Murdoch's News Corp in TV piracy claim
28 March 2012, 15:09
London/ Melbourne - Pressure is building in Britain and Australia for
fresh probes into Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, already under siege over
phone-hacking claims, after allegations that it ran a secret unit that
promoted pirating of pay-TV rivals.
The Australian Financial Review
on Wednesday alleged that News Corp had used a special unit,
Operational Security, set up in the mid-1990s, to sabotage its
competitors, reinforcing claims in a BBC Panorama documentary aired
earlier this week.
"These are serious allegations, and any
allegations of criminal activity should be referred to the AFP
(Australian Federal police) for investigation," a spokesperson for
Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said.
Security was a unit of News Corp's secure-encryption subsidiary NDS,
which has denied any wrongdoing in relation to the Panorama claims.
News Corp, which this month sold NDS to Cisco Systems for $5bn, said it accepted those assurances.
NDS has faced several lawsuits over alleged piracy: One was dropped and the firm was largely cleared in the others.
Dirty tricks campaign
Operational Security unit, staffed by former police and intelligence
officers, used hackers to crack the codes of smartcards issued to
customers of rival pay-TV services. The hackers then sold black-market
smartcards using those codes to give viewers free access to those
services, the Review said.
This cost News Corp's rivals millions of dollars, it added.
Operational Security unit had originally been set up to hunt pirates
targeting Murdoch's own operations but later turned into a dirty-tricks
campaign to undermine competitors, it added.
The BBC Panorama
documentary broadcast on Monday alleged that NDS hired a consultant to
post the encryption codes of ITV Digital, a key rival of Murdoch's then
Sky TV, on his website.
Widespread piracy after the online
publication of the codes contributed to the 2002 collapse of ITV
Digital, which had been set up by the parties that later formed ITV,
Britain's leading free-to-air commercial broadcaster, in 1998.
regulator Ofcom is already investigating News Corp and a senior
executive, James Murdoch, youngest son of Rupert, in the light of new
evidence emerging from probes into phone and computer hacking and
bribery at the News of the World tabloid, which News Corp shut down last
"These allegations, if
true, are the most serious yet and I am referring the matter to Ofcom,
who have a duty to investigate as part of their fit and proper test,"
member of parliament Tom Watson said of the claims made in the BBC's
"If what Panorama says is true, it suggests a
global conspiracy to undermine a great British company, ITV Digital,"
he said on Tuesday.
An Ofcom spokesperson declined to comment on
the specific allegations but said the regulator would consider "all
relevant evidence" as part of its ongoing duty to be satisfied that the
owner of the licence was fit and proper.
James Murdoch has also served as an NDS director.
said in a statement: "It is wrong to claim that NDS has ever been in
the possession of any codes for the purpose of promoting hacking or
News Corp said: "NDS has consistently denied any wrongdoing to Panorama and we fully accept their assurances."
Australian Financial Review, citing a four-year investigation and a
trove of internal NDS e-mails, said the piracy undermined the value of
competitors like DirecTV in the United States and Telepiu in Italy, and
helped News Corp to take them over cheaply.
business rivals, fabricated legal actions and obtained telephone records
illegally," said the newspaper, which is owned by Fairfax Media, a
rival of News Corp in Australia.
A spokesperson for News Limited,
the Australian arm of News Corp, was not immediately available for
comment on the newspaper's claims.
News Corp owns 25% of Australia's top pay-TV firm, Foxtel, which is looking to take over rival Austar.
Austar declined to comment on the report.
said NDS was one of many service suppliers it had used, and the pay-TV
company had worked hard to combat piracy. "Foxtel notes that there are
no allegations of wrongdoing by Foxtel," a spokesperson said in a
statement e-mailed to Reuters.
Future in doubt
lawmaker Watson is known for his dogged questioning of James and Rupert
Murdoch for their role in the phone-hacking affair, notoriously
comparing James to a Mafia boss when he appeared at a parliamentary
hearing on the hacking.
The committee has been due since early
this year to present a report based on its investigations, which is
expected to be critical of James Murdoch and may determine whether he
has a future in Britain.
Watson said the report was now unlikely
to be published before the Easter holiday on April 8. He said the new
revelations were unlikely to affect the committee's work, since they
were not part of its remit.
"There's no suggestion anywhere that
Sky or News Corp knew what NDS was doing," broadcaster and media
consultant Steve Hewlett said. "But if it all turns out to be true, then
you have a News Corp company once again behaving in ways that are less
than proper," he said.
The Australian Financial Review's
investigation involved 14 400 e-mails from a hard drive in a laptop used
by Ray Adams, who was the European chief for NDS Operational Security
from January 1996 to May 2002.
The newspaper said Adams plotted a
legal campaign in an attempt to ruin the reputation of a Swiss hacker,
Jan Saggiori, who had evidence that NDS had sabotaged the products of
News Corp's rivals.
Hackers and pirates
between Adams and News executives raised "questions about whether News
was involved in an abuse of process of the US court system", it added.
BBC's Panorama interviewed Lee Gibling, owner of a satellite hacking
website, who said NDS funded the expansion of his site and had him
distribute ITV Digital's codes.
NDS said it had never used or
intended to use the site for any illegal purpose, and said it had paid
Gibling for his expertise so that information from the site could be
used to track and catch hackers and pirates.
NDS also said it was
common for companies in the pay-TV industry to discover one another's
encryption codes - a view endorsed by Adam Laurie, a security researcher
with UK-based Aperture Labs, which specialises in access control.
"It's possible they cracked them themselves in order to test the security of the algorithms," he said.
"To compare yours against others, you have to test them and there's a chance you'll succeed."
Digital was beset by issues from the start, including internal
competition between its shareholders, a lack of premium content, and a
price war with BSkyB, which had been shut out of the venture by the
"It's a complex picture, but to say that ITV Digital
failed because of piracy, I think, is not correct," said Hewlett, who
was working for an ITV company at the time.
An industry source in
Australia said hacking was a common problem in the 1990s but the
industry had changed over the past decade as engineers had worked out
how to address these issues.
NDS was sued in a $3bn lawsuit in
2002 by Canal Plus , which had supplied the scrambling technology for
ITV Digital and accused NDS of extracting the code from the cards and
leaking it onto the internet.
Canal Plus dropped the action in 2003 when News Corp bought Italian satellite pay TV.