British press body may probe WSJ Europe circulation
A British media body said Thursday it may investigate the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal Europe amid a row over circulation figures that led to the resignation of the paper's publisher.
Andrew Langhoff, managing director of Dow Jones & Co. in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, stepped down this week following claims that he pushed for stories that favoured a firm with which the paper had a circulation deal.
Under the deal, Dutch-based firm Executive Learning Partnership (ELP) bought thousands of copies of the European edition of the Wall Street Journal every day for a fraction of the cover price, thereby keeping its circulation up, the paper reported.
Dow Jones, which is owned by Australian-born media tycoon Murdoch's US-based News Corporation, strongly denied allegations in Britain's Guardian newspaper that the deal represented a circulation "scam."
It rejected the "inflammatory characterisation" by the Guardian, saying it was "replete with untruths and malign interpretations."
The statement said Langhoff stepped down "because of a perceived breach of editorial integrity" and that the circulation programmes were "fully disclosed and certified".
It admitted however that it had now halted the deal with the Dutch firm.
But the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations) -- the British industry body for media measurement which is used by advertisers to measure circulation figures -- said there now appeared to be "new evidence" in the case.
When the scheme was originally set up between the Wall Street Journal Europe and ELP in 2009, "it was reviewed by ABC and deemed to be compliant with the rules in force in that sector", the ABC said in a statement.
Another audit in 2010 also found the scheme to be in order.
But the industry body added: "More recently we have re-examined the scheme based on some new evidence available. There now appears to be additional new information which may give grounds for further investigation."
Details of any probe would be "strictly confidential" unless a final decision upheld a complaint, it added.
The controversy is a fresh blow to Murdoch's media empire following the closure of the News of the World, Britain's top-selling Sunday newspaper, in July over a scandal involving the illegal hacking of voicemails.
It is also the latest departure of a senior Dow Jones figure after long-time Murdoch aide Les Hinton resigned as chief executive in July over the phone-hacking scandal.
According to sources quoted by the Wall Street Journal Europe on Thursday, the Dutch firm bought 12,000 copies of the paper a day for just one euro cent.
That helped the paper keep an audited circulation of about 75,000.
It also quoted people familiar with the matter as saying that Langhoff personally pressured two reporters into writing articles featuring ELP, which had a commercial agreement with the paper's circulation department.
The paper quoted him as sending an email to staff after he resigned, saying that the relationship with ELP, "overseen by a now-former employee, is no longer in place."
"Because the agreement could leave the impression that news coverage can be influenced by commercial relationships, as publisher with executive oversight, I believe that my resignation is now the most honorable course," he said.
It also reported that Langhoff and other officials at the paper made side deals in which the paper directed thousands of euros to the Dutch firm through third-party companies, for services ELP said it provided at events.
The Dow Jones statement said the payments to the Dutch firm were "admittedly complex but nevertheless legitimate."
© 2011 AFP