FCC unlikely to revoke broadcasting licenses for Fox, say experts

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is unlikely to heed calls from activists to revoke the U.S. broadcasting licenses of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., experts say.

Watchdog groups are pushing the FCC to cancel the licenses over the scandal that has enveloped News Corp. in the United Kingdom. Employees of the company allegedly hacked voice mail accounts and bribed public officials, and a British parliamentary committee ruled earlier this month that Murdoch is "not fit" to run an international media company.

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In response to the scandal, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and Washington (CREW) and other groups have asked the FCC to rescind News Corp.’s 27 Fox broadcasting licenses, arguing the company no longer meets the character requirements set under the law. 

There is some precedent for pulling licenses, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Wednesday said he takes the News Corp. complaint “very seriously.”

"If any issues arise, the commission has an obligation, we would take it very seriously, to look at the record, look at the facts and apply the law," Genachowski said.

But a review of FCC and court records show the FCC has only revoked a handful of licenses since broadcast law was established in 1934, and hasn’t taken a major action of that kind in more than 20 years.

Peter Tannenwald, an attorney at Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, said the FCC has moved to revoke licenses in the past, but never against a broadcaster with the size and clout of News Corp. 

"For anybody this big? I think not."

Even if the FCC moved against News Corp., Tannenwald said it would likely take more than a decade to resolve the court battle that would ensue.

Absent “truly godawful” revelations about behavior at News Corp., Tannenwald predicted the FCC would shy away from pulling the licenses and instead settle the matter with some sort of consent decree. 

"It's just too much resources to spend [on a case]," he said.

The FCC has revoked licenses in the past over illegal conduct. The agency stripped broadcaster RKO General of its licenses in 1987 after the company was found to have bribed foreign officials and kept a "slush fund" for American politicians.

But it took nearly two decades of litigation to force RKO to give up the licenses, and the action was only taken after the company lied to the FCC about the bribery charges.

Tannenwald said a similar standard would apply to the News Corp. matter — that the FCC wouldn't go after the licenses absent something "really grievous" or "politically embarrassing."

The charges would have to be "so bad that the FCC really can't just let it go," he said.

Kevin Latek, general counsel for Gray Television, a broadcaster that owns stations operating on all the major networks, including Fox, told The Hill it’s too soon to talk about the FCC moving against News Corp.

"Based on everything that we have seen so far, the allegations involving News Corp in the UK are far removed from the Fox Broadcasting operations in the United States," he said. “It is way too premature to be talking about any adverse impact on Fox Broadcasting.”

News Corp. did not respond to a request for comment.

Taking action against News Corp. would also be a political minefield for the FCC, since the company owns Fox News Channel.

President Obama and his administration have often clashed with Fox over its news coverage, and regulatory action against Murdoch’s empire would likely be perceived as an attempt by Democrats to silence the network.

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said she doubts any punishment will be doled out against News Corp., even if the allegations against the company in the UK prove true. 

Murdoch is "very cozy with American politicians" who are "hesitant" to criticize him, Sloan said.

Tannenwald said News Corp. would quickly find allies in Congress if the company found itself at war with the FCC.

"Murdoch's pretty good on the Hill," he noted.

The phone-hacking scandal has caught the attention of at least one lawmaker on Capitol Hill. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, wrote to the British committee probing the scandal requesting information about whether News Corp. violated U.S. laws.

"I am concerned about the possibility that some of these undisclosed victims are U.S. citizens," Rockefeller wrote in the letter, "and the possibility that telephone networks under the jurisdiction of U.S. laws were used to intercept their voice mail messages."

Despite the increased attention to the scandal, Sloan said she is "not at all confident" that Genachowski will take action against Murdoch’s empire.

"I think the FCC is in bed with the industry it regulates," she said.

But Sloan said CREW wouldn’t back down from its call to pull the licenses, arguing the facts are on their side.

"There's certainly criminal conduct here" that is similar to the RKO case, Sloan said, though she argued the alleged behavior by News Corp. is worse. 

"I don't know if there have ever been facts quite as egregious as these," she said.

This story was updated at 12:27 p.m. on May 15.