The New York Times' public editor Arthur Brisbane has said the paper's investigation into the News of the World's phone-hacking allegations was based on "strong evidence" after considering a lengthy complaint from the NoW's executive editor Bill Akass.
However, Brisbane said the treatment of Rupert Murdoch and the way the story was presented with a mock tabloid treatment might have led some to believe there was a "hidden agenda."
Akass claimed the NYT’s story was a thinly veiled attack on the News of the World's owner Rupert Murdoch, who now owns The Wall Street Journal, a major rival to the New York Times.
His letter of complaint stated: "As many independent commentators have observed, the New York Times was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to harm a competitor. Why else devote such enormous resources to a relatively obscure story about a British tabloid which yielded so little in terms of new information?
"It is comparable to us spending 5 months investigating the New York Times over its own historical scandals, such as the Jayson Blair case or its exaggerated stories about Iraqi WMD."
Akass also claimed the article was based mainly on anonymous sources, and added: "The New York Times appears to have employed underhand tactics and smears to gain a competitive advantage."
Brisbane, who looked into the complaint, agreed that the story did rely heavily on unnamed sources: "Roughly two-thirds of the attributions relating to The News of the World were to anonymous individuals or groups. And in the thread of the story dealing with the Scotland Yard investigation, more than 80 percent of the attributions were anonymous.
"That said, the story was grounded in very strong evidence. One former News of the World reporter, Sean Hoare, was a direct and named witness. Another former reporter, Matt Driscoll, said he witnessed an editor in possession of a soccer star’s phone records, albeit records that were obtained by means other than phone-hacking.
"In addition, Sharon Marshall was another named source who said she witnessed hacking while a reporter at The News of the World. These accounts, when combined with other evidence that was offered, including the findings of a parliamentary committee earlier this year, accumulated very convincingly.
"So, on substance, I believe The [New York] Times’s account stood on solid ground. It went beyond a rehash with new sources and a comprehensive treatment. The larger question of whether the story was colored by the rivalry with Mr. Murdoch is more a matter of appearances. Here, the ground gets squishy."
After seeking the opinions of some journalism academics, Brisbane concludes: "The [New York] Times, or any news organization covering a rival so prominently, needs to do it as straightforwardly as possible. Incorporating politics, and dressing the piece in a mock tabloid art treatment, leave room for some to perceive a hidden agenda, and perhaps even quiet glee."
NYT executive editor Bill Keller told Brisbane: “It was at least in the back of our minds that because Mr. Murdoch has declared war on The New York Times, a story centered on one of his newspapers had to bend over backwards to be seen as fair. In my view, the process was thorough and scrupulous.”
Brisbane has published the letter of complaint from Akass and the response from Keller.