitioners here represents adjudicated conduct. … Therefore there is no basis in the record for us to take any action or to commence a hearing against the stations renewals based on the allegations raised by petitioners at this time."
While a conviction of News International or company executives could result in another complaint to the FCC, traditionally the FCC has reserved its character conduct standard on actions by a license holder, or an executive of a corporate parent of a license holder, not on actions of sister companies.